Rahul Gandhi, the man who has been at the centre of the storm and bitter criticism from the opposition, his own Congress bandwagon and also the media for his inefficiency in leading the oldest party of the land and for being instrumental in series of defeats for the last five years, has now a valid and solid reason to be cheerful and celebrate the new year. He has finally broken the ice and led the Congress for a win in at least three of the five assembly elections, two of them though with a wafer-thin margin. The Congress wrested Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh from the BJP. It lost heavily in Telangana and Mizoram but that failure remained under the carpet due to its victories in three Hindi heartland states.
Rahul put the Congress back in the business of winning elections; then, he displayed the delicate art of the deal by brokering peace between rival leaders in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh while installing his own choices as chief minister in both states. Kamal Nath, who has crossed 70, heads Madhya Pradesh now. Ashok Gehlot, 67, takes charge of Rajasthan with 41-year-old Sachin Pilot as his deputy.
Gandhi also proved his Love Guru credentials (which debuted with that Zappi of PM Modi) by managing pretty pictures of the competing contenders in the midst of tough negotiations along with quotes from Tolstoy. So maharajah-sized egos were managed with flair; experience balanced with dynamism and youth. The claims for chief minister went late into Wednesday night. A senior leader who was privy to the delicate negotiations says that Gandhi, like his grand mother and father, is a late bloomer but now finally shows signs of having a grip on managing his party. Also, he is no longer being second-guessed by his mother, Sonia Gandhi.
Old guards & young guns
Sonia Gandhi was the longest serving chief of the Congress. This is perhaps the first time that she has provided support for a decision made entirely by Rahul, who, to his credit, has managed to ensure that the old guard and young guns accept complementary roles unlike the Margdarshak Mandal of the BJP, where Amit Shah and Narendra Modi have banished older leaders. Rahul appears to have taken years to make his own assessment of leaders and before deciding on where they fit into the party’s scheme of things.
Therefore, when funds became a problem for the party, he asked Ahmed Patel in a joint meeting with his mother to take over the job of Treasurer. Patel, his mother’s closest political aide, had been subjected to years of spin by rivals about how Gandhi disliked him and would have no job for him.
Kamal Nath had dragged a reluctant Digvijaya Singh and Jyotiraditya Scindia to a joint meeting with Rahul before the polls where they said, “We don’t care who you pick but pick one of us – or it will be curtains for the Congress in MP. We want to fight the BJP, not each other.” Rahul then made Kamal Nath walk the talk, assigning him as President of the Congress in the state to raise funds and lead campaigning while ensuring that Scindia and Singh do not indulge in their longstanding rivalry.
Kamal Nath revitalised the party organisation barely six months before the elections with Digvijaya Singh playing his backroom boy and trouble-shooter. Digvijaya, because of his two terms as the chief minister, knew every key person in the organisation and helped smooth the way. Kamal Nath ensured that Scindia and Singh did not have to spend any time together. Both Scindia and Kamal Nath told me separately that if any one tried to create trouble between them, they would call each other to pre-empt any misunderstanding.
Jyotiraditya Scindia did want his turn post the results but was told gently by Gandhi that he could wait. Gandhi was clear that Kamal Nath’s enormous administrative experience is required to deliver on the tall poll promises and that his equation with industry will draw some show-piece job-creating projects to MP. Rahul also told Scindia that his “Shakti app” feedback showed overwhelming support for Kamal Nath and that he can’t do without Scindia in Delhi.
Rajasthan: A tough state
Rajasthan was likely a tougher decision as Pilot as state chief had worked very hard delivering the Ajmer and Alwar parliamentary seats in by-elections in February this year. Pilot had made Rajasthan home and built a strong case against the Raje government. Yet, Gandhi, after having seen Gehlot in action in the Gujarat assembly elections, was extremely impressed with the unassuming leader. Gehlot managed competing caste leaders and excelled in booth management in Gujarat.
This election elected eight Congress rebels in Rajasthan. It is said to be a shrewd Gehlot move to ensure that he did not lose his state. After the results, they said they would only support Gehlot. Rahul carefully analysed the 25 Lok Sabha seats in Rajasthan to determine whether Gehlot or Pilot would be more effective. A senior Congress leader said a vipassana course Rahul undertook appears to have taught him a lot of patience. Let’s hope that the new lease of political life that Rahul has got due to the unexpected victory in the recent elections takes him miles ahead, particularly in 2019.
Bharatkumar Raut is a political analyst and former Member of Parliament (RS).