Priyanka as Congress chief?
Is Priyanka Gandhi Vadra emerging as the favourite to become the new president of the Congress facing a top leadership crisis? The murmurs both within the party and in political circles in Delhi about her being positioned as the prospective new party head are growing into a buzz with each passing day.
The demand for a young president to helm the party was first articulated more than a month ago by none other than the party's veteran and Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh not long after Rahul Gandhi announced his decision to step down after an 18-month tenure as the Congress chief in the wake of the party's searing defeat in this year's parliamentary elections. Very recently, Singh was backed by the party's other well-known face Shashi Tharoor in pressing for a young president for the party.
While Singh had not named any leader for the top party post, Tharoor was specific about Priyanka and expressed the hope of her throwing the hat in the ring when the call for the party president's election goes out. Adding an interest turn to the Singh-Tharoor duet is the Punjab chief minister's extension of full-blown support to Tharoor's Priyanka-for-Congress-chief pitch within just a day. The political choreography is too obvious to miss.
In fact, Amarinder Singh was very forthright in his latest statement. He said Priyanka would get "all-round support" if she was chosen to take over as the party chief. "India is a young nation and will respond to a young leader. Priyanka would be a perfect choice as Congress president. She has the intelligence and instinct to understand and relate to the needs of the nation and also has the courage to take on any challenge," he gushed. Multiple Congress sources say Singh and Tharoor could not have gone public with their support for Priyanka as party chief without a signal from the sister of Rahul Gandhi herself.
Then what does one make of Rahul Gandhi's insistence soon after his resignation on May 25 that he did not wish for any member of the Gandhi family to be chosen to lead the Congress? Are Priyanka and Rahul not on the same page on the top leadership issue? There are reports saying many young leaders of the party, who owe their loyalty to Rahul and wanted a young leader at the top for the Congress, are said to be quietly disfavouring Priyanka's elevation as the party head because they are uncertain about their future under a new leadership structure.
There is no doubt that Priyanka has pitchforked herself as the most visible face to take on the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the last one month. It was she who rushed to her home state Uttar Pradesh, staged a sit-in protest against the killing of 10 tribals in a village in Sonbhadra district over a land dispute, and had dug in her heels till she was allowed to meet the kin of those killed. And she did it at a time when Rahul was away in the United States. There were reports saying electricity and water supply to the guesthouse where Priyanka had put up for a night on her attempted journey to the village in her bid to meet the families of the land dispute victims, was cut off. Finally, the Uttar Pradesh authorities allowed some members of the families to meet Priyanka. The constant media attention Priyanka got for two consecutive days was something only a Gandhi clan member of the Congress can get, given the Indian media's fascination, bordering on obsession, with the family that has dominated India's national politics since the country's independence.
Again, it was Priyanka who was more forthright and prominent than Rahul in attacking the Bharatiya Janata Party and the saffron party's government in Uttar Pradesh on the issue of the alleged involvement of BJP lawmaker Kuldeep Sengar in a truck hitting a car which was carrying a rape survivor, her mother and their lawyers. Sengar is the main accused in the rape case and is in jail. Whether it relates to the tribals' killings or the Sengar episode, many in the Congress feel Priyanka Gandhi has already succeeded in creating a perception of being a frontrunner for the party president's post. The feeling within a section of the party is that through her interventions in the issues in Uttar Pradesh recently, Priyanka has demonstrated that the Congress is far from a spent political force.
The Congress leadership crisis, which began in late May with Rahul Gandhi resigning from the president's post, persisted at the time of writing this article. Tharoor has suggested that elections be held for all key posts. But elections are easier said than done for a party that has long been heavily dependent on the Gandhis for holding it together. Choosing a younger leader as the president could spell an end to the careers of many veterans and nominating one from their own ranks has become that much more difficult after the views articulated by Tharoor and Singh about a younger leadership template.
On Thursday, the Congress said it will convene a meeting of its Working Committee—the highest decision-making forum of the party—after the current session of Parliament, to choose the new party head. But there are problems within the party too. Some senior leaders are debating who can attend the Working Committee meeting to elect a new party chief. The party constitution says 24 full-fledged members of the Committee can attend but what about the 29 permanent invitees, special invitees and ex-officio members?
There is widespread recognition in the Congress that it is only a Gandhi clan member who can rejuvenate the party after the parliamentary poll drubbing it got in May and prevent the organisation from being torn asunder by feuding groups. Can Priyanka resist the calls for her to step out and take up the challenge of leading the party at this time? She has a steep road to climb. The resemblance of Priyanka's physical features to her grandmother Indira Gandhi alone will not give any advantage. Besides, Priyanka does not have an encouraging track record as the party general secretary in the parliamentary elections in which the Congress was able to win just one seat in the eastern part of Uttar Pradesh for which she was given the charge.
Pallab Bhattacharya is a special correspondent for The Daily Star.