Post-Rahul Gandhi’s exit as Congress president, an intense power struggle has begun within the party to choose his successor amidst a raging debate over whether the mantle should fall on the shoulders of a young Turk or a veteran.
The generational leadership change debate was set off by veteran Congress leader and Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh who advocated a young leader to be the next party chief. Just a couple of days after Singh went public with his view, two key members of the party’s GenNext leadership, Jyotiraditya Scindia and Milind Deora, quit their organisational posts. Both are considered Rahul loyalists. Wading into the debate was octogenarian leader Karan Singh who suggested an interim president in the run-up to fresh organisational elections and four working or vice presidents to usher in younger people in positions of authority in the party. Karan Singh’s remark is being interpreted as rooting for a veteran leader as interim president.
The timing of resignations of Scindia as party general secretary and Deora as president of the Mumbai unit of the Congress is important for two principal reasons: (i) it was soon after Amarinder pitching for a young leader to succeed Rahul; and (ii) it was in the midst of reported efforts by a section within the Congress to pitchfork a veteran leader in the top organisational post. Among the veteran leaders whose names are doing the rounds as possible contenders for next party president are Dalit leaders Mallikarjun Kharge, Mukul Wasnik and Sushil Kumar Shinde.
There is a realisation in the party that the continued uncertainty over the top leadership for more than a month now is not helping the party in any way. But there is also recognition in the Congress that calling a CWC meeting without signs of a consensus on the new party chief would be more politically damaging for the party. The longer the race for the top leadership lasts, the deeper would be the sense of drift in the party.
Reflective of the tug-of-war in the party after Rahul’s resignation, both Deora and Scindia said they decided to quit their posts after meeting the 49-year-old scion of the Gandhi clan. Importantly, both flagged the “accountability” yardstick cited by Rahul in his four-page letter in quitting. This is being seen as an attempt to put pressure on senior Congress leaders to resign from their organisational posts. Deora has gone on record saying he plans to shift to a new national role in the party but did not specify what it is. Scindia did not say anything on his future role.
Although Kharge and Shinde have emerged as frontrunners for Congress president’s post, the Congress is also looking at the possibility of three young vice-presidents like Sachin Pilot, Jyotiraditya Scindia and Milind Deora. Many of Rahul’s closest aides followed him in resigning from their organisational posts. Among them were Keshav Chand Yadav who quit as Indian Youth Congress chief while the party’s Scheduled Caste Cell Chairman Nitin Raut also stepped down.
Most of the resignations the Congress witnessed are from the members of team Rahul Gandhi, be it party secretaries or a range of state chiefs he positioned in different regions. Within the party, there are already talks that the future of Gandhi’s associates and team members is uncertain. Interestingly, Rahul’s sister Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, who was inducted as party general secretary a few months before the parliamentary elections, is yet to quit her post.
Congress sources said while Wasnik, Kharge and Shinde have emerged as frontrunners for Congress president’s post, the party is looking at the option of having one of the three young leaders like Sachin Pilot, Scindia and Deora for the top job. Pilot, 41, deputy chief minister of Rajasthan, led the party to victory in the assembly polls as the Rajasthan Pradesh Congress chief and has a lot of grassroots experience. Scindia, 48, is also seen as a dynamic leader. While Pilot and Scindia seem to be ahead of others in the young brigade, Deora, 42, could well turn out to be the dark horse.
Many commentators say that Rahul Gandhi’s resignation has provided the Congress an opportunity to break out of the Gandhi dynasty’s firm grip over the party and counter the criticism of politics of entitlement that passes on the mantle from generation to generation. But that is a reality not confined to the Gandhis alone. There are so many leaders in the party who have family links with the party. For instance, the fathers of Sachin Pilot, Jyotiraditya Scindia and Milind Deora were leading Congress lights. Chief ministers of Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, Kamal Nath and Ashok Gehlot, recently introduced their sons in Congress politics and managed to make them party candidates in this year’s parliamentary polls, an issue over which Rahul made no secret of his displeasure.
The success of the Congress efforts to have as its president a credible and stable leader from outside the Gandhi clan depends largely on what role and how much clout the clan will continue to hold in the party. The party is not unfamiliar to having a non-clan person as its head—PV Narasimha Rao was prime minister from 1991 to 1996 and Sitaram Kesri from 1997 to 1998. But neither lasted long and had to bow out in the face of constant resistance from those professing loyalty to the Gandhi family.
Will the same story be repeated? Will anyone from outside the party’s first family who becomes the chief be overawed by the family or succeed in holding his or her own?
There is a feeling amongst a section of the party that whoever will be chosen may be someone who would keep the top post warm for any member of the Gandhi family to return to occupy the chair at a later stage. It is absolutely clear that the Gandhi family will continue to loom large over the party in the time to come. What is not quite clear is to what extent.
Pallab Bhattacharya is a special correspondent for The Daily Star.