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Rahul Gandhi represents Wayanad, Kerala in the 17th Lok Sabha Image Credit: Gulf News

It is curious that Rahul Gandhi has not explained his insistence on the idea of a non-Gandhi party president for the Indian National Congress.

We have been told for years that the Congress party will fall apart without a non-Gandhi at the helm. After all, it *was* falling apart when Sitaram Kesari was at the helm.

Somewhere up there, Sitaram Kesari’s ghost is arguing that Sonia Gandhi has outdone him in diminishing the party.

Yet, we never hear anyone blame Sonia Gandhi. Rahul gets blamed. Ahmed Patel used to get blamed. Unnamed leaders are blamed in the name of ‘coterie’. But Sonia, she’s like Queen Elizabeth II. Above reproach.

Sonia Gandhi has largely managed this feat by never dirtying her hands. There was her “Political Secretary to Congress President” -- Ahmed Patel doing all the backroom work for her. He was Madam’s Voice. If something went wrong, Ahmed Patel would take the blame. If something went right, Ahmed Patel would make sure Madam got the credit.

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Sonia Gandhi: The Gandhi family is the 'High Command' -- the fulcrum around which Congress -- India's principal opposition party revolves Image Credit: AP

When the Congress was in power, leading the UPA coalition for 10 years, Manmohan Singh was the face of the government. When Manmohan Singh led the Congress into a re-election victory in 2009, Sonia Gandhi got all the credit. It was allegedly all because of the welfare policies she pushed the government to undertake. When in 2014 Manmohan Singh led the UPA to a disastrous defeat, it was all his fault, so much so that he had to say history would be fairer to him.

On the political side, Rahul Gandhi was the face of failure. It was never Sonia Gandhi.

Rahul Gandhi was president of the Congress party from 2017 to 2019. He realised it is better to have power without responsibility, just like what his mother enjoyed all these years. After leading the party to another disastrous defeat with his ‘Rafale’ campaign, Rahul Gandhi resigned, declared that no Gandhi will be party president, and went into a long sulk that took many Europe trips to recover from.

Ahmed Patel made sure Sonia Gandhi becomes ‘interim’ president. Patel died of Covid-19 in November 2020 but Sonia Gandhi is still the president, “interim” yet “full-time”.

Rahul Gandhi declared no Gandhi will be president but three years later his mother is still the president. The official excuse is Covid-19 but, if we are to be honest, it shows the divisions within the family. Now that Ahmed Patel is no longer around to be the fall guy, the cracks on the Gandhi family dinner table show up like a sore thumb.

Rahul’s plan is already working

A non-Gandhi president will be to Rahul Gandhi what Manmohan Singh was to Sonia Gandhi. The president can take all the blame when the party loses elections. Rahul Gandhi can take all the credit when it wins.

And so, preparations were made to anoint a non-Gandhi president. Last time there was an election was in 2017, when Rahul Gandhi won unopposed. The election process was so opaque nobody else could have applied. This time, there had to be a better pretence of due process.

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi poses for a picture with his supporters during his party's Bharat Jodo Yatra, in Ernakulam Image Credit: ANI

The preparations took many months. They were so thorough that the man they decided would be Rahul’s Manmohan, Ashok Gehlot, stumped them at the last moment. It was like a bride-to-be running away from the wedding. She knew this arranged marriage would be a bad idea.

Rahul Gandhi is away, this time not in Europe but in his Bharat Jodo Yatra, a rare mass contact programme that isn’t a one-day hand-waving affair. Sonia Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi are in Delhi. Already, Rahul’s plan is working. The mess that the presidential elections have become can’t be blamed on Rahul. He’s away on the Bharat Jodo Yatra, his defenders can argue, what’s his fault?

Except that it was Rahul Gandhi, Wayanad MP, who issued a stern message from Kerala that the new Congress president will have to honour the commitment of ‘one man one post’, and went on to lecture a veteran like Ashok Gehlot on the meaning of the Congress president’s post.

They just presumed Ashok Gehlot would be humbled to be offered the Congress president’s post and take the blame for election defeats from now till 2024.

Admonished publicly, Gehlot led the Gandhis up the garden path. Perhaps for the first time in Sonia Gandhi’s presidency, Congress MLAs refused to sign a note authorising the Congress president to select the state chief minister. They made it clear they were so loyal to Ashok Gehlot that they would rather resign and let the government fall than accept Gehlot’s bête noire, Sachin Pilot become chief minister.

The writ of the “High Command” no longer runs on the party because Congress leaders no longer win elections in the Gandhi family’s name. If most MLAs in Rajasthan are beholden to Ashok Gehlot it is because they know they won in his name, not in Rahul Gandhi’s name, not in Sachin Pilot’s name.

Finding an Amit Shah for Rahul Gandhi

The Bharat Jodo Yatra is meant to do just that for the Wayanad MP — make him a mass leader. Some might say Rahul Gandhi is looking to get a Modi-Shah like arrangement. Rahul Gandhi seeks to become a mass leader like Narendra Modi (just joking) and get an organisational man like Amit Shah to be party president.

The problem with this formulation is that Rahul is no Modi, and isn’t about to become one.

Will the Bharat Jodo Yatra even give Rahul Gandhi enough legitimacy to be able to dictate terms to the puppet president? We have our doubts. He is not even trying to win back the family pocket borough of Amethi. He’s not even going to the poll-bound states of Himachal and Gujarat because he wants to pretend the imminent defeats have nothing to do with him.

The other problem with the formulation is that they don’t have an Amit Shah either. Maybe they thought Ashok Gehlot could be their Shah, but he has bailed out. The scramble to find the right person shows they don’t have anyone who could be trusted to run and expand the party organisation.

Who wants to be president?

Gehlot’s googly shows how clueless the Gandhis are in the absence of Ahmed Patel. A man they were considering for president defied their authority at the last moment.

As I write, so far Shashi Tharoor and Digivijaya Singh have announced their candidature. The Gandhis are said to be persuading Mukul Wasnik. When all else fails there will be the Dalit card to play. Besides, he’s a presentable uncontroversial face. Digvijaya Singh’s lifetime of controversies and provocative secular hardline statements could give the BJP a walkover. Besides, what exactly has Digvijaya Singh achieved? Managed to lose governments in Goa and Madhya Pradesh?

Shashi Tharoor would be a good, respectable face. He may not be able to revive the party but at least he may be able to keep the office of Congress president somewhat dignified. At least he delivers coherent speeches.

But a man like Tharoor could overshadow Rahul Gandhi in the media. The Gandhis can’t risk that. Both Tharoor and Digvijaya Singh have shown the ability to speak their own mind. That’s a disqualification to be Chief Rahul Gandhi Spokesperson. The search is on. Feel free to apply.