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Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra with their mother Sonia Gandhi in New Delhi, India Image Credit: PTI

Hurt? Yes. Ready to fight again? Can she? An ailing Sonia Gandhi, who has been persuaded to stay on as interim president of the Congress party, for another six months may be completely unaware of this.

But in the weeks that followed Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination, if there was one man who saw her potential as a unifier and someone who could step into Rajiv’s shoes and lead the party, it was Ghulam Nabi Azad.

The man, now accused of perfidy and betrayal, of colluding with the BJP because he and 22 others wrote a letter to Sonia Gandhi — dated July 4, 2020 — that called for elections to the Congress Working Committee and the state units, was the first of the hard-core Rajiv Gandhi loyalists to push for her entry to politics.

Does that mean that they too do not want an immediate change of guard, and that despite the danger of the BJP playing the damaging Gandhi dynast card, will welcome a Rahul comeback, with possibly a Priyanka thrown into the mix, or even just status quo, where Rahul and Priyanka pull the strings as they did to save Rajasthan from being swept up by the power hungry saffronists?

- Neena Gopal

When I walked into the Congress party headquarters, in early June 1991, Azad was one of the few Congressmen still hanging around the offices that evening.

On realising that I had come to meet Rajiv’s widow, he quickly took me to one side and told me that I must ask Sonia if she was willing to take over as the Congress party chief, and stress how important it was for her to understand the need for a Gandhi to lead the party.

None of the Rajiv Gandhi loyalists one met that week had homed in on Sonia as the successor of the Gandhi legacy. All eyes were on Sharad Pawar!

More on the issue

When I made my way back from my meeting with her at 10 Janpath, hours later, Azad was waiting at the end of the pathway that connects the residence and the completely deserted offices.

And the first question was ‘what did she say, did she agree, did you tell her how much she is needed?” I told him the last thing on the grieving widow’s mind was politics. You could see the excitement fade, turn to rank disappointment.

Sonia Gandhi to the rescue

It would take another seven years and an AICC session in Kolkata, where she was given a standing ovation as she walked in, before Sonia would be persuaded to heed the call.

In the interim, Prime Minister Narasimha Rao, despite his hugely successful stint where he turned India’s faltering economy around, had driven away many of the party’s stalwarts with Arjun Singh, P. Chidambaram and G. K. Moopanar among others abandoning the mother ship after they had been sidelined.

It didn’t help that the party president was the garrulous but hopelessly ineffective Sitaram Kesri, who in 1998 was famously prevented from coming out of his room at the Congress office, by guess who? His then chief aide Ghulam Nabi Azad, who did the deed, so that Sonia could get elected unopposed as the party chair!

Sonia’s track record as party chief is impeccable. She would go on to lead the Congress to one of its greatest victories in 2004, and on winning, was wise enough to realise the folly of ‘a foreigner’, becoming the face of the government. She famously proposed Rao’s finance minister Dr. Manmohan Singh for prime minister. Dr Singh, would head the Congress government for two consecutive terms.

Ghulam Nabi Azad, senior Congress leader Image Credit: PTI

But here’s the thing. How many know that it was the same Azad — accused by Congress’ Ambika Soni of colluding with the BJP — who was tasked to oversee Narasimha Rao’s re-election from Nandyal in 1991 and in 1996, often operating out of a one room ramshackle house in Manthani, deep in the interior of Andhra Pradesh.

What does that make Azad? And the other 22 who include virtually every Congress leader of note, both young and old, including Rahul loyalist Mukul Wasnik, a Manish Tewari and a Shashi Tharoor many of whom were ministers in the Manmohan Singh government.

They want — sacrilege — elections to the CWC, for the party to be led from the front, not the ‘power without responsibility’ that Rahul Gandhi currently enjoys. They know, as does anyone watching developments that another ‘interim’ presidency will only see more of the same drift that has marked the last year.

So what are they? Party loyalists who want what’s best for the party? Or back-stabbers, upset at being shunted to the sidelines?

The string of Congress victories in the states, post the back to back national debacles, beginning with Goa, Puducherry and three states in the Hindi heartland in addition to Maharashtra and Karnataka and Kerala in the south, are cited by senior Congress leaders as grounds to raise serious questions about the Narendra Modi led BJP’s invincibility at the hustings.

But the fact is, post the electoral successes, the Congress didn’t see the BJP coming. Outmanoeuvred and betrayed from within, one Congress stalwart after the other who felt ignored by Rahul Gandhi, switched sides and handed state after state to the BJP.

Insiders are already saying that they’ve written Bihar off, that there is no one to counter Nitish Kumar, and that Rahul has no intention of taking over now as he does not want another blot on his ‘presidency’ by losing Bihar under his watch.

But why is this also not being said out loud — that there is no question of the Congress winning Bihar, or for that matter Uttar Pradesh or West Bengal.

The no-man's watch

Not under this ‘no-man’s watch,’ when the stalwarts who have been the face of the party have been pushed to the sidelines and now, refuse to pitch in. That’s what Rahul meant when he said that he fought 2019 alone, all but pointing fingers at the old guard which refused to join him when he attacked Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

What Monday’s meeting failed to do, therefore, is address the reason behind the 23 Congress stalwarts writing such a letter. Whoever leaked it — most are pointing a finger at former spokesperson Sanjay Jha, others at Rahul’s go to man K.C. Venugopal as a means of cutting Shashi Tharoor to size — are raising the prospect of a vertical split.

The yawning gap between the Sonia loyalists who wrote the letter and the Rahul coterie that it was aimed at, is unlikely to be bridged.

Jha and Tharoor, incidentally, are the first to have raised the need for a new chairperson, for elections to the CWC and the state bodies, with Tharoor seen as positioning himself for the top job, earning the ire of the newbies.

The ones who didn’t sign the letter but were at a dinner hosted by Tharoor where the matter was first raised, and know that Sonia Gandhi must continue to be the glue that holds it all together, include party heavyweights Ahmed Patel and P. Chidambaram, Amarinder Singh and Bhupesh Baghel.

Does that mean that they too do not want an immediate change of guard, and that despite the danger of the BJP playing the damaging Gandhi dynast card, will welcome a Rahul comeback, with possibly a Priyanka thrown into the mix, or even just status quo, where Rahul and Priyanka pull the strings as they did to save Rajasthan from being swept up by the power hungry saffronists?

Instead of silencing the ‘Gang of 23’, instead of questioning the credentials of the dissenters, it is these concerns that the Gandhi leadership must address.

The track record of Narasimha Rao does make bringing in a non-Gandhi as Congress chairperson a tough call. But, with Rahul reluctant to take on the mantle, and the third pillar in the Gandhi troika, Priyanka likely to defer to her mother and brother, is it time to put the ghost of Narasimha Rao aside and bring in a non-Gandhi? Be it an Ashok Gehlot, an A.K. Antony or even a Mallikarjun Kharge?

Waiting for another six months will only keep the pot of dissent bubbling. It’s time to put a lid on it. Or watch the Congress split right down the middle.

Neena Gopal is an independent journalist and author