In January 2013, within minutes of Rahul Gandhi’s anointment as Congress vice president, fireworks lit up the winter evening in Jaipur. The occasion was the party’s chintan shivir , or brainstorming session, and the announcement was seen to be a prelude to his becoming the next president. The air was decidedly celebratory.
Mr. Gandhi’s deeply emotional “power is poison” speech struck a chord with the rank and file, and his takeover was planned for after the upcoming general election. But the Congress’s worst ever electoral performance in 2014 saw that date being pushed farther so much into the future that no presidency in Congress history has been in the works for as long as his, nor so planned.
Today, however, there is a sense of resigned inevitability, even apprehension, about Mr. Gandhi’s imminent ascension, not a sentiment on which a leader would like to coast to the highest office in his party. His honeymoon appears to be already over and, as his prolonged apprenticeship draws to a close, a comparison with his immediate predecessors is instructive.
Since the late 1970s, Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi, P.V. Narasimha Rao and Sonia Gandhi assumed the presidency only after each had been acknowledged as the absolute leader of the party — or had rapidly acquired that aura. Three were Prime Ministers and party presidents simultaneously, while Sonia Gandhi steered the Congress to power after becoming president, choosing Manmohan Singh to run the government in her stead. Even during the Sitaram Kesri interlude (1996-98), when he was installed by Rao’s detractors till they could replace him with Ms. Gandhi, he wielded power while in office.
In fact, even Kesri’s rise didn’t evoke the trepidation Mr. Gandhi’s elevation as president is doing now, partly because, on earlier occasions, there had been almost no lag time between the decision and its implementation. Public scrutiny in a social media driven world, at least post-2013, has also not helped him. He remains his party’s choice because the Congress feels he alone can hold the party together. The only alternative, Ms. Gandhi, has made it amply clear that after 19 years at the helm of affairs, she wants to step down.
Indira Gandhi had become party president first in 1959, but was overshadowed by Jawaharlal Nehru, and it would be another 19 years before she became President again, in 1978, this time of a truncated post-Emergency Congress. She held that post even after her triumphant return as Prime Minister in 1980, till her assassination in 1984.
Earlier, after Lal Bahadur Shastri’s death and a brief interregnum when Gulzarilal Nanda was acting Prime Minister, she — already Information and Broadcasting Minister — defeated her formidable adversary Morarji Desai in the election for Congress Parliamentary Party leader and became Prime Minister in 1966. But the party president’s post was held by a succession of other party leaders till 1978.
When Rajiv Gandhi was catapulted to the posts of party president and Prime Minister after his mother’s assassination, he was an MP and party general secretary, having joined politics because of his brother Sanjay’s death. He had been in active politics for just four years (unlike his son who has completed 13 years) during which he demonstrated his administrative skills by successfully managing the 1982 Asian Games in Delhi. The party backed Rajiv Gandhi, with perhaps the only exception of Pranab Mukherjee, who had been senior-most after Indira Gandhi. In less than two months, he led the Congress to a stunning and unprecedented three-fourths majority in the 1984 general elections.
His assassination in the midst of the general election in 1991 created a vacuum. Sonia Gandhi was approached first, but shaken by her husband’s violent death, she was in no mood to join politics. N.D. Tiwari had lost his Lok Sabha seat in that election; Shankar Dayal Sharma, sounded out for the prime ministership by Ms Gandhi, refused; Sharad Pawar who had thrown his pagdi in the ring was not universally acceptable; finally, Rao emerged as the leader, with Ms. Gandhi’s support.
Rao inherited the absolute powers that went with holding the twin jobs of Prime Minister and Congress President. But the Babri Masjid was destroyed on his watch; the economic reforms he initiated had a host of powerful critics within the Congress; the last straw was the JMM bribery case. He lasted his five-year term but the party lost the next election, and Kesri was quickly installed as president. Some say he was backed by Rao’s detractors — others that Rao installed him, but that the wily Bihar politician switched camps.
In 1998, Kesri was turfed out unceremoniously and Ms Gandhi, now willing to take on the responsibility, became president. Just as those who made Indira Gandhi Prime Minister in 1966 believed they could manipulate her, those who installed Sonia Gandhi to give the party stability believed she would need constant guidance.
Ms. Gandhi, of course, is no Indira Gandhi, but both women proved their mansplainers wrong. Indira Gandhi grew into one of the most powerful politicians in the world; Sonia Gandhi, on her part, blossomed into a consummate politician, widely respected not just in the Congress, but across the political spectrum. When she inherited the Congress, the BJP’s hugely popular Atal Bihari Vajpayee was Prime Minister: yet, within six years, she led a Congress-led coalition to the first of two consecutive Lok Sabha victories.
Each of his five predecessors put their personal imprint on the job: Indira Gandhi, who didn’t believe in niceties, seized power and became larger than the party: the challenge of the job made her. Rajiv Gandhi tried hard without success to rid the party of its power-brokers. Rao wanted to hold real organisational elections but failed. Kesri sought to give the party an OBC hue. Sonia Gandhi, conscious of being seen as an outsider, searched through the family legacy for answers. But the flip side of the sterling leadership she provided is that, thanks to being the longest serving president in the party’s history, the Congress organisation today has been reduced to a coterie which wants to preserve its power. Indeed, to ensure that Rahul Gandhi is not questioned, all avenues for dissent have been closed.
Mr. Gandhi, from the day he became a party functionary, as general secretary in 2007, has been talking of pulling down the current edifice and rebuilding it brick by brick. Famously, after the Aam Aadmi Party won Delhi in 2013, Rahul Gandhi said the Congress had a great deal to learn from it: this went down very poorly with party seniors, with many saying that remark had damaged the party. If Mr. Gandhi’s efforts to “democratise” the party by holding elections to the Youth Congress backfired, partly because he himself has not come through a democratic process, his attempt to bring a management style to the Congress and corporatise it, choosing recruits and functionaries through interviews, having paid staff rather than political advisers has not helped him thus far.
But once he becomes President, and secures the power that goes with it, he needs to seize the opportunity provided by the chinks that have begun to appear in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s apparently invincible armour. It’s time also that instead of seeking to make his team the Congress, as the party cynics would have it, he makes the Congress his team.