There may be doubts about Rahul Gandhi’s leadership qualities, but India’s Congress Party should not keep all its eggs in the Sonia basket.
Here is why.
It will be foolish for those seeking status quo to visualise short-term gains, like adding a dozen or so seats to its current Lok Sabha tally, in 2019. The party should focus on 2024 by when the Narendra Modi government is expected to face voter fatigue.
Motilal Vora, born in 1928, is the All India Congress Committee’s (AICC’s) affable treasurer, and the oldest functioning Congressman. Veteran leader and former union minister Karan Singh is 84, former prime minister Manmohan Singh is 83, so is Mohsina Kidwai, a Rajya Sabha member of parliament (MP). Himachal Pradesh chief minister Virbhadra Singh is 81, and former union minister and governor Shivraj Patil is 80.
HR Bhardwaj, former law minister and governor, is 78—so is Rajya Sabha MP Vayalar Ravi. Former Delhi chief minister Sheila Dikshit is just behind at 77. Former Punjab chief minister Amarinder Singh is 73. The latter two have recently jointed a pro-Sonia chorus, heralding for the first time, a proxy factional war in the Gandhi family, pitting the mother against the son.
Half a dozen party veterans are octogenarians, a dozen are septuagenarians and about two dozen sexagenarians. The remaining fall into the category of old-aged, that is between the age of 50 and 60.
To cut a long story short, by 2024, when the Congress hopes to make a comeback, the 130-year-old party will literally become a geriatric ward in a country predominantly populated by the 18- to 35-year-olds.
Sonia Gandhi, the party’s supreme leader, now 69, will be 78 by the time Lok Sabha polls are held in 2024. Other worthies like Ahmed Patel, Kamal Nath, Prithviraj Chavan, Ajit Yogi, KV Thomas, PC Chacko, all pushing 70 now, will be nearing 80 in 2024. Seniors such as Janardan Dwivedi, Vayalar Ravi, Oscar Fernandes, Veerappa Moily, Madhusudan Mistry, Mani Shankar Aiyar and Amarinder Singh will cross the age of 80 by then.
The old guard has reasons to be piqued and disappointed with heir-apparent Rahul’s dismal track record, but they should rethink their strategy of delaying his coronation, given the severe leadership crisis in the AICC that has no quick-fix solutions.
The party has come to such a pass because it paid no attention to creating a talent pool of young leaders. Ambika Soni, 73, Ghulam Nabi Azad, 75, Anand Sharma, 62, Kamal Nath, 69, are among the last batch of leaders groomed by the late Sanjay Gandhi.
While many greying leaders were packed off to Raj Bhavans, several seniors met with untimely death. Against the depletion of leadership, there was no corresponding accretion. Late Rajiv Gandhi, PV Narasimha Rao and incumbent president Sonia did not bother about building leadership.
As far back as 2003, at the Shimla AICC conclave, Sonia had announced the setting up of a Congress Training Academy to prepare future leaders. Six years ago, Rahul talked about converting the Jawaharlal Nehru Leadership Initiative into a university to groom Gen Next leaders.
He flagged the issue again at the Jaipur brainstorming session in 2013, but nothing tangible has been done. The Youth Congress is yet to produce a single leader of state or national standing.
To buffer the shrinking leadership base, Rahul imported a number of outsiders into the AICC, but their induction only widened the chasm between him and entrenched mandarins. It is futile to blame him alone for the 2014 fiasco. It was a collective failure involving the top brass comprising Rahul, Sonia, Manmohan Singh and their top aides. Pro-Rahul elements insist that he had no greater say in the government or given full control of the organisation and hence, it is unfair to single him out.
But Rahul’s conduct so far has not been inspiring and in the absence of a vibrant leader, it is natural for the old guards to press the panic button, seeking continuation and Sonia to remain president.
Some of the protestation, however, is not that innocent.
Sheila Dikshit and Amarinder Singh are among top leaders, who recently went public plugging for Sonia’s continuance at the helm. It is an open secret in the party that Dikshit had long spells of turf war with Ajay Maken, who had his eyes on her chair. Much to her chagrin, Maken, a Rahul loyalist, was recently appointed Delhi Pradesh Congress Committee (PCC) chief.
Another Rahul nominee, Pratap Singh Bajwa, a bête noire of Amarinder Singh, was made Punjab Congress president. Many satraps are also miffed with Rahul for facilitating appointment of young PCC chiefs in their respective states. It is also true that old guards fear that they will lose their clout in a post -Sonia dispensation.
Vis-a-vis Rahul, Sonia is a better organiser, communicator and crowd puller and can mobilise the opposition. But these virtues alone will not fetch votes. And by 2024, when the real fight begins, she will be just two years short of being 80.
As of now, the only positive thing going for Rahul is his age and clean image. If and when Rahul is anointed Congress chief, he will inherit a weak and ageing party apparatus. It will be a tough task for him to build a new, young team which may take a decade or so.
The party does not have too many options. It has to either swim or sink with him.