During the past three months there had been a lot of speculations about Rahul Gandhi finally taking over as Congress president. At the same time, media’s political pundits talked about a strong section of senior leaders wanting Sonia Gandhi to continue. The endorsement of Sonia Gandhi’s continuity as party president by the Congress Working Committee on Tuesday might reinforce the impression the political pundits were right. However, the impression could be erroneous. Sonia Gandhi is going to continue as president not because some powerful senior Congressmen want her to but because she thinks Rahul Gandhi is not yet ready to take over. For all practical purposes, she has named him her successor. In a dynastic party, there is no question of party officials not accepting the heir apparent. Senior or junior, most Congressmen have accepted a Nehru heir for more than four decades. They accepted Indira, Rajiv and Sonia and will accept Rahul.
There is no room for palace intrigue either. Had Rahul Gandhi had a brother or had Priyanka politically built her personality separate from Rahul to look like a challenger, Congress voters in particular and voters in general could have been divided in their preference. But Priyanka has shown no political ambition. She has all along identified herself with her mother and brother. She has campaigned for her mother and her brother. Her political behaviour has been that of a typical traditional Indian sister who is happy playing a loving and supportive role to her brother. Now and then you hear voices of party workers urging her to plunge into active politics, but she has steadfastly said no to it. Her identification with Rahul’s political mission has left no scope for anyone in the Congress party, senior or junior, to play one against the other or join his or her camp. There are no camps in the family. It is one family.
That should leave no one in doubt that if Sonia Gandhi is going to continue as party president for some more time, the decision must be the family’s – a decision Sonia, Rahul and Priyanka must have sat down and taken together. Actually, it all now depends on Rahul when he would take over. He must have said he wants some more time. Much as in any family in a patriarchal society, it is the adult son who decides what to do and when to do. So it must be in the Gandhi family. And it is barely hidden from anyone that Rahul is not the typical political animal of India but has a mind of his own to the point of being odd and weird. He often behaves like a free spirit who neither his mother, nor his party, nor his supporters nor any conventions can control.
No wonder, when he left for an unknown destination for a “sabbatical” in February the number of jokes and cartoons on his freakishness multiplied. Nobody knew where he had gone. And the jokes stuck because he had left as a “giant loser”. His campaign in the parliamentary elections resulted in the rout of his party. In state elections, people rejected his call to elect Congress and voted BJP. In Delhi, his campaign won Congress not even a single seat. Some said he had gone for a vipassana meditation therapy in Myanmar and Thailand. Others said, “Where is Rahul Gandhi? Is he in Thailand or Italy or Greece or Vietnam? Is he vacationing in the hills of Uttarakhand? Is he spending time with a secret lover?”
Within a few weeks of his return from his 56-day sabbatical, however, people stopped making fun of him. And if the BJP were celebrating the headless future of their main rival Congress, they were jolted hard when two days after his return, Rahul gave a rousing speech at a large ‘Kisan rally’ at the Ramlila ground in New Delhi. In Parliament, he delivered a 20-minute punchy, acerbic speech on the anti-farmer policies of the Modi government, branding it as a ‘suit-boot ki sarkaar’ – a catchphrase that crawls up the government’s face like a scorpion every now and then. A man who had spoken only 7 times in his two terms in the Lok Sabha made as many speeches during one session. He was never on the social media: he opened a Twitter account, attracting 17,000 followers within a few hours. With these actions, Rahul’s image has undergone a change. However, he needs to do much more to rise higher in popular perception. Mere dynastic insignia would not get him to the highest office of the nation. Prime Minister Narendra Modi enjoys immense popularity, and to stand up to him in popular eye and eventually to beat him to take the highest office in 2019 he must inspire confidence among the voters that he can really cleanse the Congress and bring in men of integrity and dynamism, a mix of experience and youth, to run the affairs of the country.