IT seems more or less certain that whenever elections are held for the presidentship of the Congress Party the choice of Sonia Gandhi for the post remains unchallengeable. There just isn’t any other leader capable of displacing her. It is, of course, just possible that she makes way for her son Rahul. After all, he is not all that young, as many would like to think. Jawaharlal Nehru appointed Indira, his daughter, as party president when she was just 40. Jawaharlal himself was of that age when he was first elected president at the Lahore session in 1929. Now it should not surprise anybody if his great grandson assumes the throne aged 40. It is an age when the young presumable have reached maturity.
For the record it may be stated that Gopala Krishna Gokhale had become secretary of the Indian National Congress when he was hardly 29 and its president at 39. But that was Gokhale. With 70 per cent of today’s voters being below 35 years, one should not be surprised if Rahul is even chosen to lead the UPA government if the need arises. As India Today put it, “his bloodline is his ticket to power and his surname is his highest political qualifications”. It is unlikely that Sonia Gandhi will aspire for the Prime Minster’s post. But should Dr Manmohan Singh, in a moment of frustration decide to resign, Rahul, it may almost be taken for granted would probably be the one who will succeed him. In that event, certainly in India, a party president will be a mother, Sonia and the Prime Minister, her son, Rahul.
Getting elected to the Congress presidentship for the fourth time is not much of a record, in the history of the party. Motilal Nehru was elected four times, in 1919, 1928, 1932 and 1933. His son, Jawaharlal was president for the longest number of years between 1929 when he was first elected, to 1954. UN Dhebar served as Congress President for five consecutive years from 1955 to 1959 and two other leaders, Neelam Sanjiva Reddy (from 1960 to 1963) and K Kamaraj (from 1964 to 1967) served for four years. And Indira Gandhi herself served as party chief first from 1978 to 1983 and then again from 1983 to 1984. What is interesting is that two of the most powerful leaders, Mahatma Gandhi and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel served one term. Abul Kalam Azad was first elected in 1923 but his second term lasted from 1946 to 1950-a most crucial period.
How important is the Congress presidency? Till Gandhiji came on the scene, the presidency was more of a show piece. The party held no threat to British rule. It was only when Gandhiji took over a pro-active role that its top leadership assumed a certain importance. By 1929 when under Jawaharlal’s leadership, the Congress came to demand full independence, the party had come to be recognised as a major threat to British rule. And, until 1946, it seemed Gandhiji was in control over the party even when he had ceased to be a 4-anna member. From its earliest days the party had witnessed ups and downs, a major challenge erupting when Subhas Chandra Bose became president, but was effectively defanged. Another and an even bigger threat came when Indira Gandhi forced a decision of the party leading to the formation of Congress(I) and Congress(O). But post-1947 it was Jawaharlal Nehru who called the shots, who had held the reins of power, almost marginalising the long-time party secretary JB Kripalani; Sure, men like K Kamaraj and S Nijalingappa were not easily to be trifled with, but after the passing away of Sardar Patel the Congress for all practical purposes was Nehru’s Congress. It now seems. The turn of Sonia Gandhi has come to serve as life-time President. If there is none in the party to oppose her, the non-Congress opposition too does not pose a challenge to her.
Right now, according to a reliable poll carried out by India Today-ACNielson-Org-Marg as recently as June, the UPA will get 34.6 per cent of the popular vote if parliamentary elections are held now, giving it between 246 to 256 seats. The NDA would get only 26.4 per cent of support enabling it to win between 168 to 178 seats. Why would any Congressman wish to keep Sonia Gandhi out in such circumstances? So she will have her way, come what may, but what needs to be considered is how Dr Manmohan Singh will take the shock he surely has received from the poll results which shows that a bare one per cent of 12,392 voters in 98 parliamentary constituencies whose views were sought, were in his favour. Of the remaining 99 per cent, the largest percentage, 29 per cent thought that Rahul is the best bet to take over the Prime Ministership of the country. It is unlikely that Sonia Gandhi would pressurise Dr Singh to retire.
After all, it is just about a year since he has stayed on for a second term. But on many points such as growing Naxal expansion, Jammu & Kashmir, internal security and maintenance of UPA coherence among UPA coalition partners Dr Singh is seen as a massive failure. As India Today has noted, “Brand Manmohan has already passed its use-by date and the voters want the family (read Rahul) back in power”. It is questionable whether Congress can perform better with Rahul as Prime Minister, considering that whatever policies Dr Singh has proposed and followed thus far surely would have been checked out with Mrs Gandhi. One can’t think of him doing his own thing in the face of opposition from the party leader. The only question that remains to be answered is whether in the event of Dr Singh’s unlikely resignation, Sonia Gandhi will ignore the legitimate claims to Prime Ministership of, say, Pranab Mukherjee or P Chidambaram or even Veerappa Moily.
Would they dare make claims to the top job? The only one who can-and may-would be Rahul. As of now there are no ideological issues that hear a distinct UPA stamp, neither on growth of Naxalism, nor on Jammu & Kashmir nor on any other vital subject such as the nuclear deal. Whatever differences exist among UPA’s coalition members are apparently related to administrative practicalities. But the UPA can only win if the NDA continues to falter. The coming months will be crucial for both the UPA and NDA. As yet Nitin Gadkari as BJP president has not imaged himself as a threat to the party in power. Of course, there is still plenty of time – all of four years-for the BJP to strengthen its position. Dr Singh may stay on and get more embroiled in controversies; Jammu & Kashmir can turn out to be a harder nut to crack than ever before in the past; but at some point in time Sonia Gandhi may feel compelled to relieve Dr Singh of his duties if, specifically on the Kashmir issue, he fails to deliver.