For the past several weeks, the indefatigable Congress general secretary Digvijaya Singh has persistently suggested that the Nehru-Gandhi scion Rahul Gandhi should take charge of the party and Sonia Gandhi should play the role of a mentor. But surprisingly, there has been no accompanying chorus from other Congress members endorsing the party vice-president’s elevation.

It would be wholly expected and entirely in character for the Congress rank and file to follow up Digvijaya Singh’s calls with a public outcry for Rahul Gandhi’s anointment as party chief. And yet, his statements have met with stony silence. Except for an occasional stray voice, no senior Congress leader has come out in support of his proposition, and there is no sign any state unit or party worker would echo it soon.

This is certainly unusual in a party like the Congress whose cadres never shy away from displaying their sycophancy to the party’s First Family. Convinced that their political future is inextricably dependent on the Nehru-Gandhi clan, Congress workers have been known to work themselves into a frenzy to declare their undying loyalty to the clan with slogans like “Sonia lao, desh bachao” or “Rahul lao, desh bachao”.

Uninspiring leadership

The deafening, yet eloquent, silence today is a reflection of the unease and worry among the Congress cadres about Rahul Gandhi’s leadership qualities. Although the party rank and file realises that his elevation as Congress president is inevitable when the election for party chief is held later this year, they are not wholly convinced that the Nehru-Gandhi scion is capable of reviving the 130-year-old party, which is going through its worst phase at present. They are not sure that he is up to the challenge of energising the sagging morale of demoralised workers and pointing them in the direction of victory.

More importantly, they wonder if he has the temperament to be a 24x7 politician given his tendency to disappear periodically. Just recently, he joined the opposition protests against the National Democratic Alliance government in the winter session of Parliament but was not seen or heard after that.

Congress members privately bemoan that Rahul Gandhi’s leadership has been singularly uninspiring and that he just does not have the charisma, the oratorical skills or a grip on realpolitik to stage a comeback like his grandmother Indira Gandhi did after her shock defeat in 1977. Rahul Gandhi, they maintain, also lacks the dogged persistence displayed by his mother Sonia Gandhi, who stayed the course after her entry in politics in 1998 despite her initial gaffes and the virulent campaign launched against her on account of her foreign origins. She kept the party together and steered it to victory in the 2004 and 2009 Lok Sabha elections.

Goodwill squandered

Predictably, Congress cadres are apprehensive about trusting Rahul Gandhi with their political future. After all, his track record has not been particularly impressive. After 10 years in politics, he has little to show for himself. He did enjoy a lot of goodwill when he contested his first Lok Sabha election in 2004. There was a time when former Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Ajit Jogi risked Sonia Gandhi’s ire by initiating a signature campaign to demand that Rahul Gandhi should replace Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

But this initial euphoria soon gave way to disappointment. Rahul Gandhi was unable to shed the image of a reluctant politician when he evinced little interest in party or government affairs and, despite frequent prodding, steadfastly refused to accept any responsibility in the party or the then ruling alliance.

When he did take charge as Congress general secretary, he confined himself to the charge of Youth Congress and the National Students’ Union of India. Rahul Gandhi’s grand experiment with the introduction of elections in these organisations proved to be a disaster as these only ended up encouraging the use of muscle and money power.

Rahul Gandhi failed once again after he was given the responsibility of leading his party’s campaign in the 2012 Uttar Pradesh assembly polls. The debacle pushed the Congress to the political margins in the electorally-crucial state, but that did not deter the party from elevating him as vice-president at its 2013 session in Jaipur and declaring him as the Congress’s face in the subsequent elections. And still Rahul Gandhi failed to get his act together. The Congress was reduced to its lowest tally in the last Lok Sabha election and has been comprehensively defeated in a string of assembly elections over the past year which were all led and managed by the party vice-president.

Inaccessible and rigid

Since these results, angry and helpless Congress members have been speaking out against the party vice-president with greater frequency. While some derided him publicly, others like Milind Deora chose to blame Rahul Gandhi’s advisers and style of functioning. Many more have been complaining about him in private. Workers grumble about the party vice-president’s inaccessibility, adding that even when he does meet them he is not willing to hear them out. “The problem is, he has fixed ideas about everything,” remarked a former Congress minister. Little wonder then that frustrated Congress workers periodically put up posters demanding that Priyanka Vadra Gandhi should play an active role in the party.

But Sonia Gandhi has not given up on her son. Although she retains the post of party president, she has been entrusting Rahul Gandhi with greater responsibilities. It is Rahul Gandhi who was asked by her to talk to groups of party leaders to get their feedback on the reasons for the party’s defeat and the roadmap ahead. Given her failing health and advancing years, Sonia Gandhi is keen that Rahul Gandhi should take over the party’s reins while she is in an unassailable position and can oversee the generational shift in the Congress. “Once she takes a decision, it will be accepted by the party without a murmur,” said a senior Congress leader.

And though niggling doubts about Rahul Gandhi’s leadership qualities continue to persist, there is also a resigned acceptance in the party that the Congress needs the Gandhi family at the helm. The party depends on the first family for two chief reasons: to help win elections and to keep the party united. Rahul Gandhi has been unsuccessful in leading the party to a victory but the Gandhi family can keep the Congress from fragmenting. But for how long – that is the moot question.