Congress president Sonia Gandhi and vice-president Rahul Gandhi’s legal troubles have brought the party’s old guard back to the forefront.

This is was evident in the days following the Delhi High Court order last fortnight asking the Gandhis to appear in a trial court in connection with the National Herald case. On Saturday, when the Congress’ two leaders went to a Patiala House court to get bail.

The party’s veterans planned and choreographed the entire exercise, from the Gandhis’ appearance in court to the assembly of slogan-shouting party loyalists at the Congress headquarters nearby.

While several senior leaders including Leaders of Opposition in the House – Mallikarjun Kharge and Ghulam Nabi Azad – were involved in drawing up the party’s strategy, Sonia Gandhi’s political secretary Ahmed Patel ensured its execution.

Handling a crisis

The old guard, which had been maintaining a low profile for the past several months for fear of being marginalised once Rahul Gandhi eventually takes over as Congress president, were suddenly back in the reckoning. The party’s top two leaders have been accused of cheating and misappropriation of funds in relation to the takeover of the now-defunct National Herald newspaper.

While Sonia Gandhi took charge of the situation, she turned to the old guard for assistance given their experience and the network inside and outside the party to handle such a situation.

Leaving matters to Rahul Gandhi and his advisers would have been a risk as they are newcomers and are considered non-political in their approach. In fact, the old guard and Rahul Gandhi’s team found common cause during recent events as many of the younger members realised that the party’s veterans were needed to tide over the crisis.

A similar story played out after the Congress suffered a humiliating defeat in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. Down to its lowest-ever tally, Sonia Gandhi asked party veterans for help while Rahul Gandhi  decided to take a backseat. Instead of giving in to demands from the younger members that her son be appointed the parliamentary party leader in the Lok Sabha, Sonia Gandhi chose experienced leader Kharge for the post while another senior leader, Ghulam Nabi Azad, was picked to lead the party in the Rajya Sabha, as she felt they were better equipped to take on the ruling alliance.

Rahul's re-emergence

The old guard had become jittery about their political future after the “Rahul for President” demand gathered momentum when the party vice-president returned from his 56-day sabbatical in April.

With Rahul Gandhi becoming more vocal and demonstrating greater interest in party affairs, there was a growing impression in the party that he had shed his earlier reluctance and was ready to take over bigger responsibilities. Some quarters had called on the party to convene an All India Congress Committee session in April to promote Rahul Gandhi, as this would enable him to revamp the party organisation and appoint his own team of office-bearers.

Those threatened by his elevation first suggested that as a believer in intra-party democracy, Rahul Gandhi should take over after an organisational election, originally scheduled to be held at the end of this year.

The seniors subsequently advised Sonia Gandhi to postpone the elections till the end of next year on technical grounds, urging her to continue as party president for another year. They also argued that it would be better if Rahul Gandhi were to be elevated after the assembly elections in Bihar, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Assam and Puducherry, as he would be held responsible in case of a bad performance in these states, just as the Congress defeat in the last general election was attributed to his poor leadership.

“Every time Sonia Gandhi plans to hand over the party’s reins to Rahul Gandhi, her advisors promptly come up with some reason or the other to delay it,” said a senior Congress leader.

There was palpable relief in the Sonia Gandhi camp when she agreed to extend her term, although she made it clear that Rahul Gandhi would call the shots and it was only a matter of time before she stepped down. Consequently, she retreated into the background while the Nehru-Gandhi scion was the go-to man for settling party squabbles, election preparations and ticket distribution.

After the victory in Bihar last month as part of the Grand Alliance, it appeared that Rahul Gandhi’s elevation would take place sooner than later. But the emergence of the National Herald case has put the focus back on Sonia Gandhi and her team.

Although it is a foregone conclusion that Rahul Gandhi will eventually take over as party president, it is currently not the hot topic of internal discussion in the party. However, his camp maintains that Sonia Gandhi could yet hand over the baton to him early next year so that Rahul Gandhi can put his team in place before the assembly polls in Tamil Nadu and West Bengal due to be held in mid-April. But there is no clarity on this subject yet.