Here is a sentence that could have been written anytime between 2009 and 2017: ‘Leaders in the Congress are calling on Rahul Gandhi, son of party president Sonia Gandhi, to take charge of the party – but it remains unclear how and when that will happen.’ As the Congress continues to hand over power in most states to the Bharatiya Janata Party, its leaders are once again witnessing a reshuffle of administrative posts and debating the question of when Rahul Gandhi will formally go from heir-apparent to president.

Rahul was unanimously appointed vice-president by the Congress Working Committee in 2013. Ever since, he has constantly been on the verge of officially becoming president of the party. Leaders and workers have expected him to take over from his ailing mother, who has maintained, since 2013, that she would like to be “relieved” of the party’s top post. Yet it seems as if the party is still arguing over how this process should take place, with the impression being that Rahul would like to earn legitimacy by winning an internal election.

Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh, who led the party to a rare victory in Assembly elections earlier this year, has publicly called this a bad idea. “Elections are always bitter and consensus keeps the party together. There should be a consensus on the party president,” Singh told PTI. “I am going to vote for Rahul. Who else do we have?”

First family

Who else indeed. Three years after the Congress was reduced to a historic low in the Lok Sabha and a month after failing to form governments even in states where it was the single-largest party, it still seems inconceivable for the party to carry on without its first family.

Other leaders are being moved around. General Secretary Digvijaya Singh will no longer oversee Goa, where the Congress’ abortive attempt to take charge was blamed on him, and Karnataka, where elections are around the corner. Madhusudhan Mistry has been removed as general secretary and will instead be coordinating the internal elections scheduled to take place over the next few months. Former Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot has been given charge of Gujarat, another state where elections are coming up, replacing Gurudas Kamat. New office-bearers are being appointed piecemeal all over.

But the family, specifically Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi, still sit at the centre of it all. And while many would have expected Rahul to be firmly at the helm by now, Sonia keeps having to come back.

In the last few weeks, Opposition parties have been involved in discussions to settle on a common candidate for presidential elections, which are due later this year. That effort could become the fulcrum of an anti-BJP alliance, with Lok Sabha elections just two years away. Yet, the discussions are being led by Sonia Gandhi, not Rahul.

Grand alliance?

Some have argued that this is because Rahul is not good at dealing with leaders of other parties. Or that if he is elevated to the post of party president, the Congress will see an exodus of leaders. The problem is that Congress has already seen a steady stream of party leaders jumping ship, often to join the BJP – and in some cases quickly come to power in their new avatars. Plus, after four years of being vice president and effectively the face of the party, what use is Rahul Gandhi if he still cannot get along well with other leaders, especially in an age where the Congress can hardly hope to contest elections alone?

The more intriguing theory is that the deliberations could strike at something deeper: An effort to put Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar at the centre of anti-BJP alliance that would work together in the 2019 Lok Sabha campaign. This would effectively rule Rahul Gandhi out as the alliance’s prime ministerial candidate, picking instead a leader who has both administrative experience and has managed to halt the BJP juggernaut while overseeing a somewhat motley alliance.

That idea seems appealing to those concerned that the BJP might simply steamroller a divided Opposition on the back of Narendra Modi’s popularity. But any non-Congress prime ministerial candidate would face the same issues that the third front always has: Will more than a dozen warring parties fall in line behind one name? And if that is the plan, how does a six-month public process involving internal polls that lead up to Rahul Gandhi’s coronation fit into all of this?

Rahul Gandhi’s tenure as general secretary and later vice president has always seemed split between attempts at actual reform, like insisting on primary elections for candidates, and ignoring those reforms if they look likely to fail in the short term. The Congress machine constantly tries to make it seem as if Rahul is always successful, no matter what his actual record is, so that the primacy of the Gandhi family is not contested. Will the party be able to put aside that impulse if it is to band together with others to realistically battle the BJP in 2019?