When the Congress suffered a crushing defeat in the 2014 general election, demoralised party workers blamed it on Rahul Gandhi’s “poor leadership” and insisted that Sonia Gandhi continue to lead them.
The refrain was that Sonia Gandhi was the Congress’s most credible and charismatic leader and the party needed her more than ever to recover from its nadir. As the party’s longest-serving president who had led it to two consecutive general election victories, in 2004 and 2009, she had acquired iconic status among her followers.
In the three years since, however, Sonia Gandhi has faded away. Although she remains the party’s president, she has quietly handed over all organisational responsibilities to her son and deputy Rahul Gandhi.
The transfer of authority hasn’t generated so much as a murmur of protest, let alone bring crowds of wailing supporters to 10 Janpath, as happened when she declined to become prime minister in 2004. It is now widely accepted in the Congress that Sonia Gandhi is the party’s past while Rahul Gandhi is the future. His official elevation, now slated for early December, is a mere formality. Sonia Gandhi has called a meeting of the Congress Working Committee on Monday to clear the election schedule for president.
“Sonia Gandhi’s quiet retirement has not created any ripples because she has been preparing the ground for Rahul Gandhi’s elevation for a few years now,” a Congress leader explained, adding the “transition period” was deliberately stretched out so that the party’s workers could get used to the idea of Rahul Gandhi as the new boss.
In particular, Sonia Gandhi wanted to ensure the old guard – who had been privately resisting the leadership change for fear of being marginalised in the new younger dispensation – did not create any hurdles for Rahul Gandhi when she handed over the baton to him. Today, they are resigned to working under the new leader. “It is not just the party, the people have also accepted that Rahul is the face of the Congress,” said another leader.
It’s being said Sonia Gandhi withdrew from active politics because of ill health. But that’s only half the story. The fact is she always intended to step down after turning 70, which she did last December. Over the last year, she deliberately minimised her public appearances and kept away from the party’s affairs, allowing Rahul Gandhi to preside over even meetings of the Congress Working Committee and the Congress Parliamentary Party, the party’s apex decision-making bodies. She was also not at the forefront when, early this year, the Congress joined hands with other opposition parties to protest against demonetisation. At the same time, she reduced meetings with the party’s workers, stopping completely four months ago. Indeed, even when she visited Himachal Pradesh in the midst of the Assembly election campaign last month, she did not meet the party’s workers. The Congress’s press statements about appointments in the party now mention they have been approved by Rahul Gandhi. Until a few months ago, they would state the appointments had been made by Sonia Gandhi.
“The takeover is complete,” said a senior Congress leader, when asked about these changes. “It is indeed the end of an era in the Congress.”
Although the change of guard was inevitable, there was a time it appeared Sonia Gandhi would find it difficult to walk away, given the sorry state of the party and reservations about Rahul Gandhi’s capabilities. She was forced to lead from the front after the 2014 rout and when Rahul Gandhi went on a two-month sabbatical in 2015. She stepped up engagement with the party’s rank and file, listening to their grievances and suggestions, and led the opposition charge against the Narendra Modi government’s decision to amend the Land Acquisition Bill. The purpose of this exercise was twofold: to reassure the Congress cadre she was not abandoning ship and to serve as a buffer against attacks on Rahul Gandhi. It was necessary as Rahul Gandhi faced a barrage of criticism from within the party for not just the 2014 debacle but also subsequent defeats in a string of assembly elections, the campaigns for which he had led.
Now, as the Congress rank and file await Rahul Gandhi’s formal anointment as the party chief, there’s barely talk of Sonia Gandhi’s future role. It is said she may not even contest the 2019 general election and field her daughter Priyanka Gandhi Vadra instead. If she doesn’t withdraw from active politics completely, Sonia Gandhi may stay on as chairperson of the Congress Parliamentary Party, but let Rahul Gandhi function independently so as to ensure there are no two power centres in the party.
“If any consultations take place, it will be between Sonia and Rahul,” the senior Congress leader said. “As far as the party is concerned, Rahul Gandhi is the new boss and the buck stops with him.”