Now that Rahul Gandhi is all set to take charge as Congress president next month, questions are bound to be asked about whether he can emulate his mother and current party chief Sonia Gandhi in bringing together like-minded Opposition parties to take on the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls.
Sonia Gandhi had succeeded in forming such an alliance in the run-up to the 2004 general elections, and the group had emerged victorious in the polls. On the other hand, the general view in the Congress is that Rahul Gandhi does not have the seniority or credibility to reach out to potential allies. It is felt that he is not regarded seriously enough by regional satraps, who enjoyed a comfortable working relationship with Sonia Gandhi.
As it happens, Rahul Gandhi may not have such a tough time in dealing with regional parties. Because like the Congress, these parties are also witnessing a generational shift and this would help him establish a rapport with the younger leaders. “We can see that the internal dynamics are changing in all political parties,” said a Congress office bearer.
For instance, former Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav has taken total control of the Samajwadi Party after a prolonged tug-of-war with his father Mulayam Singh Yadav and uncle Shivpal Yadav. Tejashwi Yadav, former deputy chief minister of Bihar, has emerged as his father and Rashtriya Janata Dal chief Lalu Prasad’s political heir. Veteran Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam leader M Karunanidhi has declared that his son MK Stalin will lead the Tamil Nadu party in future. And while Maharashtra strongman Sharad Pawar may be firmly ensconced as the Nationalist Congress Party’s chief, his daughter Supriya Sule and nephew Ajit Pawar are competing with each other to be his successor.
Omar Abdullah was the first among the new generation of leaders to pick up the baton when he took over as chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir in 2009. Though his father Farooq Abdullah was re-elected president of the National Conference in October, there is no doubt that Omar Abdullah is the face of the party.
In contrast, there is no immediate possibility of a change of guard in the Trinamool Congress as age is on the side of West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. Her nephew and Lok Sabha MP Abhishek Banerjee is seen as her political heir but for now, Mamata Banerjee is in charge. Similarly, Mayawati has a firm grip on the Bahujan Samaj Party though her brother Anand Kumar’s appointment as party vice-president in April has triggered speculation about the future command structure.
Rapport with young leaders
Among this generation of Opposition leaders, Rahul Gandhi has a warm relationship with Omar Abdullah that goes back to their childhood. The friendship has remained unaffected even by the Congress’s extension of support to the People’s Democratic Party in the formation of the Jammu and Kashmir government in 2002. The National Conference and the Congress are currently on the same side of the political divide.
Akhilesh Yadav and Rahul Gandhi have also established a good equation. This was evident during the Uttar Pradesh Assembly polls in February-March when the Congress and Samajwadi Party entered into an electoral pact and the two leaders addressed several poll meetings together.
Akhilesh Yadav, who was then battling his father and uncle for control of the Samajwadi Party, went ahead with the alliance despite strong reservations against it within his party. Though the parties suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of the BJP, Rahul Gandhi and Akhilesh Yadav have periodically stated that they will contest the next Lok Sabha polls as partners. Efforts are on to enlarge the alliance to include the Samajwadi Party’s chief political rival, the Bahujan Samaj Party, on the plea that the three can halt the BJP march in Uttar Pradesh.
More recently, Rahul Gandhi has acquired a new friend in Tejashwi Yadav. The two met over lunch in Delhi last week after which Tejashwi Yadav tweeted photographs of the meeting with a friendly post:
The meeting has predictably set off talk about the future of the Congress-Rashtriya Janata Dal relationship. The two parties were part of a coalition government with Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (United) in Bihar till Kumar walked out of the grand alliance over corruption charges against Lalu Yadav and Tejashwi Yadav and partnered the BJP to remain in power. Rahul Gandhi has always been sceptical about an alliance with the Rashtriya Janata Dal in view of the corruption charges and his preference for Nitish Kumar is also well-known. He was, however, overruled by Sonia Gandhi and other senior Congress leaders who made a strong case for a partnership with Lalu Prasad because of his secular credentials and his party’s strong Muslim-Yadav social base in Bihar.
Though Tejashwi Yadav is still under his father’s tutelage, he is emerging as a leader in his own right. Lalu Prasad hinted last week that his younger son could be the face of the party in the next state elections. Tejashwi Yadav’s potential came to light following his thunderous speech in the Assembly when Nitish Kumar sought a fresh trust vote after tying up with the BJP. He has since become more involved in party affairs and has also undertaken extensive tours in his home state.
A fine balance
Congress leaders admit Rahul Gandhi will find it easier to establish a rapport with the younger leaders, but they maintain that he will also have to reach out to the senior leaders of these regional parties. Conversely, Opposition leaders used to dealing with Sonia Gandhi will have to accept doing business with Rahul Gandhi. For instance, Mamata Banerjee has always preferred to talk directly with Sonia Gandhi but had to work with Rahul Gandhi instead when the Opposition parties launched a joint campaign against the Central government’s decision to demonetise high-value bank notes in November last year. Sonia Gandhi had by then withdrawn from active politics and Mamata Banerjee even addressed a joint press conference with Rahul Gandhi.
“The fact is that the regional leaders were in touch with Sonia Gandhi in her capacity as Congress president,” said a Congress leader. “Once Rahul Gandhi takes over, they will have no choice but to speak with him. After all, alliances are forged between two political parties and not between individuals.”