NEW DELHI: Hours before Rahul Gandhi takes over as Congress president, a casual remark from outgoing chief Sonia Gandhi about her retirement set off a political scramble, forcing the party to clarify that she was only leaving as the organisational head.
Asked about her role after the political succession in Congress is clinched formally on Saturday, Sonia said, “My role now is to retire.”
The remark, reported widely in the media, set off speculation about what the Congress president could have meant. With many interpreting it to mean that Sonia might disengage herself from Congress affairs after Saturday, when Rahul takes over the organisational reins from her, AICC spokesman Randeep Surjewala fired a tweet to tamp down the excitement. “I would sincerely request friends in the media to not rely upon innuendos. Sonia Gandhi has retired as president of Indian National Congress and not from politics. Her blessings, wisdom and innate commitment to Congress ideology shall always be our guiding light,” he said.
However, speculation mounted that
Priyanka Gandhi may contest from Rae Bareli+
in 2019 if Sonia vacates the seat. Sonia’s remark appeared to convey several messages to multiple audiences. It was seen by many as a clear bid to give a free hand to Rahul, and an emphatic signal that the buck would stop with the new, young supremo.
Perception of dual centres of power would obviously cramp the incumbent’s freedom and the outgoing president would have known this from her experience of the last couple of years when her bid to redirect party leaders to Rahul did not end the queues at her residence. Many times, Rahul’s decisions were seen as open to review.
Her remark may have given a jolt to members of the old guard who have been used to Sonia’s style of functioning for around two decades but do not have the same acceptability with the Gandhi scion. While Rahul has repeatedly sought to impress that he would bank on experience and youth alike, ruling out the fear of a purge, the discomfort among older leaders at the Centre and in states remains palpable.
As the baton changes hands in a ceremony at the AICC headquarters on Saturday, Sonia would still be heading two key positions — chairperson of the parliamentary party and the head of the opposition bloc, UPA. It is to be seen if Sonia also quits the two positions in the coming weeks. While Rahul, for all practical purposes, has been presiding over meetings of the party’s parliamentary wing for over two years since Sonia took a backseat in party affairs, there will be suspense over who helms the anti-BJP grouping comprising opposition veterans decades senior to him in age and experience.
While Sonia has shepherded the “secular” bloc since the days Atal Bihari Vajpayee was Prime Minister, Rahul has so far not networked with political partners who have repeatedly expressed their preference for working with Sonia. Rahul’s leadership of UPA would also make him the natural leader of the opposition for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.