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Sonia Gandhi's advice to revitalise Congress, counter Modi juggernaut will not be easy for party president Rahul

Sonia Gandhi

If Congress president Rahul Gandhi has to counter the Narendra Modi juggernaut in the 2019 Lok Sabha election, he will have to revitalise the party from scratch. That’s the indication UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi gave on Friday.

Referring to party’s Steering Committee meeting, she said, “Certainly, Rahul always wanted new and younger people in the party. It’s very valid that without them, how could a party grow? (sic) But he also said that older leaders who, worked for years (in Congress), can’t be ignored.”

During her interaction at the India Today Conclave, Sonia commented on Rahul’s leadership style after he took over as the new party chief and said that the leadership style doesn’t make much difference. Whether it’s Rahul or any other, Congress has its policies that everyone follows.

While emphasising that Congress had to adopt a new style of connecting with people, the former Congress chief said that the need of the hour was to revitalise the party.

She asserted that older generation leaders couldn’t be done away with and a balance was needed between the younger lot and senior leaders.

And to revitalise the grand old party of India, Rahul obviously would have to take tough decisions, which might not go down well with the senior leadership.

Recently, the Congress has faced electoral debacle in three northeastern states — Tripura, Nagaland and Meghalaya. From being in power in 13 states, Congress is reduced to just four now. The party might have tasted victory in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh bypolls, but upcoming elections in Karnataka, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh will pose a tough challenge for Rahul’s leadership.
By emphasising the importance of the old guard and the need to maintain a balance vis-à-vis revitalisation of the party, Sonia has probably placed a handicap before her son.

A balancing act 

For Rahul, it will be like walking a tight rope to maintain a balance between the young leaders and the old guard, while revitalising the party.

Many a times it had been a point of debate and discussion that it won’t be palatable for the old guard within the Congress party – who have worked with Rahul’s grand mother Indira Gandhi and father Rajiv Gandhi – to accept the leadership of this Nehru-Gandhi scion.
While Sonia had always backed the old order, Rahul has often faced difficulty in reining in the senior leaders.
Sources in the party said that when Rahul was vice-president, he, on many occasions, maintained distance from a few senior leaders, who are apparently close to Sonia Gandhi.
Gujarat election is a case in point, when senior Congress leader Mani Shankar Aiyar called Prime Minister Narendra Modi “neech".

Rahul was quick to control the damage and asked Aiyar to apologise. Later, Aiyar was suspended from the primary membership of the party.

Let’s not forget that Congress general secretary and former Madhya Pradesh chief minister Digvijaya Singh, who was once regarded as Rahul Gandhi’s ‘political guru’, fell out of favour in 2012 after repeatedly going against the party line on issues such as the Batla House encounter in September 2008 against Indian Mujahideen (IM) terrorists.

According to sources, immediately after taking over as the party president, Rahul, during the first Congress Working Committee (CWC) meeting, had expressed that there was a need for discipline across party line, and it was a difficult task.

During the conclave, Sonia also mentioned that taking on Modi and the BJP was a difficult task and challenging as well.
To do so, the new Congress president will need to take a tough stand like his BJP counterpart Amit Shah, which at present seems unlikely.

One may recall that after 2014 general election, Rahul, who was then the Congress vice-president, was targeted by a section of senior leaders for the party’s massive electoral loss. A group of young leaders, including AICC secretaries, whom Rahul had appointed in 2014, came in the latter’s support.

In an informal discussion with this correspondent then, former Union minister Kishor Chandra Deo had said that a group of influential senior Congress leaders enjoying power within the party needed to be done away with.

Deo obviously referred to a section of the old guard, who had bitterly criticised Rahul and said that the Congress must clean up its house or else, it would be difficult for the party to win elections in the future. By then, Modi had arrived on the national political scene with a huge majority behind him.

A big challenge 

Accusing Modi of not meeting the ‘fantastic promises’ he had made during 2014 polls, Sonia said, “I’m confident BJP’s achche din (good days) will turn into ‘India Shining’ kind."

She admitted that taking on Modi and the BJP was a big challenge.  “But we’ll meet it,” she said.

However, the responsibility of taking up this challenge lies on Rahul Gandhi’s shoulders. And even as he goes about maintaining balance as advised by Sonia Gandhi, he would have to clean up his house as Kishor Chandra Deo had said in 2014.

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