Rahul Gandhi will take over as Congress president from his mother Sonia Gandhi in a process of organisational elections that begin next month as planned, top party sources said today, seeking to quash rumours that the transition may be delayed.
The elections in the mammoth party are expected to be held over several weeks and Mr Gandhi, who is currently the party number 2, will take over as president in September this year.
There has been intense speculation that the Congress could postpone the elevation of Rahul Gandhi as it attempts to bring together an anti-BJP bloc of opposition parties to unitedly take on the government in Parliament and outside in what is seen as a test drive for the 2019 national election, when the Prime Minister Narendra Modi will seek a second term.
Opposition leaders like Mamata Banerjee and Mayawati have reportedly made it clear that they are more comfortable dealing with Mrs Gandhi than with her son. The Congress has a fix. While Rahul Gandhi will take over as party chief, Sonia Gandhi will continue to head the Congress Parliamentary Party, the sources said. This will ensure that Mrs Gandhi will still lead much of the party’s external dealings with allies and other opposition parties, including on floor strategy in Parliament.
Sonia Gandhi has led the recent initiative for opposition parties to field a joint candidate for both President and Vice President of the country. But, unwell for some time now, she has scaled back her public engagements, pushing to the fore Rahul Gandhi, whose leadership skills have been questioned as the Congress has faced defeat after defeat in state elections and has been found wanting in its response on key government policy.
The return of the Congress seniors known as the party’s “old guard” in the form of a new communications strategy team set up by Sonia Gandhi last week only seemed to support speculation that Team Rahul or the “new guard” in the Congress will take a back seat in the run-up to the next elections.
The 10-member team was set up soon after the Congress first denied and then had to confirm and defend Rahul Gandhi’s meeting with the Chinese ambassador to India amid a stand-off with China at the Sikkim border.
Party leaders have pointed out that while seniors like P Chidambaram, Ghulam Nabi Azad, Anand Sharma, Jairam Ramesh and Mani Shankar Aiyar make up most of the new strategy team, which will define the Congress’ response on policy, it also has on it leaders seen to be close to Mr Gandhi like Jyotiraditya Scindia and Sushmita Deb. They argue that the launch of the new team in fact fulfills one of Rahul Gandhi’s key promises.
As he gets set to take over as party chief, one of the big decisions Rahul Gandhi needs to take is who will be the new Congress chief in Madhya Pradesh, ruled by the BJP since 2003 and where assembly elections will be held next year. It is seen as a contest between Kamal Nath of the Congress “old guard” and Mr Scindia.