New Delhi: Rahul Gandhi, vice-president of the Congress party, is increasingly taking on the role of his mother and Congress president Sonia Gandhi as a go-between with allies and potential allies, even as he continues to focus on rebuilding the party organization.
To this end, Rahul Gandhi, who has already gradually taken over the president’s role of making key appointments to organizational posts, has started meeting leaders of opposition parties as well as allies, according to a person familiar with the developments. This person, who described these meetings as “ice-breaking” sessions, did not want to be identified.
Interestingly, even as he does this, Gandhi continues to remain non-committal about being the party’s prime ministerial candidate in the 2014 general election. On Tuesday, in a meeting with the party’s representatives in Parliament, he said he is not eyeing the position. “Asking me whether you want to be prime minister is a wrong question... The prime minister’s post is not my priority. I believe in long-term politics,” a party representative present at the meeting reported Gandhi as saying.
The Congress’s main rival, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has always held that this aversion to executive positions is a reflection of Gandhi’s unwillingness to be held accountable. G.V.L. Narasimha Rao, a psephologist who has been working closely with the BJP, was amused at Gandhi’s remarks on the prime minister’s post. “He and his mother have invented a new mechanism in which they are having all powers without any accountability. The damage they have done is that the most powerful office in our polity, the Prime Minister’s Office, has been robbed off all the powers and they have taken over the control ,” Rao said.
The BJP’s prime ministerial candidate in the 2014 election, if the party’s national council meeting over the weekend is any indication, will likely be Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi.
While Modi and other BJP leaders have been targeting the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government for underperformance, Gandhi has been busy otherwise.
Since 21 February, when the crucial budget session of Parliament commenced, he has, according to the person cited in the first instance, met Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader Sitaram Yechury; Biju Janata Dal member of Parliament (MP) Tathagata Satpathy; Nationalist Congress Party leader Sharad Pawar; Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam MP M. Kanimozhi, daughter of the party’s supremo M. Karunanidhi; Rashtriya Janata Dal chief Lalu Prasad; Lok Janshakti Party leader Ram Vilas Paswan; and Indian Union Muslim League leader E. Ahamed.
Gandhi had a conversation with Yechury and Satpathy and is likely to meet them again, added this person. Although details of their conversation are not known, he added that the idea was to build relationships with the leaders who are not averse to the Congress’s ideology despite being in the opposition.
Yechury is in Bangladesh as a part of President Pranab Mukherjee’s delegation and couldn’t be reached for comment.
Satpathy denied having a “detailed” conversation with Gandhi and said their only interaction over the years has been “customary greetings in Parliament’s central hall”.
Gandhi, said N. Bhaskara Rao, a political analyst who has been closely observing the Congress party for almost four decades, “is trying to re-energize the cadre by repeated interactions with leaders at different levels and visits to the states, has realized the realities of coalition (politics), and is also building his personal relationships (with leaders of other parties)”. He added that the last would come in useful “in pre- and post-poll scenarios in 2014”.
Gandhi’s meeting with Paswan and Prasad is being seen by analysts as a move to keep the UPA together for 2014. Both parties were part of the coalition’s first stint in power, but now support it without being part of the government.
Analysts also see Gandhi’s growing role in the party as part of a transition of power.
A Congress leader who spoke on condition of anonymity said Sonia Gandhi has already given her son the responsibility of revamping the All India Congress Committee (AICC), Pradesh Congress Committees (PCC) and other so-called frontal organizations.
The party leadership is expected to announce the changes in AICC as well as state units of Jharkhand, Goa and Maharashtra soon.
On Tuesday night, the Congress president announced Pratap Singh Bajwa as the Punjab unit president replacing former state chief minister Amarinder Singh, as suggested by Rahul Gandhi. She has also appointed Harish Choudhary, MP from Barmer, a close associate of Rahul Gandhi, as the AICC secretary in charge of Punjab. Choudhary’s elevation is seen as an attempt to pacify the Jat community in poll-bound Rajasthan as they were miffed with party leadership for alleged negligence to the community.
After taking over as the vice-president in January during the three-day party conclave in Jaipur, Rahul Gandhi has been meeting with AICC general secretaries, PCC presidents, Congress legislative party leaders, chief ministers, central ministers and MPs.
In his speech accepting the vice-president’s post in Jaipur conclave as well as during his various interactions with party leaders, the 42-year-old Gandhi maintained that he was keen on changing “culture” in Congress.
“I want to give voice to the middle tier...empower the middle-level leaders. There are some parties in India which are run by one leader (the Bahujan Samaj Party), two leaders (the Samajwadi Party), five to six leaders (the BJP) and 15 to 20 leaders (the Congress). My priority is that I want to empower the MPs as also the 5,000-odd legislators in various states,” he was quoted saying during the interaction on Tuesday.
In some ways, that’s a sentiment loaded with irony. Many analysts and opposition parties view the Congress as a “family” party.
Narasimha Rao said that Gandhi’s comments were ironical. “He wants to preserve the family’s control. He just wants to sound like the saviour. Congress party’s president and vice-president are mother and son, and they impose everything from the top. They can’t be pretending that they empower people at the grassroot level. This is just whitewashing and befooling the people,” Rao said.
PTI contributed to this story.