Saturday, March 5, 2011

Poised for presidency

This could be the year of change for theCongress. The buzz within the party is that Rahul Gandhi will be taking on a more decisive leadership role within the next few months. Highly placed Congress sources say that while Sonia Gandhi is keen to make him working president, Rahul does not feel he is ready yet. He has, however, agreed to play a more active role within the party. This will be the first step back that Sonia takes as Rahul steps forward to claim his legacy; party leadership is a major stop on the road to the goal to making him prime minister.

An organisational as well as a comprehensive Cabinet reshuffle is planned post the Assembly elections slated for April-May. This will see many Cabinet heavyweights shifting to the organisation. Contrary to reports, Team Rahul will comprise not only greenhorns from his youth brigade, but will also have experienced leaders from the Rajiv Gandhi or Sanjay Gandhi era.

Cabinet ministers such as Ghulam Nabi Azad, Ambika Soni, Veerbhadra Singh, Sushilkumar Shinde, Kamal Nath, C.P. Joshi and G.K. Vasan are tipped to be drafted for party work. Most have been complaining that they are at odds in Manmohan Singh's Government, where emphasis is on bureaucratic-like delivery systems instead of political governance. Manmohan has made this a government where professionals have eclipsed party veterans. The only genuine veteran who cannot be ignored is Pranab Mukherjee.

Non-performers such as S.M. Krishna, B.K. Handique, Veerappa Moily and M.S. Gill are likely to be dropped. Gill, the former sports minister, is already sulking at being sidelined to the Department of Statistics in the last reshuffle.

The idea is to groom a team that would connect with Rahul. Fresh faces that could be inducted into the government will vary from professionals such as spokespersons-cum-lawyers Abhishek Manu Singhvi and Manish Tiwari, young tribal leaders such as Gajendra Singh Raju Kheri and firebrand youth leaders Manicka Tagore and Vijay Inder Singla. "Low-profile state leaders will be inducted. Their brief will be to use their ministerial posts to improve development in their states. At least, this is what we are expecting," explains a Cabinet minister.
There is a need for revamp. "This is a government where the foreign minister reads the wrong speech, the law minister has not seen the inside of a court room for the last 40 years, the information and broadcasting minister is kept out of government information management, and where we have a risk-averse defence minister who is scared of taking a decision," says a Congress Lok Sabha MP. Congressmen also complain that upa II is but an extension of upa I. "There are no new faces in the Cabinet. Despite all this talk of bringing in performers and young blood, we still see the same handful of people in Cabinet who were there for the last six and half years," says another party MP.

A change had been promised at the party headquarters ever since upa II took over in 2009 and four of the nine general secretaries became Union ministers. Of the remaining five, the only one with whom Rahul has a working equation is General Secretary Digvijaya Singh. He is courteous to Mohsina Kidwai, helping her with her luggage when he bumped into her on a flight to Lucknow, but has not called on her for political guidance even though she is a part of the Indira era. Another General Secretary, V. Narayanasamy, had a hard time keeping up with Rahul's swift strides during the Madhya Pradesh Assembly campaign. When he takes over the party apparatus, he needs a team that can both mentor and walk alongside him.

There is already a fledgling Team Rahul in place. He has a band of young MPs helping him plan his tours and take on such projects as the Youth Congress talent hunt. However, they work from Rahul's residence at Tughlaq Lane and not the party headquarters. These include Milind Deora, Deepender Hooda, Jitin Prasada, RPN Singh, Madhu Yaskhi, Sandeep Dikshit and Sachin Pilot. Most are second-term MPs and young dynasts who entered politics at the same time as Rahul. He could now bring them into the system. Some are already ministers but they will be part of the Rahul rejig as he reshuffles his loyalists between the party and the Government. Congress Secretary Jitendar Bhanwar who is currently helping Rahul revamp the youth wings will remain at the party headquarters as Rahul's right hand man.

What is also worrying the party is the power play between senior Cabinet ministers. With Rahul still to indicate whether he is interested in the top job, a turf war has broken out between the second rung of leadership. "The planned reshuffle will end this, especially if he takes over as the working president or some post of authority. This will answer the question-after Manmohan, who?" says a Congress minister.

Congressmen have also taken note of Sonia's statement earlier this month. At a function in honour of the late Ranbir Singh Hooda, a freedom fighter and Haryana Chief Minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda's father, she said, "The biggest thing is that he chose to retire from politics at age 64. Today when people are hankering after power and post, the importance of such an outlook increases." This was seen as a signal not just to end the power play within the Cabinet but some of her colleagues say that she has also indicated her own retirement plans. Sonia is 64 years old.

Rajiv Gandhi was party general secretary in 1983-84 while his mother was the Congress president. But unlike Rahul, he did not limit himself to the youth wings but took an active interest in other party affairs. This kind of initiative is lacking in Rahul, who shrugs his shoulders and says that he has his own schedule whenever asked whether he will take on more responsibility. Hence the need to propel him in directions other than his own chartered course.

For long, Rahul had only limited himself officially to the brief given to him as a general secretary. It's only recently, however, that he has been increasing his scope of activities, albeit unofficially. Whether it is M. Karunanidhi or Hillary Clinton dropping in at 10 Janpath to meet Sonia, the young scion is there by his mother's side. Whenever Rahul is asked about his views on anything other than the youth wing, he says he is a mere general secretary and not authorised to comment on such matters. But as a working president his brief would be broadened, while Sonia would function as the upa Chairperson and a Rajmata-like figure, overseeing the party.

The feedback from Uttar Pradesh is not encouraging. This is a state that Rahul has identified himself very closely with. A wipe-out, especially after Bihar, would erode his credibility. Hence the need for him to consolidate his leadership before that. While touring Uttar Pradesh recently, Rahul met a group of young party workers at Raiphulwari. When he exhorted them that the only way forward in the state was to destabilise Mayawati, a young worker stood up and told him, "If you want to destabilise Mayawati, bring Priyanka." According to the india today Mood of the Nation poll, Rahul's ratings dropped nine points in a mere span of six months. Clearly, Sonia has realised that she needs to move fast before more party workers turn to Priyanka as their beacon of hope instead of Rahul.

The 40-year-old has spent the last six-and-a-half years readying himself for leadership. "Why are you harping about 40 when we have a prime minister-in-waiting at 91," laughs Digvijaya, taking a dig at L.K Advani, though the BJP leader is not yet a nonagenarian. Yet there is no denying the feeling of drift that has crept into the party. Talk to the average Congress worker and he will complain that the Sonia-Manmohan combination is on the wane. The reluctant Rahul has to play a larger role to energise the party. Now his party wants him to step up. "There is a wide constituency both inside and outside the party which believes he should play a far bigger role across the spectrum of issues in the public domain," says Tiwari.

This is also one reason why Manmohan had to limit himself to a cosmetic reshuffle in January. The blueprint of the great Rahul makeover is still being worked out. "Rahul is achieving a quiet revolution of youth empowerment at the grassroots levels," says Abhishek Singhvi. But this has not really happened.

The much-trumpeted process of democracy in the youth wing has only thrown up a bunch of dynasts as youth Congress chiefs. Rahul admitted this at a press conference claiming that democracy has to start from somewhere. Unlike Sanjay or Rajiv, he has not been able to build his band of performers from the youth wing. A Meenakshi Natarajan lacks the fire of an Ambika Soni.

During the party plenary last December, Digvijaya had told Rahul that most leaders on the dais, such as Bhupinder Hooda, Ahmed Patel, Ashok Gehlot, Mukul Wasnik and himself, were brought into the Congress by Rajiv when they were in their 30s. He added that they had passed their expiry date and it was now time for Rahul to groom his team.

Rumours of Rahul being made working president have been doing the rounds ever since he refused a ministerial berth in upa II. "I cannot confirm or deny this news," says a party general secretary enigmatically.

There has not been a working president of the party since Kamlapati Tripathi was appointed by Indira. Later, Arjun Singh was made vice-president by Rajiv. This experiment did not work well in either case, leading to turf wars. However, Sonia would have no problems of promoting her heir apparent as the working president. The waiting game has to end soon.

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