Rahul’s Political Future: A Challenge For Sonia?

Notwithstanding noise made about the secular agenda of the Congress party and the hype raised about some of its leaders blaming saffron brigade for several terrorist incidents, let us accept it, these are empty rhetoric. They have been probably deliberately aired with an eye on 2014 parliamentary elections. The Congress is going overboard in convincing Indian public about its secular agenda, rather the secular image held by its new vice-president, that is Rahul Gandhi.  But should these be regarded as sufficient to help Rahul play a bigger role on the Indian political stage?

 Undeniably, Sonia Gandhi is probably most bothered at present about Rahul’s political future. To date, she has played her cards deftly, from introducing him into politics, ensuring his entry into Parliament and assuring his being accepted as an important political entity by members of the Congress party. Sonia herself is held as the most powerful politician, who heads Congress and the United Progressive Alliance (UPA). Elected for the 4th term in 2010, Sonia has become the longest serving president of the Congress in the party’s 125-year old history. Rahul has been elevated to the post of the party’s vice-president for the first time earlier this month. The decision was taken at the party’s brain-storming session held at Jaipur (Rajasthan).

 Without doubt, the primary agenda of Jaipur session was to promote Rahul as the party’s key leader ahead of 2014 parliamentary elections. While the Congress has not officially declared him as its prime ministerial candidate, the party has certainly been setting the stage for Rahul in this direction. His appointment as vice-president is equivalent to formally elevating him to this stature. Now, within the Congress, he is number two and his mom is number one. Rahul is answerable only to his mother in the party. Besides, though this has been in the news for quite sometime, that Rahul will lead the party during 2014 elections, his elevation further confirms it.

 Yet, certain hard realities cannot be missed. So far, Rahul’s political potential has been acknowledged and also promoted by his own party. Rahul has no spectacular record to his credit of being hailed for having succeeded in turning the political tide significantly in his party’s favour. This is marked by the Congress having failed to win assembly elections in several states, particularly Uttar Pradesh (UP), Bihar and Gujarat. There is no denying that Indian voters give greater importance to national parties in parliamentary elections. In assembly elections they opt for their local leaders or regional parties. The latter point is proved by regional leaders’ victory in assembly elections held in UP, Bihar and Gujarat. It was not simply BJP’s victory in Gujarat, but that of Narendra Modi. Likewise, Mayawati, former UP chief minister and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) leader, was pushed out of power not by a national party but by a regional rival, that is Samajwadi Party (SP). Similarly, Lalu Prasad’s failure to secure a comeback for his party (Rashtriya Janata Party) in Bihar rests on stronger command held by his regional rival, that is Nitish Kumar, who is state chief minister and leader of Janata Dal-United.

 Ironically, during their previous electoral campaigns, both Sonia and Rahul have given impression of banking largely on only Congress and not on reaching strategic agreements with regional allies. It may be noted, states where regional parties have emerged strongly have also witnessed weakening of the Congress party. Equally noteworthy is the fact that Congress has not succeeded in enhancing the importance of its regional leaders. However hard Sonia and Rahul may try, it is practically impossible for them to campaign actively in all parliamentary constituencies by frequently visiting them and addressing rallies there repeatedly. Even if they address a different constituency everyday, they will not be able to frequently visit each of the 500+ parliamentary constituencies in a year’s time. This reality demands giving greater importance to regional party leaders, allowing them to emerge as local leaders so that they campaign actively in convincing voters about the party’s goals, including its secular agenda.

 The Congress has all the right to promote the national appeal of Rahul Gandhi. Yet, this may remain confined to pasting his photos on hoardings, posters and elsewhere till the party’s regional members and supporters are activated to promote the party’s agenda. Sonia may rest assured about Rahul having gained a firm foothold within the party. Rahul has a commanding position but not yet as commanding as that of Sonia. Sonia is caught at a strange cross-roads of politics. She is keen on a bigger political role for Rahul. But this isn’t possible till party succeeds in a big way in 2014 elections by ensuring stronger support from Congress members as well as its allies. And this places a challenging dilemma before Sonia on how to expand Rahul’s appeal across the country without banking on just secular-rhetoric. This, as mentioned earlier, is impossible without planning the party’s campaign strategically, enhancing its importance down to grassroots, ensuring active involvement of party members and supporters.    

This article appeared in The Milli Gazette print issue of 1-15 February 2013 on page no. 11

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