Rahul Gandhi ready to yield Opposition leadership role ahead of 2019? Congress' premature move may affect cadres' morale

In mid-July 2016, the Congress had declared Sheila Dikshit its chief ministerial candidate for the Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections, which were held in February 2017. For the next few months, she had lived with that hype, and the party was pretty pleased with what they thought was a winning slogan, "27 Saal UP Behal."

Five months later, in mid-January 2017, Congress president Rahul Gandhi and his key strategists dumped cold water on her chief ministerial ambition, or the party's ambition for her, and sealed an electoral alliance with the Samjawadi Party, declaring Akhilesh Yadav their chief ministerial candidate. The alliance also came up with a new slogan, "UP ko ye saath pasand hai".

 Rahul Gandhi ready to yield Opposition leadership role ahead of 2019? Congress premature move may affect cadres morale

File image of Congress president Rahul Gandhi. Reuters

Jump to 24-25 July this year. Rahul appears to have pulled a Sheila Dikshit on himself — from being projected as the Congress' prime ministerial nominee for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, he went to being ready to play second fiddle and support any other Opposition leader, like Mamata Banerjee or Mayawati, to be the prime minister if the situation demands.

There is another way to look at it. So pleased was the Congress president with his experiment in Karnataka – making HD Kumaraswamy the chief minister and allowing him to keep key portfolios with the Janata Dal (Secular) to keep the BJP out of power — that he is willing to repeat the modus operandi at the national level in 2019. Unlike his mother and senior Congress leader Sonia Gandhi, he will not look for a Manmohan Singh in the Congress. In any case, neither Mamata nor Mayawati would ever be what Singh was to Sonia.

On Wednesday, national newspapers published source-based stories on Rahul yielding power to another Opposition leader. With the headline "Congress softens Rahul-as-PM stand, says BJP's defeat key", The Indian Express reported quoting a source: "The Congress is open to the candidature of anybody, including Mamata Banerjee or Mayawati, for the top slot… She (Mamata), too, is from a Congress mindset."

The Times of India ran a headline that read: "Congress may go along with regional leader as PM nominee". Quoting top Congress sources, it reported that the party may be "willing to accommodate the leader of a non-Congress or a regional party as the prime ministerial nominee if it gets the numbers in the next Lok Sabha elections or in case of lack of consensus on a Congress nominee".

It was during an informal interaction on Tuesday evening with around a hundred women in journalism that Rahul said: "The Congress will support any candidate who will defeat the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh."

Now, consider the circumstances of Rahul's making and unmaking as the prime ministerial candidate for the Opposition and what it should mean for the Congress. This also comes in a situation where Rahul is convinced that the BJP under Narendra Modi's leadership will be "decimated" in the parliamentary elections, scheduled to be held in the next eight to nine months.

In May this year, Rahul had laid bare his prime ministerial ambition for 2019. However, it was a bit odd for him to talk so categorically about it while campaigning for the Karnataka Assembly elections, more so because he had appeared coy while speaking about the top position.

"I am pretty convinced that Mr Modi is not going to be the prime minister (again)," Rahul had said during a closed party meeting. "I can see that on his face. He knows that." To a query from a party worker on his prime ministerial prospects, Rahul had said, "If the Congress is the biggest party (in the alliance of Opposition parties), then yes, why not."

Earlier, at a rally organised by his party, Rahul had said "ache din" will come when the Congress comes to power in 2019. By saying so, he seemed to have bowed to the wishes of thousands of dedicated party workers for whom the Congress means the Gandhi-Nehru family and therefore, Rahul has to lead it.

But the Congress' loss in the Karnataka polls made the Rahul-for-PM-in-2019 claim subside. Although JD(S) became an ally by default, older partners like the Samajwadi Party were no longer keen to have any electoral seat-sharing understanding with the Congress in Uttar Pradesh, and this created confusion for Rahul's party. Mamata is not conceding any space for Rahul in West Bengal, neither is Bahujan Samaj Party chief Mayawati.

But this still has not deterred the Congress. It moved a no-confidence motion in Parliament on Wednesday in an attempt to be in sync with Chandrababu Naidu's Telugu Desam Party. Rahul, who had volunteered to be the first speaker from the Congress, had blasted Modi and the BJP, made a myriad of accusations, including of corruption, did not yield to Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman on his charges on the Rafale deal, and also walked across the treasury benches to hug Modi. He did everything he could to not only set the agenda for the day but to position himself at the pole position against Modi, as the only alternative to Modi as the Congress is to the BJP.

Two days later, the extended Congress Working Committee — in the presence of over 270 specially invited leaders — authorised Rahul to lead negotiations and forge alliances with like-minded parties for the 2019 general elections. All this happened while Rahul, as party president, chaired the meeting.

It would be a bizarre turn of events if the president of a national party overturned the decision of his party's highest policy- and decision-making body and took the backseat while allowing Mamata or Mayawati to wear the crown.

Interestingly, Rahul made the "off-the-record" statement — that he was willing to yield leadership of the Opposition to others — hours after Mayawati talked tough about "watching" how the Congress was treating the JD(S) in Karnataka and expressing a dislike for Congress leaders talking about an alliance with the BSP without offering a respectable number of seats.

The Congress president himself is overseeing the seat-sharing pitch to Mayawati, even though her BSP has no MPs in the current Lok Sabha. While Mamata's Trinamool Congress (TMC) is the third-largest party in the Opposition ranks after the Congress and AIADMK, it has practically no presence outside Delhi. The TMC has national ambitions, but all its attempts have gone bust so far.

In the last parliamentary elections, the Congress, which governed the country for about 60 years, failed to open its account in 14 states and seven Union Territories. Rahul's premature announcement that he was willing to stay in the background and let Mamata or Mayawati lead the Opposition coalition will play on the morale of Congress workers.

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Updated Date: Jul 25, 2018 18:11:42 IST