After over two decades, the party president’s office at the AICC will open its doors for ordinary workers” is how a Congress leader described the one possible change expected after the upcoming organisational elections to the President’s post.
Due to security reasons, the Congress President’s designated office at the All-India Congress Committee (AICC) headquarters at 24, Akbar Road in Delhi has virtually been closed ever since Sonia Gandhi took over the reins of the party from Sitaram Kesri in March 1998.
Rahul Gandhi followed suit in his tenure from December 2017 to May 2019, and later Sonia Gandhi continued with this practice after reassuming office in August 2019.
The Special Protection Group had suggested that the Gandhis — Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi, and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra — should not officiate from the AICC headquarters.
As a result, Sonia Gandhi’s residence at 10 Janpath, adjoining the party headquarters, became the power centre during all these years, and later Rahul Gandhi’s official home at 12, Tughlak Lane was the go-to-place for Congress leaders.
While easy accessibility was cited as the spur behind the SPG’s proposal, the flipside of the move translated into a denial of access to common party workers, or at least that was the perception created.
With a non-Gandhi is set to become the Congress President now, the AICC could once again reclaim its glory days as a nerve centre of the grand old party, although 10 Janpath and 12 Tughlak Lane will continue to occupy the central place in the party.
While this might be the obvious change on the ground, the bigger challenge for the next Congress President would be to dispel the notion of being a rubber stamp of the Gandhi family.
Congress’ political rivals have already claimed that the incoming chief would be remote-controlled by the Gandhis.
The Gandhis have repeatedly assured of their neutrality in the contest, but reports suggesting that Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot has the blessings of Sonia Gandhi may cast a shadow on the results.
Many in the Congress believe that a ‘puppet’ President would not be able to establish control over the organisation, or bring about the much-needed changes in the party, and the status quo will persist.
The big question is whether the Gandhi family would continue to be the ‘high command’, or the new head would wield those powers.
Sonia Gandhi will undoubtedly continue to be the patron of the grand old party, with Rahul Gandhi as its driving force, and Priyanka Gandhi a key office bearer. Navigating these power centres to establish his writ on the party will be a tough challenge for the new party President.
It may be recalled that the buzz of the installation of KC Venugopal as the titular Congress President in August 2020 led to the emergence of the group of dissenters, known as G-23.
Some of the G-23 leaders, including Ghulam Nabi Azad and Kapil Sibal, have since quit the Congress.
Halting the growing attrition rate will be another tough task for the new chief given that a large number of leaders are feeling frustrated in the Congress following a series of electoral setbacks in states and nationally since 2014, and are easy pickings for other parties.
It would also be interesting to see if the new President reaches out to those who have left the Congress over the years, and tries to bring them back to the party fold.
Apart from dismantling all the walls that the managers or so-called strategists had erected between the leadership and workers from time to time, the other important tasks for the new President would be to accommodate some of the veterans and the side-lined leaders in the decision-making.
For the party’s revival, it is imperative for the leadership to communicate directly with the cadre, to make it fighting fit, and match the powerful machinery of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
So far, the two names of Gehlot and Shashi Tharoor as candidates are doing the rounds, but a clearer picture of those who have decided to throw their hats in the ring will emerge on October 8, the last date of the withdrawal of nomination papers.
Among the two, Gehlot is a three-time Chief Minister, has a bigger stature, and a large following within the party. Although he is said to have agreed to relinquish the Chief Minister’s post if elected Congress President in accordance with the ‘one-man, one-post’ norm adopted as part of the Udaipur declaration, Gehlot is no pushover.
A wily politician, he is credited with being able to keep his flock together, and outwit his rivals within and outside the Congress.
While Gehlot’s loyalty towards the Gandhi family is unquestionable, the independent-minded politician is unlikely to acquiesce to be a rubber stamp President.
A glimpse of the master strategist's acumen was on display on September 25 night when his loyalists thwarted a meeting of the Congress Legislature Party (CLP) called to elect Sachin Pilot as his successor. As many as 90 legislators owing allegiance to Gehlot submitted their resignations to Speaker CP Joshi, plunging the party and the government in deep crisis. They want a Gehlot nominee and not Pilot to be the next Chief Minister, and that too after the election of the new Congress President on October 19.
However, first things first. While the debate on the fairness of the elections, the neutrality of the Gandhis and the effectiveness of the new President can rage on endlessly, all eyes will be on the first full-fledged contest in the Congress, nearly 22 years after Sonia Gandhi defeated Jitendra Prasada in 2000.