When he first threatened to quit as the Congress president in the immediate aftermath of the Lok Sabha poll results in May, Rahul Gandhi had wanted the veterans in the party to follow his example. When he eventually quit two months later and the veterans did not, he accused them of clinging to power. There was speculation in the party that a Congress decimation in the Assembly polls in Haryana and Maharashtra could pave the path for Rahul’s return.
In the run-up to the polling for the Assembly polls, some of the Congress leaders said associates of Rahul had asked them to pick a side in the imminent battle between the younger leadership and the veterans. They were asked if they would side with Rahul or the veterans. However, the results are likely to put a lid on this impending battle, strengthen the hands of the veterans, and force the younger leaders to negotiate a truce.
The veterans have hit back, with the Congress improving its performance significantly in Haryana. Veterans like Ghulam Nabi Azad, Ahmed Patel and others had ensured that Congress President Sonia Gandhi sacked Ashok Tanwar as the state unit chief in Haryana, appoint Kumari Selja in his place, and entrust former chief minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda as the campaign in-charge and de-facto chief ministerial candidate of the party. Tanwar, considered close to Rahul, quit the party.
The party’s improved performance could mean trouble for more leaders who are close to Rahul, particularly party’s general secretary (organisation) K C Venugopal. Several of those considered close to Rahul have either quit the party, or found themselves sacked.
In Maharashtra, leaders considered close to Rahul mostly stayed away from campaigning, including Sanjay Nirupam, Priya Dutt, and Milind Deora. Rahul Gandhi addressed one public rally, which Hooda boycotted in Haryana and six in Maharashtra.
With the party rudderless in Maharashtra, senior leaders like Ashok Chavan, Prithviraj Chavan, Sushilkumar Shinde and others restricted their campaigning to their own respective seats, while Nationalist Congress Party chief Sharad Pawar campaigned extensively to revive his party and help it win more seats than the Congress. Such was the state of the Congress in Maharashtra that the party’s social media set-up was put in place barely a week before the end of campaigning, and braved several resource crunches. The first big press conference the party had in Mumbai was in the last leg of campaigning.
In Haryana, Hooda was also careful in distancing himself from the Congress position on Article 370 in a state that contributes significantly with its men to the Indian armed forces. He focused on local issues, which contributed to as many as nine of Manohar Lal Khattar’s ministers losing.
On Friday, Sonia Gandhi will chair the first meeting of the party’s newly created ‘think tank’. The meeting to be attended by Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra as well, apart from other senior leaders, will discuss the party’s position on a host of issues, including Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership and National Register of Citizens.