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Last Updated : Aug 13, 2019 02:18 PM IST | Source:

Key challenges Sonia Gandhi will face as interim Congress chief

Multiple challenges now await Sonia Gandhi, including keeping the flock together, fighting the Assembly polls against a dominant BJP, bringing the party’s ‘old guard’ and young leaders together and rebuilding the grassroots base

Nachiket Deuskar @PartTimeBowler

Indian National Congress leader Sonia Gandhi was on August 10 appointed the party’s interim president. She was made the chief by the party’s top decision-making body -- the Congress Working Committee (CWC).

The need for a new Congress President came about after Rahul Gandhi resigned from the post after the party’s disastrous performance in the 2019 Lok Sabha election. For a prolonged period of time, party leaders tried to convince Rahul Gandhi to stay on. However, he did not withdraw his resignation.

Sonia Gandhi, 72, will remain the chief until regular election for the party President is held. The election is widely expected to take place later this year. She has been the Congress President before from 1998 to 2017.


Her appointment, reports suggest, was sudden. The CWC met on August 10 to elect a new leader, or at least build consensus around it. Senior leaders held consultations with sub-committees and sought their opinion. Both Rahul and Sonia Gandhi had recused themselves from these meetings.

According to a report by The Print, former Union minister P Chidambaram was the first to suggest that Sonia Gandhi take interim charge of the party. This proposal was backed by multiple leaders, including Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, Ghulam Nabi Azad, Ambika Soni and Kumari Selja, the report adds.

Multiple challenges now await Sonia Gandhi. These include keeping the flock together, fighting the Assembly polls against a dominant Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), bringing the party’s ‘old guard’ and young leaders together and rebuilding the grassroots base, among others.

Mounting criticism

Her return to the helm of affairs has led to jibes from leaders of the rival Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Former Madhya Pradesh chief minister and BJP Vice President Shivraj Singh Chouhan said: "The Congress is not willing to learn. It is surprising that the CWC still wants Rahul Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi to lead the party."

Chouhan said the BJP has set an example as its leaders grow in the party naturally, while the Congress is unable to move beyond a family.

Assembly polls

Legislative Assembly elections are expected to be held in Maharashtra and Haryana in October. Jharkhand is also expected to head for state polls, possibly in November-December.

Congress performed disastrously in the general election these states. In Maharashtra, the BJP swept 41 out of the 48 seats. In Haryana, Congress failed to win any of the 10 seats. In Jharkhand, Congress and its ally Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) managed to win one each (out of 14).

In Maharashtra and Jharkhand, Congress is likely to fight in an alliance with the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and the JMM, respectively. Its strategy in Haryana remains unclear.

Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) is under President’s Rule. There has been no Legislative Assembly for over a year. Now, the state has been bifurcated into two Union Territories (UTs) -- J&K and Ladakh. While Ladakh will not have its own Legislature, J&K will have one.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in his address to the nation earlier this month, said the people of J&K will be able to elect their own representatives very soon.

Congress and Farooq Abdullah’s National Conference (NC) have been allies earlier. However, it is unclear if they will fight in an alliance again.

Keeping the flock together

The party is facing defections in most states. In many cases, local units of the party have seen complete desertion.

In Maharashtra, Congress’ Leader of Opposition Radhakrishna Vikhe Patil defected to the BJP in July.

Congress’ Rajya Sabha Members of Parliament (MPs) and leaders have quit recently. This includes Gautam Roy, Santiuse Kujur, Sanjay Sinh and Bhubaneshwar Kalita. Kalita was the party’s chief whip in the House.

Reports suggest that Congress’ face in Haryana and the state’s former chief minister Bhupinder Hooda could float a new party. The party is already in a disarray in the state. According to a report by news agency ANI, an announcement in this regard could be made at a rally on August 18.

In states such as Telangana and Goa, Congress’ Legislative Party merged with the Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) and the BJP, respectively.

In Karnataka, a number of Members of Legislative Assembly (MLAs) rebelled, resulting in the coalition government’s collapse.

Sonia Gandhi will have to devise a plan to stop this exodus.

Uniting ‘old guard’ and young leaders

Young Congress leaders such as Jyotiraditya Scindia, Milind Deora and Deepender Hooda came out in support of Centre’s recent decisions on J&K. The younger generation of leaders in the party feel that the high command is not able to read the public mood.

This was contrary to the stance taken by the party. “Whatever we may think about the government’s decision, but the people outside are all for this. We have to face the people in our constituencies,” ThePrint quoted a young Congress leader as saying.

This came at a time when former Union minister and one of Congress’ younger leaders, Milind Deora, proposed the names of Rajasthan Deputy Chief Minister Sachin Pilot and All India Congress Committee (AICC) General Secretary Scindia for the top job in Congress.

Explaining his proposal, Deora said in a tweet that the two leaders have the "administrative, organisational and electoral credentials" to take the chair. "They have pan-India appeal and either one can reinvigorate the party," he added.

Earlier, Punjab Chief Minister Capt. Amarinder Singh had urged the CWC to look for a charismatic "Gen Next" leader, who can "enthuse" people with his or her "pan-India appeal and grassroots presence".

The seemingly discontent Young Turks of the Congress party would have to be pacified.

Coordination with Opposition parties

The party was heavily criticised for not coordinating well with other Opposition parties in Parliament. As a result, critics say, the government was able to get a clear passage for crucial bills even in the Rajya Sabha, where the numbers are not in the BJP’s favour.

Describing the series of bills being passed without them being referred for scrutiny, Trinamool Congress Member of Parliament (MP) Derek O'Brien had said the process amounted to a "mockery of Parliament" and was the government's way of "smothering" the Opposition.

“Are we delivering pizzas or passing legislation?" he questioned.

Also read | 281 hours, historic bills and more: How a record-breaking Parliament session unfolded

Sonia Gandhi is also the Leader of the Congress Parliamentary Party. One of her top priorities would be to create coordination with Opposition leaders, both at the Centre and in states.

The party, founded in 1885, has seen steady evaporation of its grassroots base over the last five years it has been in the opposition. Its cadre base is non-existent in some parts of the country where it was very strong earlier. Steps would have to be taken in this direction to strength the grassroots base and energise the young cadre.

A leader from one of the poll-bound states told The Hindustan Times that party workers are now looking up to Sonia Gandhi to stitch a narrative ahead of the Assembly elections.

Another senior lawmaker of the party told the newspaper that Sonia Gandhi is expected to bring about organisational changes to the current structure of the AICC.

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First Published on Aug 13, 2019 02:18 pm
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