The Congress has taken a step backward in the hope that the electorally and psychologically battered party will move two steps forward in the near future. In one way, the choice of Sonia Gandhi as the interim president is a return to status quo in the party's functioning after two years of experimentation by Rahul Gandhi. She has the full authority to work out the time schedule for electing the full-time president. In a party which is used to conducting organisational elections after long intervals, Sonia is likely to wait for assembly elections of this autumn or even the Delhi assembly elections in the first half of next year.
Mullapalli Ramachandran, who was the last returning officer, knows how schedules get changed for different reasons. He had conducted the elections from the state to the central level, culminating in election of Rahul Gandhi. Since the voters are already in place, the new returning officer has only to announce the election schedule for electing the new president.
But Sonia's style does not encourage a strong contest between many or even two candidates, bitterly opposing each other in an open fight. Her style during the long stewardship of the Congress earlier has been to allow time and mediation to arrive at a consensus. Even when the choice is left to her as Congress president, she had rarely hurried her decision on choice of state unit presidents. Her inner circle of advisers or leaders -- whose surname or given names start with the English letter A - like A K Antony, Ahmed Patel, Ambika Soni and Ghulam Nabi Azad - are also a cautious lot, preferring consensus to contest. Both her children will advise her and they will have a veto power.
The senior leaders have preferred the safety net of Sonia even though it means facing stinging criticism of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the entire BJP about dynastic control of the Congress party. The spate of defections in states like Maharashtra, Karnataka and Gujarat has emboldened the senior leaders to argue that only a member of the Nehru-Gandhi family can hold the remaining faithful together. But the question of persuading the voters to again get interested in the Congress at the national level is not high priority. At the state level, there are reservations whether the old guard in Maharashtra, Jharkhand and Haryana can invoke the anti-incumbency against the BJP governments as the party has been badly hit by both the crushing defeat in the Lok Sabha elections and the consequential disarray in the local units.
Sonia has to address the need for projecting good leadership, choosing winnable candidates and also deal with coalition partners like the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) in Maharashtra and Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) in Jharkand. Sonia also has to decide whether she should go for appointing PCC presidents in states where incumbents have offered to resign, accepting moral responsibility for Lok Sabha defeat.
Sonia who brought back the pro-poor and civic society agenda of the Congress after taking over in 1998 now has to give a signal on what kind of ideology the Congress should adopt to face the aggressive challenge posed by the BJP under Narendra Modi and party chief Amit Shah. A big question which Sonia alone can answer is whether she can steer the party to adopt a new work culture.