As Sonia Gandhi completes three months as the Interim Congress President on Sunday (Nov 10), there are visible changes in the style and substance of the party's functioning. Though there have been more desertions, especially of Rajya Sabha members and two PCC presidents in the last three months, the shock of the disastrous Lok Sabha result and the impact of Rahul Gandhi's resignation as Congress president are wearing off.
The tensions between the old guard and the impatient younger generation which convulsed several state units are also easing as the old guard is back in control. Younger leaders like Sachin Pilot in Rajasthan and Jyotiraditya Scindia in Madhya Pradesh have scaled down their differences with chief ministers Ashok Gehlot and Kamal Nath, respectively, at least in public. Another young gun Milind Deora, who had quit as the president of the Mumbai Regional Congress Committee and had been impatient for takeover by the new generation at all levels has said there is merit in continuing with the experienced leaders.
Sonia, who was the longest serving Congress president before she gave up the post in favour of her son Rahul in December 2017, has turned to her trusted advisers to address both institutional and organisational issues. Without disturbing the team created by Rahul at the AICC she is depending more on her core advisers like AK Antony, Manmohan Singh, Ahmed Patel, Ambika Soni and Ghulam Nabi Azad, who had taken a step backward to allow Team Rahul to have its full sway. She also brought back the old faithfuls Bhupinder Singh Hooda and Selja in Haryana ahead of the assembly elections there. Even though NCP president Sharad Pawar wanted Sonia to campaign extensively in Maharashtra, she sent a message that Rahul is still the chief campaigner for Congress.
Interestingly, the party now describes her as the president, dropping the prefix 'Interim'. It is a signal both of her acceptance in the party and among UPA allies and also the party does not want to look beyond the Gandhi family for leadership. A senior Congress Working Committee member who headed one of the five committees which searched for an interim successor to Rahul in July and August said none of the suggested leaders got more than 10 per cent of support among AICC members. The leader said the 70-day crisis brought by Rahul's resignation also helped the party to determine the acceptance levels of various leaders. But some of the younger aspirants have felt inner democracy which Rahul had been championing should have meant an open contest. But senior leaders point out that such elections are even more pitiless, like it happened to challengers of Sonia Gandhi earlier.
The other area where Sonia has turned her attention is to challenge Narendra Modi on economic issues. The party's campaign was affected initially as its main strategist on economic issues P Chidambaram was arrested by the CBI and is in jail. While former PM Manmohan Singh has been critical of the economic policies of Modi, Sonia has depended on Jairam Ramesh to draw up the agitational plans. Ramesh, who gave the 2004 election slogan "Aam aadmi ko kya mila" against Vajpayee government favours a return to the left-of-centre ideological position to take on the rightist policies of Modi. It is a position which also takes care of the concerns voiced by Rahul in the last decade. Ramesh persuaded Sonia to lead the campaign by strongly attacking the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) pact under negotiations with China, Japan, Korea, ASEAN, Australia and New Zealand. The BJP pounced quickly to say the trade agreement talks were initiated by UPA through Manmohan Singh and his Commerce Minister Anand Sharma.
After three months, Priyanka has confined herself to getting briefed on major issues and attacking the BJP governments at Centre and in Uttar Pradesh. She did not campaign in Maharashtra and Haryana. But new Jharkhand PCC president Rameshwar Oaron wants both Rahul and Priyanka to campaign to grab anti-incumbency votes.