Had Sonia Gandhi been as strong as she was in 2004 or 2009, Pranab Mukherjee might not have emerged as the party’s presidential candidate

Former Union Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee’s discreet campaign that led to his eventual selection as the United Progressive Alliance (UPA)’s presidential candidate is being viewed in Congress circles, not just as a major achievement by a man who, on this occasion, deployed for himself the skills he had used for so many years in the service of the party, but also as a portent of things to come. One party functionary even described it as “the first challenge to Sonia Gandhi” in her 14-year long reign as Congress President.

If past practice has been to leave such choices to the party High Command, this time, too, the Congress Working Committee (CWC) empowered Ms Gandhi to select the next presidential nominee.

Private campaign

But, as events unspooled, it became clear that Mr. Mukherjee had left little to chance once he realised, shortly after the general elections of 2009, that his last opportunity to become Prime Minister had eluded him. In October 2010, he told India Today that this would be his last innings — he would not serve in another government.

Then, over the last year, he made his wish to become President known not only to the Congress bosses but also to all major non-Congress leaders with many of whom he had built personal equations over a four decade long political career.

So successful was this private campaign that, by the time the budget session of Parliament came around this year, a vast majority of non-Congress Members of Parliament in informal interactions were all echoing each other: if Mr. Mukherjee became the ruling party’s presidential nominee, he could even emerge as a consensus candidate. But each such conversation would end with a caveat: Ms Gandhi will not select him. The reasons ranged from his indispensability to the government to that old chestnut — she doesn’t trust him.

Electoral results

Within the Congress, the narrative followed a different track: Mr. Mukherjee “wanted” to be President and he “had to be elevated” either as President or failing that, as Prime Minister — a mere Deputy Prime Minister tag would no longer suffice. Dark tales of what would happen in case Mr. Mukherjee was not made the presidential nominee also abounded in intrigue-filled Congress circles. References to 1969 — the year Indira Gandhi’s candidate V.V. Giri defeated the party’s official nominee Neelam Sanjeeva Reddy in the presidential elections — were freely tossed around. Meanwhile, financial scandals and rising food prices took centre stage. The Congress’ popularity plummeted, reflected in poor electoral results. The party faithful began to voice their disenchantment — albeit behind closed doors — with the leadership. Cabinet ministers privately expressed their disappointment with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s stewardship of the government; in the party, the penny had dropped — neither Ms Gandhi, nor her heir apparent, Rahul Gandhi, had that magic wand that would secure the Congress’ future.

Little wonder, Mr. Mukherjee’s bid for the presidential nomination rapidly became identified in the minds of many Congressmen with their own struggle to secure positions and party tickets, even as newcomers and sycophants sailed past them snatching whatever the party had to offer.

This was a sentiment — though not openly expressed — that was not lost on Ms Gandhi and the party leadership. So when she began her hunt for a Presidential nominee, a CWC member told The Hindu, she met each member — even those who are Permanent Invitees to the CWC — twice, individually. In the first round, she sought names, he said; in the second, she put forward the names of Mr. Mukherjee and Vice-President Hamid Ansari. A few said they would leave it to her, but a majority expressed a preference for Mr. Mukherjee. A majority of the allies and supporting parties, too, had spoken in favour of Mr Mukherjee.

Rahul factor

By the time Ms Gandhi met Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee on June 13, Mr. Mukherjee already had an edge. Yet, Ms Gandhi chose to mention both names, Mr. Mukherjee and Mr. Ansari, to Ms Banerjee. Evidently, Ms Gandhi wanted, even at this stage, to include Mr. Ansari’s name in the discussions.

The rest is history.

What does this episode mean for Ms Gandhi and, equally importantly, for Rahul Gandhi?

Congress old-timers say that had Ms Gandhi been as strong today as she was in 2004 or, indeed, 2009, Mr. Mukherjee may not have emerged as the presidential candidate. If Congressmen at large had believed that the mother-son duo would see the party return to power in 2014, they stress, the pressure — subtle as it was — in favour of Mr. Mukherjee could not have been exerted so successfully.

Indeed, if the Congress acquired a certain stability after Ms Gandhi took over the reins of the party in 1998, even growing steadily, reacquiring some of the political space it had lost, returning to power in 2004 after eight years in the opposition, securing a renewed and enlarged mandate in 2009, all that now lies in smithereens today. As one Congress functionary put it baldly, “We are at our lowest ebb today.” In recent Assembly elections, the party failed to retain Goa, or wrest Punjab from the Akalis; its showing in Uttar Pradesh was pathetic: only in Uttarakhand, it squeaked through. In local polls since in Delhi, Mumbai, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, the picture continues to be dismal. And the Congress’ showpiece state, Andhra Pradesh, lies in ruins, with the party having to contend both with the continuing agitation in Telangana and the rising popularity of YSR Congress chief Jaganmohan Reddy in the Andhra region.

An internal survey conducted by the party a few months ago indicated that if a general election were to be called right now, the party would not even touch 100 seats. The only comfort the party could draw from the survey was that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was just a few seats ahead.

Of course, the Congress has one ace up its sleeve: unlike the BJP, it has a settled leadership. Rahul Gandhi will succeed his mother. But now, even that seems in question, especially after Union Law Minister Salman Khurshid’s controversial remark that the party is “waiting” for Mr. Gandhi to abandon the “cameo role” he is playing, for that of the hero to give the party a new direction, a new ideology. The comment may have earned the Law Minister the wrath of party seniors, but the fact is Mr. Khurshid was only articulating what many Congressmen — including those belonging to the younger generation — have been saying privately, that there is a desperate need for the party to reinvent itself and Mr. Gandhi, as its chosen leader, must provide that leadership.

The time for testing the water is over, they say. Mr. Gandhi must take the plunge soon. Time is running out for him — and, perhaps, for the Congress in its current shape.

smita.g@thehindu.co.in

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