| Sonia Gandhi with Rahul at Shakti Sthal in Delhi to mark the 20th death anniversary of Indira Gandhi on Sunday. (PTI)
New Delhi, Oct. 31: The Congress old guard has bounced back with a vengeance, showing through the deft handling of the tussle over the Maharashtra chief minister's post that it has lost none of its manoeuvring skills in power politics.
Senior Union ministers Pranab Mukherjee, Arjun Singh and Ghulam Nabi Azad, who had been entrusted by Congress president Sonia Gandhi with the task of extracting the best bargain, tamed Nationalist Congress Party chief Sharad Pawar with their calculated approach to protracted negotiations over government formation.
Pawar kicked off negotiations with the Congress old guard from a position of strength but ended up losing at the talks table what his party had won on the election battlefront.
The NCP had claimed the right to the chief ministership as it had won more seats than its senior partner in the five-year-old alliance in Maharashtra. The party is yet to come to terms with what struck them on Friday ' after days of negotiations from October 17 ' as the Congress named as the next chief minister a staunch Pawar-baiter from its Maratha ranks, Vilasrao Deshmukh.
The Congress establishment leaders ' many of whom have had the better of the old guard in intra-party rivalry for some time since the formation of the United Progressive Alliance government in May ' were no less stunned with the accomplishment.
The veteran leaders, who have been out of power at the Centre for long, were beginning to get frustrated as they were also out of various positions of authority in the party establishment.
Their efforts to get in were resisted. An angry Arjun Singh had gone to the extent of publicly airing his frustrations in May 2003 when he alleged that a 'coterie' around Sonia was harming the Congress.
The Thakur veteran from Madhya Pradesh was widely seen at the time as targeting Ambika Soni, who subsequently preferred to stay with Sonia in the party than join the cabinet.
Throughout the negotiations on the formation of the Democratic Front government, senior AICC functionaries ' including several general secretaries ' appeared to have no idea in which direction the veterans were driving the bargain with the NCP.
'I really do not know what is happening,' remarked one senior general secretary who used to call the shots in the party not so long ago.
As the stalemate continued, a couple of them even criticised the party's handling of the talks.
None of the general secretaries, including Maharashtra in-charge Margaret Alva, ever believed that Sushil Kumar Shinde would be asked to make way for Deshmukh.
Sonia's AICC establishment was all along backing Shinde, partly because it had a role in ensuring his elevation to the top post last year by discarding Deshmukh.
Also, on paper, the Congress chief's political secretary Ahmed Patel was the party's designated negotiator. But it was not long before Sonia turned to Mukherjee, Singh and Azad to let them take charge of the talks.
The veterans' success has compounded a sense of insecurity that is fast becoming evident among the AICC establishment leaders.
They have started losing their clout over party matters as the old guard ' taking advantage of their direct access to Sonia on account of being senior ministers ' is emerging as her chief trouble-shooter.
With the taming of the NCP in Maharashtra, their shadow over the AICC establishment has lengthened further.
Sonia has already entrusted veterans like Mukherjee with the charge of party affairs in trouble-prone states like Punjab.