New Delhi, July 26: The Congress is in the grip of a divide over the future role of Rahul Gandhi.
A powerful section in the party is seeking to block Rahul’s entry into the UPA government while another has approached Sonia Gandhi with an appeal that his “ascendance” should not be arrested.
UPA sources told The Telegraph that some “very powerful leaders” had tried to convince Sonia Gandhi about Rahul’s “unsuitability” for assuming responsibilities in Parliament and the government. This group suggested that he be made to work for the party a little longer.
The leaders told Sonia that “Rahul was shy” and “a tentative politician” who would not be able to manage the intricacies of, or the guile demanded by, power politics yet.
The campaign gained momentum as soon as Rahul indicated his readiness to accept a larger role, both in the government and the party, as decided by “his two bosses” — his mother Sonia Gandhi and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The Telegraph had reported two days before Rahul’s statement that efforts were on to induct him into the government soon.
The sources said a section of the Congress got alarmed by Rahul’s bold statement and activated different channels to dissuade Sonia from running the risk of allowing him to take the plunge.
But a rebellion of sorts developed against this section. Some leaders came together to counter the argument that Rahul was incapable of handling a role in the government.
They mustered the courage to formally write to Sonia yesterday with a specific demand to make Rahul the leader of the Lok Sabha, a post vacated by Pranab Mukherjee. Although a senior leader conceded that this group’s initiative was a whimper of protest against “a very powerful lobby”, the letter did create ripples in the party.
The letter from 10 MPs came after continued sniping by some leaders despite a formal statement by the Congress chief spokesperson confirming the plan to accord a bigger role to Rahul, including a cabinet berth.
The whispers were so ill-concealed that a senior UPA leader, not from the Congress, said: “Let’s see how Rahul can become a minister. We are convinced 200 per cent he can’t. Congress leaders don’t want that to happen.”
The MPs’ letter to Sonia seeks to counter the perception that Rahul is not ready for a bigger role.
Kalahandi MP Bhakta Charan Das, who is said to have drafted the letter, said: “What we have written is the sentiment of 90 per cent of Congress workers. The youth, Dalits, tribals and the poor want a leader who will work for their interests. Only Rahul has the stature to ensure that; if he speaks, the message will percolate down to the grassroots.”
Asked if this sounded like a demand to make him the Prime Minister, Das said: “We are only asking Soniaji to make him the leader of the House. Cabinet minister is a small post for him. He is a leader of the Congress. If we have to save the Congress, Rahul has to lead us. And if you want to make the future, why not from today? Why delay it?”
Asked what prompted them to write to Sonia and whether there was a plot to block him, he said: “You have to convey your feelings to the leader. This is not a campaign. This is an internal matter of the party.”
The MPs who signed the letter are not known to be part of any clique. Apart from Das, the MPs are Partap Singh Bajwa, Sanjay Nirupam, P.C. Chacko, Francisco Sardinha, Arvind Sharma, Madan Lal Sharma, Jayaprakash Hegde, Ratan Lal and Ninong Ering.
A measure of the clout of those perceived to be keen on blocking Rahul was available in the reluctance of some MPs to speak — a rare occurrence in the Congress when it comes to praising the Nehru-Gandhi family. While some MPs didn’t answer calls, two refused to speak on record.
An MP said “there were instructions from the top” not to speak on the issue in public. They would not reply to questions if the directive came from the leaders who want Rahul to spend more time in the party.
Another MP, however, said: “Initially, there was fear that not many leaders would come forward to sign the letter. But we managed 10. We are now sure more MPs will write. We are working on it.”
This group contested the understanding that only a minister can be made the leader of the House. “That is the tradition; we can change it as everybody knows Rahul can speak for the government without being a minister,” one of them said.
Another Congress MP, Raj Babbar, said: “The party will be greatly benefited if Rahul is made the leader of the House instead of just a minister. We will not be doing any favour to Rahul but will be giving the Indian youth their voice in Parliament. Other parties have gained from bringing young leaders to the forefront; with Akhilesh Yadav and Omar Abdullah being recent examples. There is no point restraining Rahul at this crucial stage.”
The sense of urgency stems from the possibility that the leader of the House could be announced before Parliament convenes on August 8 whereas a ministerial shuffle may happen sometime in September. “If Rahul can be made a minister rightaway, we don’t have any problem,” the MP said.
This does not mean that the group is against Rahul playing a key role in the party. Rahul’s supporters contested the perception that he had withdrawn from active party work after the Uttar Pradesh poll debacle.
They pointed out that the screening committees formed to shortlist candidates for the Assembly elections in Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh and Tripura carried Rahul’s imprint.
The three committees have at least one Rahul confidant each, a strategic shift from the veteran-dominated approach adopted so far. While the committee for Gujarat has R.P.N. Singh, those for Tripura and Himachal include Jitin Prasada and Jitendra Singh.
The choice of chairpersons is loaded with a significant political message. While the Himachal committee is headed by Delhi chief minister Sheila Dikshit, the Tripura panel is headed by Assam chief minister Tarun Gogoi. Both Dikshit and Gogoi have successfully led the party in several elections.
The Gujarat committee is headed by C.P. Joshi, a Rahul loyalist, a four-term MLA and now an MP who was deeply involved in the Rajasthan elections in the past decade.