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Retirement deadline that set the stage

New Delhi, Jan. 19: The script for a “bigger role” for Rahul Gandhi, who was made Congress vice-president today, was written on December 9 last year when Sonia Gandhi turned 66.

The party president told senior All India Congress Committee officials that she planned to retire from active politics at 70. Stunned by the announcement — after all, hardly anyone in India ever retires from politics — the nervous party leaders requested her to let Rahul “take charge”.

Hectic efforts to persuade the 42-year-old son began. Sources said Rahul was initially reluctant but Manmohan Singh, A.K. Antony, P. Chidambaram, Ahmed Patel, Digvijaya Singh and several others kept up the pressure on him.

It was then decided that a formal announcement would be made at the Jaipur conclave.

This is not the first time, however, that two Nehru-Gandhis would be holding high posts simultaneously. In 1959, Indira Gandhi became Congress president, much to the surprise of most people in the party, at a time her father was Prime Minister.

Jawaharlal Nehru’s critics bristled at the move but a large section in the Congress felt that the daughter had earned her position through merit.

Indira deftly tackled a crisis in Kerala and recommended the creation of Maharashtra and Gujarat states to end linguistic strife. When her term ended in 1960, the Congress Working Committee requested her to stand for re-election but she refused.

During Indira’s prime ministership, her younger son Sanjay Gandhi called the shots in the party for several years in the 1970s but did not opt for a formal post. His brother Rajiv, however, became a general secretary in 1983, two years after joining politics.

Cabinet ministers would queue up outside Rajiv’s office, located next to Indira’s chamber at 24 Akbar Road.

However, from 2006 till now, there has been a clear demarcation between the roles and domains of Sonia and Rahul. Ministers, other than those belonging to Team Rahul, have not been encouraged to call on him. As Congress general secretary, Rahul largely confined himself to the affairs of the Youth Congress and student wing NSUI.

When the UPA returned to power in 2009, Manmohan Singh requested Rahul to join the cabinet but he declined. The trend continued till 2012, by when most Congress leaders had run out of patience. The dominant feeling was that Rahul’s reluctance to be an effective power centre was hurting both party and government.

But Sonia’s retirement deadline rattled party leaders. If she actually goes ahead and retires, it will be another first after her 2004 renunciation of the Prime Minister’s post.

Amid the jubilation at Rahul’s anointment, many in the Congress are feeling nervous. The anxiety stems from their experience of major changes each time a leadership transition takes place.

When Rajiv replaced Sanjay, many close Sanjay associates discovered they were “misfits” in the elder brother’s team. Ram Chandra Rath, the powerful Youth Congress chief, found his influence waning quickly.

After Rajiv’s assassination, many of his aides such as M.L. Fotedar were evicted by successor P.V. Narasimha Rao.

Sitaram Kesri’s rule saw the swift exit of Janardhana Poojary, Bhuvnesh Chaturvedi and others. When Sonia took over, many leaders claiming proximity to Rajiv, Rao or Kesri lost out. It remains to be seen how some key Sonia advisers fare under Rahul.

Congress leaders believe that the real impact of Rahul’s elevation will be felt through his policies, planning and style of functioning.

Sonia is seen as too tolerant a person who avoids enforcing discipline but has a knack for winning over adversaries and reaching out to alliance leaders. She also leans left of centre on most policy matters.

Rahul is seen as a leader more in the Rajiv-Sanjay mould — frank and decisive. His thrust on reforms, urban voters, technology, the youth and gender sensitivity may force many party leaders and regional satraps to shape up or ship out.

Last heard, many in the Congress were planning to shift to the BlackBerry and open Twitter and Facebook accounts.