New Delhi: Sonia Gandhi became president of the Congress party for a fourth consecutive term on Friday at a time when differences between the ruling party and the government seem to be widening over a range of issues.
However, analysts said the public airing of such differences could also be part of a strategy to blunt opposition criticism and prepare the ground to install Rahul Gandhi as the next party leader.
Gandhi, the longest-serving chief of the 125-year-old party, was declared as having been elected unopposed by the general secretary of the party Oscar Fernandes, kicking off a revamp in the organization, which is expected to be completed before its plenary session, likely to be held in December.
The 63-year-old Gandhi, an Italian by birth, has been unanimously elected as the Congress president since 1988, barring once when Jitendra Prasada, a senior leader from Uttar Pradesh, had unsuccessfully contested against her in 2000.
A three-time Lok Sabha member from Rae Bareli, the constituency in Uttar Pradesh with which the Nehru-Gandhi family had been associated with for long, Gandhi greeted party workers at the party headquarters where she was handed the declaration of her victory.
“It’s a big responsibility,” she said amid slogan-shouting. “I should always work for the oppressed, whether in power or not.”
Gandhi’s fourth term begins amid severe criticism against the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government over its failure to contain inflation, the absence of proper coordination among ministers, and between the party and the government.
“This time her presidential post looks different because the government led by her party is no longer viewed in the same way as it used to be by the Congress itself,” said N. Bhaskar Rao, psephologist and chairman of Centre for Media Studies (CMS). “Congress leaders are viewing the NAC (Sonia Gandhi-led National Advisory Council, the political interface between the party and the government) as an institution above the government.”
At least three Congress leaders say Gandhi has been upset with the Manmohan Singh-led government over its reluctance to seek a comprehensive legislation on food security, its handling of the Women’s Reservation Bill to set aside 33% of seats in Parliament and legislative assemblies for women, and the approach to the Maoist rebellion.
NAC, which was reconstituted in March, has been scrutinizing and suggesting drastic changes in the National Food Security Act and the Communal Violence Bill.
The ruling party credits Gandhi for the pro-poor welfare measures taken by the UPA in its first term such as the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, which ensures 100 days of labour for rural families, the Right to Information Act and the Rs.65,318 crore farm loan waiver, the largest single-shot income transfer in the history of India.
Congress leaders have aired their differences over several issues, including the handling of the Maoist insurgency; so-called saffron terror—a term home minister P. Chidambaram used in the recent past to describe the involvement of some Hindu extremist groups in terrorist activities; and the education tribunal Bill.
Gandhi had asked the government to address the root cause of?the?insurgency,?saying: “The rise of Naxalism is a reflection of the need for our development initiatives to reach the grass roots, especially in our backward tribal districts.”
Admitting that there has been “huge” disappointment among a large section of Congress members of Parliament over the functioning of the government, a senior party leader said on condition of anonymity: “The party leaders are aware of the fact that the social legislation and political management in this government have been handled by Mrs Gandhi only.”
Vidhu Verma, a professor of political science at Jawaharlal Nehru University, said that Gandhi had “always been tilted towards the Left, keeping focus on a socialist agenda while the Prime Minister was for neo-liberal policies. There are bound to be differences between the two and it is healthy”.
The main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party’s Rajiv Pratap Rudy said the differences create an impression that “the party is following an ideological footprint and leaving whatever erred to the government”, calling it a “ploy” the Congress has mastered. “This is also to keep Rahul Gandhi safe in the party, where democracy exists only in the family,” Rudy said.
CMS’ Rao agreed. “It’s a clever strategy to lend voices inside the party rather than allowing outsiders to criticize. Sonia Gandhi seems to have understood this better than anybody,” he said. “The increasing voices of difference are also a way to clear the road for Rahul Gandhi (believed to be a future prime ministerial candidate). Rahul Gandhi is seen around more than in the past.”
The Congress leader cited above added: “Whether Rahul Gandhi will take over the reins of the party and the government is a different matter. But there is a growing feeling among party leaders that there should be changes; earlier it was just a whisper campaign. The government should do things that receive accolades from the people of this country.”