Sonia’s illness elevates Rahul as co-leader of Congress

Sonia’s illness elevates Rahul as co-leader of Congress

New Delhi: An illness of undisclosed nature to Congress president Sonia Gandhi has led to a shuffle in the party’s leadership, elevating her son and general secretary Rahul Gandhi for the first time as a co-leader of the country’s oldest political party.

Not only does this clearly delineate the political line of succession, say analysts, it also has the potential to fast-track Rahul Gandhi’s political career. In Sonia Gandhi’s absence, her son, along with her political secretary Ahmed Patel, defence minister A.K. Antony and party veteran Janardhan Dwivedi, all of whom are family loyalists, will be in charge of the Congress party.

In the Congress, the writ of the party president is supreme, although the person holding the post draws on the advice of the Congress working committee. The interim changes are unlikely to effect any change in the current arrangement, wherein Prime Minister Manmohan Singh wields executive power, while political leadership rests with Sonia Gandhi.

The interim leadership may face its first challenge on Friday, when the Comptroller and Auditor General of India will release its findings on the conduct of the Commonwealth Games; it is expected to indict Delhi chief minister Sheila Dikshit. The group will have to evolve a political response, especially since the opposition is already demanding the chief minister’s resignation.

According to Dwivedi, also the Congress party’s spokesperson, Gandhi, 64, is undergoing a surgery in the US “in the coming two or three days".

“On the advice of her doctors, she travelled abroad and she is likely to be away for two to three weeks," he said.

Both Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi have been absent from the crucial monsoon session of Parliament that began on 1 August. Her absence comes at a time when the Congress-led government has been facing political fire following allegations of corruption and economic mismanagement.

Analysts see a clear succession plan in the changes, even if they end up being temporary ones.

“The signal is clear. There is pressure on the party for a change. The present leadership (of the government) is not able to manage things, and the crisis is too complex and the malaise, deep. It cannot be addressed by one person only. So it’s a confidence-building measure too," said N. Bhaskara Rao, chairman of Centre for Media Studies, a Delhi-based think tank.

The party as well as Singh have been under attack from the critics for failure to act against corruption in the government and inability to contain inflation.

Rao added that the omissions in the new leadership made for more interesting inferences, and pointed to the absence of senior leaders such as Pranab Mukherjee and Motilal Vora. He added that Gandhi’s choices indicated that she did not want “anyone who can be a challenge" to Rahul Gandhi for the post of prime minister. Rahul, who is being considered to be the Congress’ future prime ministerial candidate, has been in charge of the party’s student and youth wings and has been struggling to rebuild the organizations in the states where the party has been almost wiped out.

Sonia Gandhi has been the public face of the Congress since she took over as its president in 1998 and was credited for its unexpected victory and return to power in 2004. Gandhi, an elected member of the Lok Sabha from the Nehru-Gandhi family’s pocketborough Rae Bareli in Uttar Pradesh, also played a crucial role in the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance’s (UPA) return to power in the 2009 general election.

Sonia Gandhi, the Italian-born widow of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, is seen as India’s most powerful politician and the brain behind the creation of the UPA, and the force that keeps the alliance together. As the head of the national advisory council, the political interface between the Congress and the government, she is considered to be the main architect of several trend-setting legislation, including the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme and the proposed Bills on food security and land acquisition.