Earlier in the week, Congress president Sonia Gandhi, who completed 17 years in office on 14 March, led 14 opposition parties to the President in a step seen to be directed against the government’s stand on the Land Acquisition Bill. The exercise was not as much to express her dissatisfaction over the bill, but more to place her own party as the spearhead of an opposition unity in future. Although the AIADMK, Bahujan Samaj Party and the Biju Janata Dal did not join the march from Parliament House to the Rashtrapati Bhawan, it was clear that the others, who participated in the event, had no qualms about accepting Sonia Gandhi as the leader on this issue, to begin with. It was a political masterstroke of sorts, since the Congress, which was reduced to a mere 44 seats in the last Parliamentary polls, is desperately trying to reclaim its position on the political centre stage.

The Congress is undergoing a big internal crisis, with its vice president Rahul Gandhi missing from action during the budget session. There have also been reports that some Chief Ministers have been in a defiant mood and are not exactly following the wishes of the high command in totality. There is a section within the party that wants Rahul to replace Sonia Gandhi as the chief, while the Congress president’s coterie is firmly and deeply entrenched and in no mood to give in to such a demand easily. The government does not seem to be in any mood to allow the Congress any breathing space either and is determined to pursue various scams and scandals that came up during the ten-year rule of the UPA at the Centre.

Sonia Gandhi had, in July 2003, at the Congress Conclave in Simla, given a call to all secular parties to join her in defeating the communal forces led by the BJP. She had stated that she was willing to lead them if they were willing to support her. This call led to the formation of the UPA, where several parties joined the Congress in a loose coalition and challenged the might of the NDA government, led at that time by Atal Behari Vajpayee. The rest is history as the Congress and its allies were able to dislodge the NDA, which went in for early polls and wrest control of the government. In the Lok Sabha polls of 2004, the Congress emerged as the single largest party with 145 seats, pushing the BJP to the second place. The BJP’s tally came down from 182 seats it secured in 1999 to a mere 138 seats in 2004.

However, Sonia Gandhi achieved all this because she had some shrewd political minds like Pranab Mukherjee, Makhan Lal Fotedar and the late Arjun Singh assisting her. They understood the ground realities very well and thus used their political experience and acumen to outwit the NDA. The trio and some others knew exactly how things would unfold and navigated the Congress party’s strategy and planning successfully. Thereafter, once the Congress came to power with its alliance partners, the Congress president’s reliance on the three trusted lieutenants decreased and instead she relied heavily on her coterie, which, by this time, became extremely powerful.

Sonia Gandhi is aware of the limitations she has as a leader who has presided over the decline and fall of her party in the last Parliamentary polls. She, however, is determined to see her son Rahul elevated to the top post during her lifetime. She realises that the general perception about Rahul was not very complimentary and by and large people and political circles had a dim view regarding his abilities as a leader. The contribution of her own coterie in strengthening certain perceptions about Rahul has also been enormous and if those close to her have their way, Rahul would never be anointed as the party chief.She is astute enough to realise that when her own party leaders were reluctant to accept him as their leader, how could the allies accept him. Therefore, she has chosen the strategy of first making the allies accept Congress as the leader of any future coalition on specific issues to corner the NDA government. She knows that the party has the credentials with a maximum number of MPs and no one can challenge this. Once the Congress consolidates its position as the leader of the opposition unity, her next step would be to get Rahul Gandhi to succeed her as the president of the grand old party. Thus, when Rahul takes over as the Congress chief, he would automatically be elevated to the position of the leader of the opposition coalition by virtue of being the head of the largest party. The unthinkable would have been achieved.

The Congress president has, for the time being, delayed the holding of the AICC session principally because she wants to first put her party as the spearhead. Rahul’s way would be clear after that. Between us.