This time it seems Rahul Gandhi is on board an expedition for experience, which is evident from the course of action he undertook while picking up the Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh. Senior leader Kamal Nath became his first preference over Jyotiraditya Scindia.
Since the advent of Rahul Gandhi on the political scene, the tussle between Congress’ ‘old guard’ and ‘young turks’ has gathered pace.
The seniors were mostly the ones who had started their political careers under Sanjay and Rajiv Gandhi, and then stayed loyal to Sonia Gandhi, as she revived the party. Sonia, who was the Congress president at the time, worked closely with them and depended on them for advice. The younger leaders who entered Parliament in 2004 or 2009 were mostly of Rahul Gandhi’s age group, and shared interests with him, worked on political projects and recognised that as they grew in the party, he would be their leader.
It was in this climate that Rahul Gandhi eventually took control of the party as vice-president in 2013 and then eventually as president in 2017. The old guard was sceptical and feared it would be sidelined. But one of the things that Gandhi promised he would do was combine experience and youth. He would capitalise on the talent and energy of both at a time when his party was at its lowest. And he would be a bridge.
A key test of this balancing act for Gandhi was in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. Pilot had worked hard, spent time on the ground for four years, was popular with the youth, believed the ongoing Congress revival was primarily due to his efforts, and wanted to act as autonomously as possible. Gehlot, as a former two-term CM, saw himself as the natural leader of the party in the state despite a loss in 2013. He retained active interest in state politics, had loyal followers and connections in each constituency and had higher recall value. Both wanted to be CMs.
In MP, the problem was more complicated as there had been intense factionalism for over a decade. Kamal Nath, who had largely been in national politics, despite being an MP, wanted to return. He was resourceful. The organisation needed him. And former CM Digvijaya Singh backed him. But Jyotiraditya Scindia was the most popular face of the party. He was strong not only in the Gwalior-Chambal region, but had a pan-state connect with the young in particular. He was an indispensable campaigner. Both had ambitions of leading the state.
Gandhi told all of them that the party only had one priority — defeating the BJP. And he divided responsibilities with the brief to win the election. Pilot, Gehlot, Nath and Scindia recognised that the party was confronting its deepest crisis in modern times. Gandhi was right. They had to win first.
Congress circles offer the following explanation in Rajasthan. The party has a fragile majority. It needs to work with allies and independents. There is a Lok Sabha election to be won with 25 seats up for grabs. If he is picked, Gehlot can hit the ground running and get a grip on the administration quickly given past familiarity with the ways of the Rajasthan bureaucracy. Yes, Pilot worked hard; appointing Pilot would have sent a message that the party was ready to empower the young. But Pilot, in his early 40s, can wait for many opportunities that will emerge. The time seems right to let the old warhorse, Gehlot, consolidate the party’s achievement for that overarching objective of defeating the BJP in 2019.
In MP, Nath – well-connected in business circles — was seen as having provided resources to a weak and cash-strapped organization. The party had been out of power here for 15 years. At 72, and somewhat frail, this is also one of Nath’s last opportunities in what has been a successful political career. The appointment is both a recognition of his contribution to the campaign as well as a signal to corporate India. Yes, Scindia is more popular; appointing Scindia could well create a ‘hawa’ among the youth in particular; Scindia has delivered a phenomenal win in his bastion of Gwalior-Chambal. But Gandhi seems to have calculated that Scindia, one of his closest political associates and the man who sits next to him in the Lok Sabha, can be used more effectively for the 2019 elections and rewarded at an opportune time. He’d be a part of Gandhi’s team for decades.
The appointment of Nath and likely selection of Gehlot reveals a ruthlessly pragmatic streak in Gandhi. But this tilt is only temporary. The story in the Congress remains one of generational change. The story of the future is the story of Pilot and Scindia and the wider cohort of younger leaders in their 40s, working under Rahul Gandhi, leading their states, ministries, and the party in different forms over the next few decades.