Following the humiliating defeat suffered by the Congress in yet another round of Assembly elections, interim chief Sonia Gandhi appears to be taking a more active role in running of the party. Apart from leading placatory overtures to the dissident G23 group, she has spoken in Parliament thrice since March 10.
To put this in context, since 2019, when the BJP returned to power, Gandhi has spoken in Parliament all of four times – of which three have been in the past fortnight.
On March 16, she urged the government to “put an end to the systematic interference of Facebook and other social media giants in the electoral politics of the world’s largest democracy”. On March 23, she asked the government to resume midday meals, discontinued during the Covid-19 pandemic, in schools. And on Thursday, she attacked the government over budgetary cuts in allocation for MNREGA, which she said was weakening the legal guarantee of timely payment and jobs.
Even during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first term, Gandhi’s participation in the Lok Sabha had been minimal. In the five years between 2014 and 2019, she was part of just six debates — one of which was a special discussion to commemorate the 75th Anniversary of the Quit India Movement and another on the Commitment to India’s Constitution as part of the 125th birth anniversary celebrations of B R Ambedkar.
Recently, Gandhi also held a meeting with top party leaders of Himachal Pradesh, which goes to polls at the end of the year.
Gandhi has now held the interim Congress president post since August 2019, amidst the failure of the party to choose a chief and de facto leader Rahul Gandhi’s failure to make up his mind. At the CWC meeting held after the recent Assembly results, which saw fresh hand wringing in the party over the lack of leadership in the party, Gandhi told the CWC that she and her children were ready to step aside. The CWC dutifully rejected the same.
Even as the Congress continues in this state of limbo, regional leaders have been flexing their muscles, with some openly calling the anti-BJP Opposition to be led by parties besides the Congress. It is against this backdrop that Gandhi appears to have stepped back into the limelight.
Incidentally, the Congress has not called a meeting of Opposition leaders for floor coordination in Parliament during the second leg of the Budget Session, which is coming to an end next week.
Among the Congress allies who appear to be losing patience with the party is the DMK, now one of its closest – and also biggest – partners. While the Karunanidhi family and the Gandhis share a special bond, that did not stop Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M K Stalin from saying recently that the Congress must develop a “principled friendship” with parties at the all-India level, like the one it has with the DMK in Tamil Nadu, to take on the BJP.
Stalin also asked all parties to come together to “save India”, thus joining other regional leaders in exhorting the same.
West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee recently wrote to her non-BJP counterparts and other Opposition leaders urging them to come together and unite to fight the BJP. Two days later, CPM leader Sitaram Yechury, also considered a Congress friend, called Stalin the most acceptable among CMs of non-BJP-ruled states, and urged him to convene a meeting of his counterparts to discuss federalism, social justice and steps to protect the people of India.
One reason for Yechury’s plea would have been preempting bete noire Banerjee taking the lead in putting together a non-BJP front. However, it was crucial that the CPM leader made no mention of the Congress taking the lead in organising such a conclave.
The Shiv Sena, which is part of the Maharashtra government with the Congress, has also called for a rejig of the UPA and suggested that the alliance have a new leader. An editorial in party mouthpiece Saamna suggested that NCP chief Sharad Pawar, Shiv Sena chief and Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray, Stalin, Banerjee, Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal, and TRS leader and Telangana CM K Chandrashekar Rao were all capable of bringing the Opposition together.
Before that, the NCP’s youth wing, in the presence of Pawar, passed a resolution recommending his name for the post of UPA chairperson. Gandhi is currently the UPA chairperson.
However, Gandhi still retains her stature. Perhaps mindful of this, no calls for Opposition unity were made at the inauguration of the DMK office in New Delhi on Saturday, attended by several leaders from other parties, including Gandhi.