Rahul pitches young turks to the fore hoping for a turnaround

For the reluctant leader, as Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi was perceived to be, the election results in four state assemblies did prove to be a wake-up call. The mauling of the Congress in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Delhi and the failure to bounce back in Chhattisgarh appears to have forced Gandhi to abandon his long term plans to re-build the organisation and focus on the immediate challenge at hand – getting the party fighting fit for the Lok Sabha elections.

That he means business is evident from the earnestness he has shown in taking the challenges head-on and the ‘no-nonsense’ approach he has adopted to the twin issues of tackling corruption and curbing inflation which cost the Congress dearly in the recent elections. The message from the electorate was clear – welfare measures will not work if the Congress failed to address the basic issues of price rise and corruption. The rise of the Aam Aadmi Party also was a signal to the Congress that it had moved far away from the common man, whose concerns it once espoused.

He has realised it the hard way that promotion within the party does not mean a walkover in the elections. His initial attempts to connect to the masses or for that matter even his partymen appear to have come a cropper. Since his elevation as vice president in January last, Gandhi has tried to connect with his followers emotionally by constantly referring to the legacy of his family but refraining from spelling out his agenda for the party to help it retain power after the Lok Sabha elections.

The recent Assembly elections were a reality check and he appears to have set up on course correction first by owning up past lapses and secondly by bringing up new faces. The recent changes in the organisation have Rahul’s stamp. The 52-year-old Bhupesh Baghel was appointed president of the Chhattisgarh Congress succeeding Charan Das Mahant, who was thrust into the job after the assassination of the state leadership by Maoists in an ambush in May last year. Similarly, generational change was visible in Delhi where the Congress was relegated to the third position following a stunning show by Arvind Kejriwal-led Aam Aadmi Party. Young leader Arvinder Singh Lovely, 45, was named as the Delhi Congress chief. Names of Jyotiraditya Scindia (42), Sachin Pilot (36) and Ashok Tanwar (37) are doing the rounds in political circles to lead the state  units of the party in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Haryana respectively.

Generational shift

A large number of the old guard of the Congress, mostly at the level of AICC General Secretaries, have been given an option – either retain your post in the organisation or contest the upcoming Lok Sabha elections. A large number of such senior leaders, including C P Joshi, Shakeel Ahmed, B K Hariprasad, Digvijay Singh, Mukul Wasnik, Gurudas Kamat have indicated that they would contest the Lok Sabha elections and give up the party posts. This would give Gandhi the flexibilty to bring in his own set of leaders in the key posts of AICC general secretaries. Already names of leaders such as R C Khuntia and Jitender Singh are doing the rounds for these key assignments. Some AICC secretaries, who were handpicked by Gandhi in the previous reshuffle in June, are likely to be elevated. However, the Congress is not expected to entirely wish away its senior leaders, some of whom are likely to be retained for their rich experience in running the 128 year old organisation.

In the Union Council of Ministers, Jairam Ramesh, Milind Deora, Jyotiradiya Scindia, Sachin Pilot, Jitendra Singh are known to have Gandhi’s ear, while in the organisation Madhusudan Mistry, Ajay Maken, C P Joshi, Meenakshi Natarajan and bureaucrat-turned-politician K Raju are considered close to him. With these changes underway in the organisation, there is growing clamour among Congress leaders for declaring Gandhi as the prime ministerial candidate for the Lok Sabha election. The announcement may perhaps come at the AICC session in Delhi on January 17.

However, it is not just the Congress that is witnessing a generational shift. The BJP too  has embarked on the process with Modi’s elevation as the prime ministerial candidate in September. The announcement by the BJP meant it was curtains for party veteran and former deputy prime minister L K Advani. With Modi being projected as the BJP’s poll mascot, leaders such as Arun Jaitley, Rajnath Singh and Nitin Gadkari are known to be calling the shots in the party. Relegated to the background are senior leaders including Sushma Swaraj, Ram Lal, Balbir Punj, Murlidhar Rao, all considered close to Advani. However, it would be too early to write off these leaders as the tables may be turned on Modi if he fails to put up a good show, as is expected of him, in the elections.

Generational shift is also visible in other political parties such as the Akali Dal and Shiv Sena where Sukhbir Singh Badal and Uddhav Thackeray are strengthening their hold on their respective parties. The Lok Sabha elections provide them an opportunity to prove their mettle.

Also, a shift in leadership in seen in RJD and LJP, where Lalu Prasad and Ramvilas Paswan are seen pitching their sons Tej Pratap and Chirag respectively. Down south, it will be the first Lok Sabha election for YS Jaganmohan’s YSR Congress party which hopes to win big in Rayalseema and coastal Andhra regions, particularly on the united Andhra Pradesh plank.

The April-May Lok Sabha elections are not a test for Rahul Gandhi alone, but also for a host of others.

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