time to step up, son

Jaipur, Jan. 19: The Congress today took a decisive stride to elevate Rahul Gandhi as vice-president of the party, wiping the film of uncertainty that came to envelop one of the most certain political transitions in the world.

A.K. Antony, one of the leaders trusted most by Sonia Gandhi, proposed Rahul's name for vice-president in Jaipur, where the party is holding its Chintan Shivir. The proposal was accepted by the Congress Working Committee (CWC) and is expected to be ratified by the apex party council, the All India Congress Committee, tomorrow.

The elevation stops just one step short of declaring under whom the Congress will fight the general election that should be due in 2014 in normal course.

An element of doubt had crept in because of Rahul's reluctance to speak up when crisis after crisis appeared to engulf the party and the government.

A section of Congress leaders have been saying that the 42-year-old scion was sticking to the family tradition of working under the radar and deferring to veterans till formally taking over. But the demands of instant communication technology and the explosion of social media had made him appear the reluctant heir.

Soon after the virtual anointment today, Rahul did step up and speak out. "In the last eight years that I have worked with the party I have seen it is a great organisation…. I've learnt a lot from my seniors and I hope together we can transform the country."

The promotion is also expected to renew the focus on the prospects of a Narendra Modi-versus-Rahul race. The BJP would publicly welcome such a match-up but will be apprehensive of not only its fallout on other contenders within but also the fate of its alliance with partners such as the Janata Dal (United).

In the immediate future, Rahul's new assignment is expected to have more consequences for the Congress than the UPA government.

Although Rahul had been working as number two for some time, the formal declaration was required to create an arrangement under which the state unit chiefs and all the AICC general secretaries report to him. He had earlier been appointed head of the committee to look after the party's election preparedness in a signal that the 2014 election would be fought under his leadership while Sonia would remain the figurehead.

Even today, while demands for Rahul's ascendance were reaching a crescendo, he couldn't overshadow his mother's presence either in stature or popularity. This is why some powerful advisers of Sonia did not want a formal announcement, insisting that his number two position was understood.

Till this evening, a section of senior leaders, including several CWC members, advocated this line, contending that Rahul's position was unchallenged and hence there was no need to state the obvious.

However, this lobby suffered a jolt. Antony, trusted by Sonia so much that he was included in the four-member panel that ran the party when she underwent surgery abroad, proposed Rahul's name and the CWC concurred. All the leaders thumped their desks in approval and Rahul, too, accepted the responsibility. The party's media department chief, Janardan Dwivedi, made the announcement, which was greeted with celebrations by Congress supporters.

The repercussions of this transition may be reflected in the next AICC shuffle. The shuffle is expected to take place soon, perhaps within a few days of the Chintan Shivir.

Sources said Rahul would now like to build his own team and Sonia's secretariat would have to make way for that. Some Sonia loyalists are expected to be retained in Rahul's team but the new system is bound to dent the clout of several entrenched leaders.

One Rahul aide said: "Leadership cannot come in instalments. Rahul's leadership means he should be in command. He should be responsible and accountable for his team members and hence he should be given the freedom to choose his team. He should have the power to appoint or replace any office-bearer. His leadership cannot be fettered by Sonia's system as that will create a dual leadership."

But there are concerns as well. Some leaders feel Rahul will have to depend on experienced persons as his team is not ready for larger responsibilities. Most ministers of state and Youth Congress leaders who are thought to be part of the Rahul brigade are still learning the ropes and often show impulses not in tune with the Congress line.

Even today at the Chintan Shivir, Rahul had to correct the hostile line taken by younger elements on Pakistan as he said emotions should not influence long-term perspectives. Rahul said at a group discussion on foreign affairs that a country like India should show the world its maturity and responsibility instead of giving knee-jerk reactions to every incident.

This line was in harmony with the views of veterans like Manmohan Singh and Karan Singh and the younger lot of pre-Rahul days like Salman Khurshid. Rahul will have to grow under the guidance of these experienced leaders and sources say he was willing to work with his mother's team even as sweeping changes will be seen at the organisational levels.

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