Sonia in saddle, Congress breaks fresh ground in 2019 after humiliating LS loss

Sonia in saddle, Congress breaks fresh ground in 2019 after humiliating LS loss
File Photo: Congress leaders Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi.

New Delhi: The Congress was trounced in the Lok Sabha elections but rose from those ashes of defeat to be part of coalitions that wrested Maharashtra and Jharkhand from the BJP, riding to power with Sonia Gandhi in the saddle and pragmatism as the theme in a year marked by spectacular lows and modest highs.

With the two states, the Grand Old Party - which switched tracks from going solo in the Lok Sabha elections to judiciously tying up with not always like-minded allies - now has seven states in its bag, up from a low of just two.

The Congress story of 2019 essentially revolved around Sonia Gandhi, who was back as party chief after her son Rahul Gandhi resigned as Congress president. He took moral responsibility for the Lok Sabha poll defeat, the party's second consecutive loss in the general elections.

The change of guard in the second half of 2019 coincided with the upward electoral swing for the party, which has seen several setbacks since its 2014 general election loss.

Sonia in saddle, Congress breaks fresh ground in 2019 after humiliating LS loss
File Photo: Congress leader Rahul Gandhi

The Congress, which managed just 52 MPs in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections that witnessed the BJP returning to power with a bigger mandate, perhaps surprised itself with better than expected performances in the Haryana and Maharashtra assembly polls.   The year ended with the Jharkhand assembly elections.

While power slipped away in Haryana, the Sonia Gandhi helmed party adopted a pragmatic approach to assume charge of Maharashtra and later Jharkhand.

The Maharashtra election results presented Congress with the opportunity to oust the BJP, which emerged as the single largest party in the state. Working closely with NCP chief Sharad Pawar, Sonia Gandhi decided to ally with ideologically distant Shiv Sena to keep the BJP out.

The gamble worked. 

The NCP-Congress combine not only formed the government in Maharashtra in alliance with the Shiv Sena but also ensured that the Sena, one of the oldest allies of the BJP, quit the NDA government as a quid pro quo.

Sonia in saddle, Congress breaks fresh ground in 2019 after humiliating LS loss
File Photo: NCP chief Sharad Pawar, Congress leader Sonia Gandhi, Shiv Sena's Uddhav Thackeray

The fracture of the Sena-BJP friendship, engineered by the NCP and the Congress, was seen in opposition ranks as a major coup.

While Rahul Gandhi remained in news for his frequent foreign jaunts this year, his mother went on to script another election victory for the party in Jharkhand.

In a first, Sonia Gandhi agreed to not only play a junior partner to the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha in a pre-poll alliance but also gave her nod to declare JMM's working president Hemant Soren as the chief minister face of the JMM-Congress-RJD alliance.

Sonia in saddle, Congress breaks fresh ground in 2019 after humiliating LS loss
File Photo: JMM leader and Jharkhand Chief Minister Hemant Soren.

Congress veterans were surprised when Sonia Gandhi conceded 43 seats to the JMM, keeping a smaller number for her own party. 

The stratagem once again worked and the alliance swept the polls with 47 seats in an 81-member assembly.

This was another marker of the Sonia Gandhi-led political gambit that boosted the morale of the Congress.

The shift in strategy was the result of a conscious rethink of the 2019 Lok Sabha eve strategy of alienating potential allies.

Sonia Gandhi engaged the Congress Working Committee actively in 2019 to get people like A K Antony, previously opposed to the alliance with Shiv Sena, to see reason and come around.

The CWC ultimately gave the party the green signal to join the Sena-NCP government in Maharashtra even though the powerful Kerala Congress lobby remained opposed to the idea.

Sonia in saddle, Congress breaks fresh ground in 2019 after humiliating LS loss
File Photo: Congress Working Committee member AK Antony

Party leaders credited the move to Sonia Gandhi's practical politics, a contrast to the AICC's 2018 political resolution that spoke of aligning with like-minded parties to defeat the BJP and the RSS.

The resolution adopted at the 84th plenary session in March 2018 said Congress will forge workable alliances with like-minded parties and take a pragmatic approach while striking electoral pacts with all like-minded parties and evolve a common workable programme to defeat the BJP-RSS.

But the Congress president told the CWC clearly that the BJP was a bigger ideological rival than the Shiv Sena and needed to be kept out of power.

According to Congress chief spokesperson Randeep Surjewala, 2019 was the beginning of the end of the destructive politics of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the BJP and also the resurrection and reaffirmation of faith in the Congress party by the people of India. He also spoke of multiple shades of political opinion assimilating under the umbrella of Congress pluralism.

"The future is defined by two linear lines - one of innate negativity and division signified by Modi-Shah duo and the other of hope and persistent perseverance depicted by Congress and other opposition parties. The year 2020 will define India's mood in favour of positivity, cohesion and progress delineated by pluralistic and liberal India espoused by our founding fathers," he told PTI.

Sonia in saddle, Congress breaks fresh ground in 2019 after humiliating LS loss
File Photo: Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi

The sore spot for the Congress this year was Haryana where the party bagged 31 seats out of 90 with virtually no preparation. But it was too little too late, party insiders said.

It was only after Sonia Gandhi assumed charge of the party in August that she appointed former chief minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda and former minister Kumari Selja as state legislature party and unit chief. respectively.

The newly appointed team worked up a decent performance in barely 47 days to go for the polls.

Most Haryana Congress leaders said the Congress could have won the state had it prepared in advance.

The CWC in 2019 was quick to bank on Sonia Gandhi -- who had vacated the post in 2017 after 19 years -- to steer the party back to battle readiness.

By the end of the year, she had successfully revived the party and scripted a new political narrative by seizing the leadership of the ongoing anti-Citizenship Amendment Act protests across India.

She even recorded a rare video message to express solidarity with the protesters. Be that as it may, the party continued to debate the perennial question of organizational leadership with speculation rife about a potential return of Rahul Gandhi to the helm.

The talk gained momentum after AICC general secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra described her brother Rahul as my leader at a party rally held in November.

But there is no official word on any such transition. With the tussle and friction between the old and the new generation continuing, the year saw Priyanka Gandhi Vadra assume an active political role.

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