Nearly five years ago, then Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi attempted a generational shift in the party by appointing young parliamentarians Sachin Pilot and Arun Yadav to lead the Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh units of the party, respectively.
Since these appointments were made after ignominious defeats for the Grand Old Party in the 2013 assembly elections, they were seen as a long-due transition of organizational power into the hands of the Young Guard.
Now, with the appointments of Congress veterans Kamal Nath and Ashok Gehlot as Chief Ministers of Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, respectively, party members say Gandhi has fallen back on the Old Guard to win these two states for him in the 2019 Lok Sabha election. However, they add that while doing so, Gandhi, who is now the Congress president, has attempted to maintain a delicate balance by addressing the ambitions of the young leaders in different ways.
“The challenge to dislodge the (BJP) government is more important. So, generational shift or not—that part is secondary,” CP Joshi, party veteran and former Rajasthan Congress chief, told HuffPost India.
Gehlot, said Joshi, is a better bet for the Chief Minister’s post in Rajasthan.
“Challenge is to form the (next) government at the centre. It is a tough task, so naturally this challenge will have to be taken seriously... (Gehlot) has ten years’ experience as the Chief Minister. He has run the government in last tenure also with the support of independents,” said Joshi.
The senior leader said that both older and younger leaders will work together in the party.
Speaking to reporters on Friday evening, KC Venugopal, the Congress’s central observer for Rajasthan, seemed to echo Joshi. “Experience and dynamic leadership will come together in Rajasthan. Congress president and the entire Congress leadership is believing that this leadership will give total strength to the party and fulfill the aspirations of the people of Rajasthan,” he said.
Despite media reports that said that Pilot had vociferously presented his case to be Rajasthan CM, he also stuck to this line in public.
“Results show that my and Ashok Gehlot ji’s magic worked. Now we are forming the government (in Rajasthan) and our first priority will be to prepare for the Lok Sabha elections by getting anti-BJP forces together and forming the next government (at the Centre) under the leadership of Rahul Gandhi ji.”
Independent political observers also see the stamp of the 2019 election behind Gandhi’s decision to bring back the Old Guard in charge of the two states which, between them, have 54 Lok Sabha seats.
Professor and pollster from Rajasthan Sanjay Lodha told HuffPost India that he felt the Congress may have better prospects with Gehlot in charge as he has experience in leading the state. Gehlot, he said, was more popular in pre-election opinion polls as well.
In Madhya Pradesh, while Kamal Nath is preparing to be the CM, he himself has said in an interview with India Today that other party leaders, including those in the Young Guard, like Jyotiraditya Scindia and former state president Arun Yadav, “will be accommodated”.
While speculation is rife that Scindia will be given a central role in the event of a Congress victory in 2019, there has been no official comment on what roles young leaders from Madhya Pradesh will be given within the state or beyond.
Yadav told HuffPost India, “Kamal Nath ji is one of the most experienced parliamentarians of the country. We will try to have a mix and match of youth and experience. Ultimately, it is the decision of the Congress president.”
Political science professor and pollster from Madhya Pradesh Yatindra Singh Sisodia told HuffPost India, “Scindia was the star campaigner and more popular across the state than Nath in our surveys. Yadav was not as popular. I think, in the end, they relied on Nath, who has a 38-year-long career in politics, because they have made huge promises like the agriculture loan waiver and jobs. To implement them rightly, in the short time available before the 2019 election, they needed an experienced leader to be in charge of the administration.”