NEW DELHI (TIP): Rahul Gandhi made no effort to suppress his glee when he strolled out to meet the media after BJP lost the Bihar election by a mile to the Nitish-Lalu-Congress grand alliance last November. This is a win, he said, for “bhaichara” and PM Modi should listen carefully to what the country is saying.

On May 19 (Thursday), a reported bout of Chikungunya spared Rahul the trouble of having to offer a sound bite. Congress’s tally falling from 163 to 115 MLAs in five states with 824 MLAs speaks for itself. Even in Puducherry, the battle went down to the wire. Congress now has governments only in Karnataka, Uttarakhand, Himachal, Manipur, Meghalaya and Mizoram. The defeats in Assam and Kerala bring the debate over Rahul’s taking formal charge of Congress into sharp focus, reflecting an intense desire in the party rank and file, even among those not exactly enamoured of his political style, that he accept the party president’s mantle and be done with it.

Barring Bihar, the question mark over Rahul’s leadership is getting bigger as Congress shows no signs of electoral revival two years after being reduced to 44 MPs in Lok Sabha. If Congress needed a firm signal from Rahul, this is the moment. Decisions to align with the Left in the ‘Bharat Mata’ debate and later in West Bengal polls failed to unsettle BJP or dent either regional rival Mamata Banerjee.

While he did not take command, as was widely propagated by his confidants, after Congress landed on the winning side in the Bihar ‘grand alliance’, the pressure has only grown. After all, rebels like Himanta Biswa Sarma in Assam -a key player in BJP’s success in the northeastern state -left Congress in a huff, claiming that Rahul treated him shabbily and was more interested in playing with his dog than discussing issues of the state when the two had met in Delhi.

Rahul’s political style seems to be a significant issue as he has been unable to work with opposition leaders. Allies like Sharad Pawar and Lalu Prasad would rather deal with Congress president Sonia Gandhi. His decision to follow “grassroots feedback” in allying with the Left has earned him the wrath of Trinamool Congress which he decided to spurn.

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In Tamil Nadu, G K Vasan, son of the late Congress grandee G K Moopanar, formed his own outfit. In Uttarakhand, the nine rebel MLAs who nearly brought the government down, felt slighted by the high command. In Punjab, veteran leader Amarinder Singh almost walked out of the party . As internal dissent mounted, Congress found itself under a massive onslaught over corruption in the AgustaWestland deal and the charge of framing Hindu accused in the Malegaon blasts.Under his directive, Congress stalled passage of the Modi government’s key reform, the GST bill, but slowly , the blockade is wearing thin.

The truth is that Rahul is calling the shots in Congress. All decisions are taken by him have his imprimatur. The roping in of Nitish strategist Prashant Kishor for UP and Punjab elections is a big indicator, especially as the move has ruffled Congress functionaries. So far, AICC has clarified that Kishor will not decide organisational matters.There is no hiding the fact that Bhupinder Singh Hooda, was in the dark when Kuldeep Bishnoi’s Haryana Janhit Party was merged with Congress in Haryana. Bishnoi is the son of Bhajan Lal, who was a byword for Congress for decades. Rahul also put his foot down to ensure Tarun Gogoi stayed on as Assam chief minister even after BJP won seven of the state’s 14 Lok Sabha seats in 2014. The “old guard” had advised his replacement with Sarma, the man who ultimately ended up helping BJP win the assembly polls.

Rahul also nudged Congress into stitching an alliance with the Left in Bengal despite entreaties from Trinamool not to do so. If, as he said when anointed vice-president in 2013, that power is a chalice of poison, then it is time to down it. Some in Congress see Rahul’s ascension as a case of noblesse oblige, but most agree the question needs to be settled either way soon.

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