Sonia Gandhi turns 67 & set to face the toughest challenge of her life

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Sonia Gandhi turns 67 today. Is it the worst birthday ever for the Congress president? For her party has just been decimated in four important state polls and one of its most successful chief ministers Sheila Dikshit has also lost.

Gandhi has promised deep introspection after the pathetic performance in the four states. So has her son Rahul Gandhi, the vice-president of the Congress. But as the chief, the onus is more on Sonia to lead the party out of the mess at the moment.

Why it will be tough for Sonia Gandhi

Times have changed

It won't be an easy task for the ageing leader. In 2004, she could afford to hear her inner call and refused to become the prime minister for her party was in a position of strength and a fresh alternative before the countrymen after the then ruling NDA failed on various counts.

In 2013-14, the situation is completely different. Now, the Congress-led ruling coalition is itself plagued by a strong anti-incumbency mood while the post-Vajpayee BJP has revived itself under a new leader in Narendra Modi and also a new surprise called the Aam Aadmi Party has evolved under Arvind Kejriwal. These opponents offer fresh alternatives to the people of India, at least the urban educated one, compared to the increasingly rusted leadership of the family-centric Congress.

Sonia Gandhi, however, isn't facing a crisis in her party for the first time. In the late 1990s, she had taken up the reins when the party was going through  a rough phase, but the age was on Sonia's side then.

Local leadership factor

Apart from this, Sonia Gandhi's task has also been made difficult by the local leadership factor. The BJP has not just depended on Modi in these elections but have equally used the positive image of state leaders like Shivraj Singh Chouhan, Raman Singh and Vasundhara Raje. Modi has definitely been the winning factor but his task would have been difficult if these leaders did not back his appeal with theirs. In the Congress, the culture of dominating the local leadership in an India which is getting increasingly democratised, has ruined the party's prospects, almost irreversibly.

Should Sonia Gandhi declare herself as the PM candidate after the poor show?

It is a great irony that the successors of Jawaharlal Nehru, who had a vision of a successful political democracy in India, is struggling to cope with his views today. Rahul Gandhi's close team is apparently trying hard to revive the party in states, but the reality is that such effort will bear little fruit if the local strength is sacrificed to accommodate the high command. Just replacing the old with the youth is not adequate. The Congress was once a mighty organisation for it was truly localised and democratic in its functioning. Today, somebody else is doing what it used to do and hence these results.

Rahul Gandhi's style of functioning

The biggest worry for Sonia Gandhi now will be the growing dissatisfaction with Rahul Gandhi's style of functioning. Congress leaders, from top to bottom, are taking consolation from the fact that Lok Sabha polls are different from the state polls, but each of them know that the future is uncertain for the face of the future, Rahul Gandhi, has failed to deliver on the expected lines. In 2004 and 2009, Rahul Gandhi was yet to be tested but now, the future looks a matter of the past.

Social welfare schemes have failed to compensate for the failure in governance

Sonia Gandhi's social welfare schemes have failed to produce any magic. The general mood against the UPA II's failure in governance on several fronts, be it corruption, rising prices, fall of rupee, tragedies at the border with Pakistan, is so bad that a few measures here and there is not going to produce any magic. The decimation of the Congress in Rajasthan and Delhi where two powerful chief ministers failed to impress the voters is a pointer.

End of Manmohan Singh?

The defeat at the assembly polls is likely to curtail Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's career as well. But will dumping him solve all problems for the party which will certainly look for oxygen from here on. Rahul Gandhi looks to be the only option to lead the way, despite the hammering, or will Sonia Gandhi get a new inner call now to lead from the front?

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