If there has been one constant accusation against the Gandhis, it is that they have always surrounded themselves with a triple-A rated coterie of allies, aides and advisors. While the existence of this inner circle has been continual, the members have fluctuated over the years, their dwindling combined political acumen and mass support perhaps mirroring the fortunes of the Congress party.
This inner circle is structured like a solar system. How much sway these members hold over decision-making depends on their closeness to the Gandhis as their political careers rely on orbiting around the shining star of the party at the time. But the fading light of the current leadership – Sonia Gandhi as well as her son Rahul Gandhi – has meant that the Congress now has two stars, and those orbiting around each of them have gotten fewer over the years, while some overlap.
As the current interim president, Sonia Gandhi continues to place her trust in the old guard, surrounding herself with respected leaders like Manmohan Singh and former defence minister AK Antony, as well as the likes of Ambika Soni and powerful party treasurer Ahmed Patel, who have been part of her camp ever since she first took over as the Congress chief in 1998. Rounding out this group is Suman Dubey, who was a close friend of former PM Rajiv Gandhi and was a founding members of the charitable organisation in his name.
A senior leader like Ghulam Nabi Azad, whose unlikely mutiny against the Congress leadership added heft to the rebellion by the ‘Group of 23’, however, no longer finds himself in this exclusive club despite being a Gandhi loyalist for nearly four decades. Also watching from the sidelines will be other dissidents like Kapil Sibal, Anand Sharma and Veerappa Moilly.
The second rung in Sonia Gandhi’s inner circle consists of other leaders that form the ‘old guard’ – Rajasthan chief minister Ashok Gehlot, former home minister Sushilkumar Shinde and nine-time Lok Sabha MP, Malikarjun Kharge, who led the Congress in the lower house between 2014 and 2019, but now sits in the Rajya Sabha after his unblemished election record was beaten last year.
Also finding a place in this middle rung are two faithful retainers of Rahul Gandhi - Randeep Surjewala, who has lost his last two elections and KC Venugopal, who won twice from Alappuzha but didn’t contest in 2019.
Looking in from the outside boundaries of this inner circle are Punjab chief minister Amarinder Singh, who opposed the bid by some Congress leaders to challenge the Gandhi family leadership in the party, and described their move to call for a rehaul of the party as ill-timed. Another leader who finds himself at this level is senior lawyer and spokesperson Abhishek Singhvi, who has also called on all party members to follow and trust the leadership.
Former union minister P Chidambaram, who was also not in the list of 23 signatories of the missive sent to Sonia Gandhi seeking organisational reforms, is also in this final layer of this inner circle. He was recently duly rewarded by the party high command and was given a place at the high table on key committees set up by Sonia Gandhi ahead of the parliament session while "dissidents" were overlooked.
As is former minister Jairam Ramesh, who has always managed to please his different bosses. Not only is he in the camp of Sonia Gandhi, he is also considered close to Rahul Gandhi and was included in his consultative committee to help the party tide over this dry Covid-19 political period.
While Sonia Gandhi keeps the company of veteran leaders who have in the past proven themselves in the political arena, the Office of RG – as Rahul Gandhi’s camp is informally known – consists mostly of young politicians and professionals who he thinks can bring a new style of functioning and revive the fortunes of the Congress.
Apart from Surjewala and Venugopal, the closest aides of Rahul Gandhi are social media coordinator Nikhil Alva, former investment banker Alankar Sawai, ‘strategic advisor’ Sachin Rao, Oxford scholar Kaushal Kishore Vidarthee and Sam Pitroda, a telecom engineer who was appointed chairman of the Indian Overseas Congress.
Alva, a former television producer and son of former Rajasthan governor and former party general secretary Margaret Alva, has been described as the gatekeeper of Rahul Gandhi’s Twitter account and was responsible for increasing the engagement on his handle ahead of the Lok Sabha elections. Rao, who was last year appointed as the All India Congress Committee (AICC) in-charge of "training" and "Sandesh", is an MBA in corporate strategy and international business from Michigan Business School. As part of his training programme, Rao had suggested calling trainers “preraks”, but the proposal was rejected by Sonia Gandhi and was dubbed as aping the BJP by other party leaders.
Less defined is the role of Alankar Sawai, a former employee of a leading private bank and an IIM graduate, who was considered to be the eyes and ears of Rahul Gandhi. Most papers, appointments used to go through him, but many believe he would leave if Rahul does not take charge of the party again soon.
Along with Sawai, Rahul Gandhi had entrusted the job of appointments to key positions to Kaushal, who holds a D Phil in social policy and an M Phil in development studies from Oxford University. The Bihar scholar is considered someone to watch out for as he is said to be equally comfortable with new-age technology and understanding the ground realities of the Hindi heartland.
Technocrat Sam Pitroda, who has been close to the Congress’ first family since the times of Rajiv Gandhi, rounds out this inner coterie of non-political figures. As the chairman of Indian Overseas Congress, Pitroda has helped organize Rahul Gandhi’s meetings with members of the Indian diaspora and his talks at US universities, as well as political campaigns in assembly elections here.
Also part of the core team of Rahul Gandhi’s core team are Assam MP Gaurav Gogoi, son of former CM Tarun Gogoi, and Ajay Maken, who was recently brought back from political oblivion after losing his deposit in two consecutive Delhi Lok Sabha polls and suddenly appointed general secretary in-charge of Rajasthan.
Along with this recent placement for Maken, another member of team Rahul - former Assam MP Sushmita Dev - recently becoming more vocal at party fora has led to suggestions that Rahul Gandhi may finally be ready to play a larger role in the party once again. Dev was the head of the women wing of the party and also the most vocal during her stint in Lok Sabha.
Srinivas BV, the new Youth Congress president whose hands-on approach has won him praise from senior leaders, and Manicka Tagore, who defeated Vaiko in the Lok Sabha elections, are the others who form part of this group. Former Rajasthan deputy chief minister Sachin Pilot, who returned to the Congress fold recently after his rebellion against Gehlot fizzled out, and former Karnataka MP Rajeev Gowda, have also remained in the Rahul Gandhi camp despite the swings in fortune.