Veteran Congress leaders in different states, who have been sidelined by the party high-command in the past few years, are “operating independently” to maintain their political relevance, thus challenging party vice-president Rahul Gandhi’s authority. The buzz in the Congress is that the older party leaders, particularly in the Hindi heartland states, have been sidelined by Rahul Gandhi, who is acting as the de-facto president.
In states like Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh, these veterans are organising their individual programmes without consulting Delhi. Former Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Ajit Jogi, who was ignored by Rahul Gandhi on several occasions during the latter’s visits to the state, is promoting himself and his son Amit Jogi in different programmes organised by their supporters, independent of the state unit of the Congress.
In Madhya Pradesh, local Congress leaders say that there is much unhappiness among the seniors, as except for Digvijaya Singh, who enjoys the confidence of Rahul Gandhi, almost everyone else has been sidelined. Those being ignored include the Leader of the Opposition in the MP Assembly, Satyadev Katare, Ajay Singh (popularly called “Rahul bhaiya” by his supporters), the son of late Arjun Singh, and Sriniwas Tiwari, former Speaker of the state Assembly. Even Kamal Nath, who was one of the most trusted colleagues of Sanjay Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi, is being ignored by Rahul Gandhi’s office.
Some Congress leaders, it is being alleged, are not taking any interest in working for the party during elections. Some are even in touch with the BJP, the allegation goes.
According to leaders from different states that this correspondent talked to, the problem is that Rahul Gandhi is not interested in interacting with them or the party workers. None of them have any access to his “Delhi Durbar”.
In Bihar, leaders like Laliteshwar Prasad Shahi, Krishna Shahi, Ramjatan Sinha and Nikhil Kumar, who had worked with three generations of the Gandhis are no longer consulted even by the state leaders, nor invited at any official programmes of the party.
During the recent Bihar Assembly election campaign, Ramjatan Sinha, a former president of the Bihar Pradesh Congress Committee, had a public face-off with Rahul Gandhi at the Patna airport, where he accused the latter of ignoring trusted and senior leaders. Sinha complained that despite several attempts, senior Bihar leaders were not even granted an appointment by Rahul’s office. To this, the Congress vice-president replied “Dekhenge (will look into this)” and proceeded to board his helicopter. Sinha quit the Congress a couple of days later.
In Chhattisgarh, octogenarian Motilal Vora’s opinion is no longer taken on the party’s affairs in Durg, which was also his Lok Sabha seat. Recently, state leaders did not consult Vora while nominating their own candidates for the civic elections in Durg and Bhilai that come under the Durg LS seat.
A former Congress MLA from MP, who has been a state minister several times, said that because of his lack of command over English, he could not strike a bond with Rahul. “We are netas who all throughout our political lives have worked on the ground among ordinary people. But that hardly helps me when it comes to Rahul. I repeatedly tried to meet him in the past one year to discuss with him party-related issues in the state, but I was never given an appointment. When I finally got the appointment, he met me for five minutes,” he said. Due to this, “local leaders are now acting independently and rather than acting as the main opposition party, are entering into an informal political alliance with the BJP leaders to stay politically relevant”.
A Bhopal-based Congress spokesperson said, “Most of our senior party leaders in Madhya Pradesh have developed excellent personal relations with Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan, who instead of treating them as political adversaries, keeps them in good humour by helping them in various ways. As a result, many of our leaders have entered into informal pacts with the BJP, which helps the BJP as a party and also provides benefits to individual Congress leaders, but hurts the Congress. These Congress leaders did not get many benefits when Digvijaya Singh was Chief Minister, but now they are being treated well by the Shivraj Singh Chouhan government.”
“Many of us do not enjoy Rahul Gandhi’s confidence and hence it is expected that we will be sidelined when new people come in. As of now, it is a phase of transition for the party and everyone is trying their best to stay relevant,” he added.
In Maharashtra, the recent virulent article against Jawaharlal Nehru and Sonia Gandhi, which was published in the party’s mouthpiece Congress Darshan, too, is unlikely to be an editorial “goof-up”, senior party sources claimed. They said that it was an example of the level of disgruntlement the party leaders harbour against the new command structure. “That article was spread over five pages and to assume that it was an editorial goof-up is just too naïve. Sanjay (Sanjay Nirupam, the editor of the magazine) himself has been sidelined by Rahul Gandhi and he is unhappy. Only time will tell the exact reason behind the entire episode,” a party functionary stated.
Another party MLA from Madhya Pradesh said that Rahul Gandhi should take everyone into confidence before taking any decisions regarding their future position in the party. “His mother remembers me and whenever she meets me, addresses me by my name, but Rahul, despite meeting me several times, does not. If he needs to take the party ahead, he needs the guidance of senior experienced leaders, some of whom have more political experience than what his age is. We have given so many years to this party and we cannot be just ignored because a new leader is taking over,” he said.