New Delhi: In an unprecedented move, an ailing Sonia Gandhi, on Friday reconstituted the Congress Working Committee that had appointed her as the interim president, by providing adequate representation to close associates of her predecessor, Rahul Gandhi, while retaining her trusted aides. The insignificant makeover was aimed at re-asserting her authority, besides sending a signal to the dissidents that it would be next to impossible for a non-Gandhi to aspire for a place in the organization unless the family desired.
The feeble attempt to re-jig the Congress, served more as an optical illusion and has virtually ensured that the BJP, led by Narendra Modi, may get yet another walkover in the 2024 Parliamentary elections.
On Saturday morning, Sonia Gandhi left for Amsterdam for her routine health check-up, and may subsequently proceed to the United States as well. Rahul is accompanying her and both are going to miss the first ten days of the Parliament session since they are not expected to be back before 23 September. Sonia had undergone treatment for squamous cell carcinoma in the Dutch capital in 2011 and subsequently spent time in New York at the Syosset Oyster Bay area of Long Island and other locations while recovering from a successful procedure carried out at a Manhattan hospital for another ailment.
The interim president has not addressed any of the issues raised by 23 senior leaders, who wanted inner party democracy and more inclusive intra-party decision making mechanism, to help the Congress to prepare a road map for future elections. Instead, she has decided to divide the party, thereby depriving many deserving aspirants from finding a berth in the re-organised set up. Randeep Surjewala, a key Rahul adviser, and Ajay Maken, who had both forfeited their deposits in the elections, have been elevated by giving them a bigger status. In addition, K.C. Venugopal, described in party circles as “the Ahmed Patel of Rahul Gandhi” and Jitendra Singh, have emerged as the office bearers, who have the full backing of the Gandhis.
To draw a wedge in the dissident camp, Sonia Gandhi has chosen a handful of the dissidents and accommodated them to dispel any impression that she was being vindictive. However, the signals in no unambiguous terms indicate that she has ignored Manish Tewari, bringing back Pawan Bansal and has inducted Tariq Anwar, in place of Ghulam Nabi Azad in pivotal posts. Sachin Pilot, who had revolted in Rajasthan, has been further marginalized.
The reconstituted Working Committee, in many ways, does not have the requisite caste and regional balance. Although, several veterans have privately questioned that an interim president should ordinarily not have brought in drastic changes, yet there is nothing illegal about the action. In a party that has long forgotten its traditions and conventions, Sonia’s coterie in the 2010 AICC session, at Burari in Delhi, had ensured, that the Constitution was amended in such a manner that provided her overriding powers that could supersede even the Working Committee. The same powers also can be enjoyed by the interim president as per the relevant Articles of the party Constitution.
Sonia has constituted a six-member committee to advise her on organisational and operational matters. It comprises three of her most dependable aides—A.K. Antony, Ahmed Patel and Ambika Soni, besides K.C. Venugopal and Randeep Surjewala from the Rahul camp and Mukul Wasnik, a signatory to the letter. At one stage when the Congress had made up its mind to have a non-Gandhi to head the party last year, Mukul Wasnik had emerged as the front runner. This committee has been inspired by the four-member committee on political affairs that existed during Indira Gandhi’s tenure in the early 1980s, and included Pranab Mukherjee as the convener, R. Venkataraman, P.V. Narasimha Rao, N.D. Tewari with M.L. Fotedar as the Prime Minister’s representative. It was an all Brahmin group, though in the current set-up, the Brahmins have virtually negligible representation. The principal reason why this has been constituted is to counter the demand for collective leadership which was made by some of the dissidents in their communication to Sonia Gandhi on 7 August. The message is that this is her version of collective leadership. In addition, this elite group could act as a facilitator for pushing forward Rahul’s agenda if such a need arose.
The first major test of the party would be in the four Assembly elections scheduled in the coming six months. These include Bihar in October and Tamil Nadu, Assam and Kerala in March. Therefore, Shaktisinh Gohil who is in charge of Bihar, would have to measure up to the high command’s expectations, as also Jitin Prasada in Bengal, Tariq Anwar in Kerala and Dinesh Gundu Rao in Tamil Nadu.
Sources said that the AICC session which would elect the new party chief is not likely before March 2021 and till then those who have been nominated by Sonia (read Rahul) shall call the shots. The Central Election Authority that has been reconstituted is packed with Rahul’s men, with Madhusudan Mistry as its convener. Other members include Rajesh Mishra, Krishna Byre Gowda, S. Jothimani and Arvinder Singh Lovely. Thus, the Gandhis shall control even the election process within the Congress.
A significant change that has occurred regarding those entrusted with the task of managing party affairs in states is in Punjab where Harish Rawat replaces Asha Kumari. Rawat, a former Uttarakhand CM, has been sent there to address the grievances of some partymen who have been complaining to the high command regarding the functioning of its top leaders in the state. At one stage, Rahul had made up his mind to nominate Navjot Singh Sidhu to the Working Committee but was advised against doing so, since it would have not gone down well with Chief Minister, Captain Amarinder Singh.
In short, the Congress revamp would remain an exercise in futility unless the leadership can come out with a clear strategy for the 2024 Lok Sabha elections and engage with the people on a 24X7 basis. This is a victory for the Gandhis and a question mark over a more inclusive functioning within the party would always remain. This arrangement would be in place till formal elections take place for the AICC.