G23 embers glow; demand for full time and effective leadership retains currency.
Congress letter warriors, who have earned the epithet “G23”, may be down but certainly they don’t seem to be out. Their crusade is not for a “parivar mukt Congress”—they accept the inevitability of the supremacy of the Trinity: Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra. The struggle within Congress is for gaining legitimate space in the leadership structure. Thus their demand is that elections to the Congress Working Committee (CWC) and to the Central Election Committee (CEC) be held simultaneously with the forthcoming party presidential poll, which, as things stand, seem to be slated for June. They also seek the revival of Congress Parliamentary Board (CPB), a euphemism for the “high command”, which was discontinued in the Rajiv Gandhi era in the late 1980s.
Grapevine is abuzz that the AICC delegates, who constitute the electoral college for the election of Congress president, have started receiving by post copies of the letter of the “G23”, the document which set a cat among the pigeons when it was leaked to the media August last. (Addressed to interim president Sonia Gandhi, the letter had called for sweeping changes in the organisation: a full time and effective leadership, visible and active in the field, elections to CWC and an “institutional leadership mechanism” aimed at the party’s revival.) In August, no one owned up leaking the letter (in his recent interviews the prominent face of G23,Gulam Nabi Azad, in fact regretted that the letter had been leaked). The circulation of the document among AICC delegates, who constitute the electoral college in case CWC and CEC polls are held simultaneously with presidential election, too is anonymous. Embers apparently are smouldering, though prima facie there is no revolt in the Grand Old Party.
Delhi Pradesh Congress Committee has passed a resolution favouring election of Rahul Gandhi as the Congress president. The Chhattisgarh PCC followed suit. Usually such “democratic sycophancy”, which is a byproduct of the 1969 split, in which Congress organisation was hitched to the persona of Indira Gandhi, sidestepping the then elected AICC structure, triggers a cacophony of support from across the states—it remains to be seen if this move, which intrinsically is aimed at ensuring an election-less selection of Rahul Gandhi to the post he vacated in July 2019 claiming responsibility for the Lok Sabha debacle, will be the forerunner of a final rejection of the G23 solicitation. Rahul Gandhi had been elected for a five-year term in 2017. The person elected in June thus will have a tenure till 2022, when as per the party Constitution (as amended at the Burari session) fresh election for the post has to be held. There has been speculation if Rahul Gandhi will opt for the short, residual tenure or prop up an “interim” incumbent. As things stand, the intransigence caused by Rahul Gandhi’s “will-he, won’t-he” stance has added to uncertainty and the demand for a “fulltime effective leadership” thus retains currency.
The swift replacement of the Leader of Opposition in Rajya Sabha when Ghulam Nabi Azad’s term ended indicates that the strategy to sideline the G23 rebels had been planned well in advance. It is not unusual for a senior leader to be brought back to Rajya Sabha from another state if he is unable to return from the state he hitherto represented. Dr Manmohan Singh was elected from Assam. In recent days, AICC general secretary (organisation) K.C. Venugopal, who did not defend his Lok Sabha seat in Kerala, was brought in from Rajasthan. Eminent lawyer K.T.S. Tulsi, whose base is in UP and Delhi, was elected from Chhattisgarh (Tulsi represents Robert Vadra in court cases). Thus the ensuing vacancy from Kerala may have a window for the return of Azad and his continuing as LOP, a role in which he acquitted himself well. By denying Azad and choosing loyalist Mallikarjun Kharge, the Sonia Gandhi family sent out a strong signal. Kharge is a senior leader—a nine-term MLA in Karnataka and served as leader of the Congress in Lok Sabha (2014-19), he had lost the last election—he was later elected to Rajya Sabha from his home state perhaps in anticipation of Azad’s exit.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi created a rarest of rare moment in India’s parliamentary history by sitting through Azad’s valedictory session and bidding a tearful, emotional farewell to his political opponent. This gesture set tongues wagging in Congress circles—was Azad contemplating crossing the floor? After all, some months ago, Congress chief whip in Rajya Sabha, Bhubaneswar Kalita of Assam, who was a contemporary of Azad as a state Youth Congress president in the 1970s, had quit and opted for BJP. Azad set speculation at rest by telling Hindustan Times, “I shall leave Congress on the day when Kashmir has a black snowfall”. Modi’s gesture was not fully fathomed by the naysayers—he paid tribute to a rival who, like him, had risen in political hierarchy from the grassroots and had been loyal to his ideology and his organisation. In doing so Modi was perhaps sending a signal to the class of political workers who seek dignity and who have not been pitchforked to the “entitled class” merely because of birth or hereditary privilege.
Azad’s rise from a block president to the top echelons of a national party has many parallels in BJP and in other parties, but has become a rarity in Congress. The G23 essentially seeks to revive organic growth in the party. It may be recalled that after the 1996 defeat of Congress it was Azad who along with Rajesh Pilot, Sharad Pawar, Arjun Singh, Vijay Bhaskar Reddy had sought the ouster of the then party chief, P.V. Narasimha Rao. They alleged that while Rao had run a minority government well, party organisation had been neglected. “Sir, you may have been the best Prime Minister, but you are the worst Congres President”, Azad had shouted at Rao in a CWC meeting. Rao immediately stepped down, paving the way for Sitaram Kesari’s elevation. Later, Pawar and Azad were together when they demanded the ouster of Kesari, which saw the emergence of Sonia Gandhi as Congress president in 1998.
In 1972, Chandrashekhar had caused a ripple when he challenged Indira Gandhi at the height of her glory and got elected as a member of CEC at the Shimla session, defying the official panel. In 1992, at Tirupati, the CWC poll had similarly seen a fair election—but P.V. Narasimha Rao overturned the verdict and the culture of nominations superseded elected leadership in Congress.
Will the G23 warriors be able to revive organisational democracy in their party? Congress has been winning local bodies elections, Punjab being the latest feather in its cap, after success in Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan. But at the same time it cannot be overlooked that unlike the BJP, whose leaders’ visits mark additions to its ranks from other parties, the arrival of Rahul Gandhi at Puducherry last week was greeted by attrition and the party’s majority in the Vidhan Sabha was in jeopardy. Elected leadership provides sinews for organisation—Congress needs to grimace this reality.