Did a Potential Congress-AAP Alliance Prompt Ajay Maken's Resignation?

Several of the party's Delhi leaders believe that tying up with the AAP will only revitalise the latter and instead want to prioritise winning back voters.

New Delhi: Senior Congress leader Ajay Maken has stepped down as the Delhi Pradesh Congress Committee’s president citing health reasons. This follows speculation that he was unhappy with the party’s growing inclination to ally with or have a seat-sharing adjustment with the Aam Aadmi Party during the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

A former Union minister, Maken was handed over the reins of the party in Delhi after it suffered a complete whitewash in the 2015 assembly elections. From having been in power in the capital for 15 years, the Congress failed to win any seat in the 70-member house that year.

In a tweet, Maken thanked the party for giving him an opportunity to rebuild the Delhi unit. His tweet came hours after he met Congress president Rahul Gandhi on Thursday evening.

Playing down speculation that his decision was because of a probable tie-up with the AAP, Maken cited health reasons.

The All India Congress Committee in-charge for Delhi P.C. Chacko said Maken had resigned in September 2018 due to health reasons, but was asked to continue. However, when he again insisted on stepping down, “Congress president Rahul Gandhi accepted his resignation”. The party, he said, was “now looking for his replacement.”

Congress president Rahul Gandhi before the Lok Sabha session in New Delhi on January 2. 2019. Credit: PTI

Alliance with the AAP

Troubled by a major back and spinal problem last year, Maken travelled abroad for treatment. He was advised complete rest to prevent aggravation. Because his role as the DPCC chief requires travel and holding meetings, marches and protests, Maken asked that he be relieved.

What led substance to speculation around his decision being influenced by a possible Congress-AAP alliance was that he was always opposed to the idea. Like several other former Delhi ministers, legislators and leaders from the party, he believed that any ‘arrangement’ with the AAP would only result in the revival of the latter’s fortunes.

In at least two meetings with Gandhi on the issue, Maken is learnt to have told him categorically that AAP’s popularity was waning and it would be best to not supply it a new lease of life. His arguments were based around AAP’s showing in the Punjab assembly election of February 2017, Delhi municipal polls a couple of months later and the by-elections to Delhi assembly.

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Also, AAP’s rise in Delhi was primarily due to a massive shift in Dalit and Muslim votes to the party in 2015. These two communities were traditionally Congress supporters. However, after the 2013 elections, when Congress won just 8 seats, mostly in areas with high Dalit and Muslim voters, this electoral base also shifted, realising that the AAP was better placed to keep the BJP out of power.

Therefore, Maken and most other leaders insisted that the party’s priority to should be to win back these voters and opposed allying with the AAP. The leaders were also apprehensive that the tie-up may have an adverse impact on the party’s performance in the Delhi assembly election, due a year after the Lok Sabha polls.

Some leaders want tie-up to oust BJP from power

On the other hand, other leaders like former chief minister Sheila Dikshit, her son and former MP Sandeep Dikshit, and former MP and ex-DPCC chief J.P. Agarwal advocate a strategic tie-up with the AAP for the Lok Sabha polls. They believe that this would prevent the BJP, which bagged all seven in 2014, from winning any.

Though Gandhi recently said that his party was not in favour of a “BJP-mukt Bharat”, the Congress is keen on strategic tie-ups and arrangements which could ensure the saffron party’s defeat across the country. In that larger landscape, the seven Delhi seats also assume significance.

Decision influenced by CM candidates for Rajasthan, MP?

Some political observers also believe the Congress’s decision to choose old warhorses as the chief ministers of Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh could also have weighed on Maken’s decision. The party chose former CM Ashok Gehlot for the top post in Rajasthan ahead of Sachin Pilot, who like Maken, is relatively younger and was brought in as the state unit president after a defeat. Similarly, it chose former Union minister Kamal Nath over Jyotiraditya Scindia for the CM’s post in Madhya Pradesh.

This may have given Maken an inkling that even if the Congress were to return to power in Delhi, the party may once again prefer to hand over the reigns to Sheila Dikshit. After laying low for some time, she last year said she was ready for any role that the party may have for her.