Congress Relies on Its War-Horse Sheila Dikshit for Battles Ahead

The party also announced the appointment of three 'working presidents', in what is being seen as an attempt to woo Muslim, SC and OBC voters

New Delhi: Former chief minister Sheila Dikshit’s appointment as Delhi Pradesh Congress Committee president has turned the clock back by nearly four years. Dikshit opted for a low profile in 2015, after Delhi assembly elections were swept by the Aam Aadmi Party – and the Congress failed to win even a single seat.

She only returned to active public life last year. Now her elevation to the top party post in the capital has left people wondering if it will impact its performance in the upcoming Lok Sabha elections and subsequently, the assembly polls in 2020.

Rare move for a former CM

Although it is rare for a three-term chief minister and a former governor to return to being a state unit president, Dikshit said last year that she was ready for the job. It has helped her cause that there are not too many articulate and experienced leaders in the Delhi unit. She is also considered a Gandhi family loyalist.

However, Dikshit, now 80, has her task cut out for her. In 2013, the Congress won just 8 seats in the 70-member House; in 2015, it won none. That has blamed on Dikshit’s government. Her third term was, in the eyes of the masses, a disaster and it showed in the results.

AAP may again use corruption in her regime as a weapon

The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) came to power on the back of her government’s involvement in multiple cases of alleged corruption. Whether the expenditure on the Commonwealth Games, the way the power discoms were allowed to run the show, or the allegations against the Delhi Jal Board (of which Dikshit was chairperson), AAP tore into the Congress using them as weapons.

Also read: Did a Potential Congress-AAP Alliance Prompt Ajay Maken’s Resignation?

Now, when two more important elections are round the corner, it remains to be seen if the handing over of the reins to Dikshit will help the AAP more than the Congress. One thing is clear, AAP – which first formed the government with the Congress’s support and the second time by damning it – will not spare an opportunity to make corruption allegations during the Congress’s rule a poll issue once again.

Maken swung out to attack AAP

This is what many Congress leaders fear. The party, under Ajay Maken, had managed to change the discourse from alleged corruption by the Congress to non-performance of the AAP. As for the BJP, both these parties have adopted a standard line – that voting for the other would amount to voting for the saffron party.

Under Maken, the Congress registered both wins and losses. It lost the municipal elections in 2017, following which Maken stepped down. However, his resignation was not accepted. The party also regained some lost ground, as was visible from the Delhi Cantonment Board elections and some by-elections where it increased its vote share significantly.

Senior leaders resisted Maken’s style

It’s also worth noting that the distribution of tickets under Maken and the way he dealt with senior former ministers and leaders often evoked resentment. Be it former minister A.K. Walia – who openly spoke about being disrespected – or Haroon Yusuf, who stayed away from the municipal poll campaign, there were several murmurs of dissent. Another former minister, Arvinder Singh Lovely, who was replaced by Maken as DPCC president, even quit and joined the BJP. However, Maken brought him back to the party fold.

Maken not only tried to keep the old leaders happy, he also changed the way the party functioned. A key area involved emphasis on booth-level workers. Dikshit, too, will have to keep the entire flock happy. There are many in the party who hold her in high esteem for running the government for so long. But there are others who blame her for the party’s sharp decline due to alleged corruption.

Ajay Maken. Credit: PTI

Maken laid low because of back pain

Last year, following serious pain in his lower back and orthopaedic problems, Maken decided to step down as DPCC president. With doctors abroad advising him rest, he offered to resign in September but was asked to continue for some more time.

In the meantime, the party began searching for a replacement. Sources insist that All India Congress Committee in-charge of Delhi, P.C. Chacko, was in favour of Dikshit for the post. She too stated that she would abide by the decision of the party high command.

Past experience, support from senior leaders got Dikshit the job

Several other senior leaders in the party, like Ghulam Nabi Azad, Anand Sharma, P. Chidambaram and Kapil Sibal are also learnt to have favoured giving the responsibility to Dikshit.

Rahul Gandhi was informed that Dikshit’s stature would help united all the groups ahead of the polls. She had served as the DPCC president in the 1990s and knew what the job entailed.

Also read: Sheila Dikshit Appointed as President of Delhi Congress

With Maken again insisting on stepping down earlier this month, the party chose Dikshit to succeed him. Some insiders believe that Maken recovered quite well over the past few months, but did not want his ailment to aggravate. As such the party went ahead with the changes.

Attempt to woo Muslims, SCs and OBCs?

In a first, three posts ‘working presidents’ were also created by the DPCC. The party gave these posts to former Delhi minister Haroon Yusuf and former MLAs Rajesh Lilothia and Devender Yadav.

There was an underlying message behind the move. In the 2015 assembly polls, Muslims, Dalits and OBCs, who constituted a traditional Congress vote base, gravitated towards the AAP. The party, by nominating Yusuf, Lilothia and Yadav, signals the intent to win back these groups.

Dikshit to take all major decisions

As far as the bailiwick of the working presidents within the party goes, it is not much different from that of the vice-president – a position that is provided for in the party constitution. All major decisions pertaining to appointment of office-bearers would, however, still be taken by the president.

During the Lok Sabha elections, the DPCC president’s role will be limited as tickets are decided by the screening committee comprising of senior national leaders. However, in the 2020 assembly polls, Dikshit – as party unit-head and the probable chief minister candidate – would have a greater say in ticket distribution.

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