Sonia Gandhi Is Tightening Her Grip on the Congress, But This Is Just a Bandaid

The concerns raised in the 'dissent' letter Sonia was sent won't disappear, and turmoil within the party is likely to continue.

New Delhi: Almost a week after the Congress Working Committee resolved to iron out the differences between the dissenting leaders and the central leadership, the battle in the oldest party of India appears far from over. Developments over the last two days indicate that the party’s interim president, Sonia Gandhi, has moved swiftly to tighten the Gandhi family’s grip over the party.

Following a letter by 23 senior leaders calling for a democratic overhaul of the party to meet the challenges posed by the Bharatiya Janata Party’s dominance over India’s polity, the CWC meeting had passed a resolution that struck an amicable note. The letter, which called for “collective leadership”, was read by many as a direct challenge to Sonia’s authority over organisational matters, and also as a preemptive move to prevent Rahul Gandhi from taking over the top post in the future.

While the resolution promised the leaders that it would form a committee to address the concerns of the dissenting leaders, it also, in clear-cut terms, acknowledged Sonia and Rahul’s roles in leading the party from the front ever since the party suffered successive defeats in the general elections.

However, the way the party went about appointing Gandhi loyalists and so-called “neutral” party leaders in newly-formed committees and positions doesn’t signal a balancing job by Sonia at all – in fact, it points to the contrary.

The new appointments

On Wednesday, constituting its the first member committee after the CWC meet to formulate the party’s stance on Narendra Modi’s key ordinances, the party appointed all Gandhi loyalists – former finance minister P. Chidambaram, former Madhya Pradesh chief minister Digvijaya Singh, former environment minister Jairam Ramesh, Amar Singh, and Gaurav Gogoi.

Then, on Thursday, Sonia made multiple appointments to the party’s parliamentary posts. She appointed Jairam Ramesh as the chief whip in Rajya Sabha, ignoring senior leaders like Ghulam Nabi Azad, Kapil Sibal and Anand Sharma, who were among the most prominent signatories of the “dissent” letter.

She also formed a committee to strategise the party’s discussions in Rajya Sabha. The committee is headed by the party’s treasurer and Sonia’s long-time loyalist, Ahmed Patel, and Rahul’s close aide and party’s general secretary (organisation), K.C .Venugopal. The move will effectively reduce the prominence of Azad, who is the leader of opposition in the Upper House currently, and deputy leader Anand Sharma.

Also read: As Bihar Election Prep Begins Full Swing, Congress Campaign Is Nowhere to Be Seen

Similarly, the party’s interim president also appointed Gandhi family loyalists Gaurav Gogoi as the deputy leader of the Congress Parliamentary Party in the Lok Sabha and Ravneet Singh Bittu as the whip in the Lower House. This effectively diminishes the stature of leaders like Shashi Tharoor and Manish Tewari, who signed the letter.

Party sources said that Sonia may also remove Azad and Sharma from leadership roles in the Rajya Sabha soon after the monsoon session, and that she restrained herself from doing so to avoid further confrontation anytime soon.

At the same time, several state units of the party have been mobilising Congress workers against the dissenting leaders. For instance, the Lakhimpur Kheri unit of the Uttar Pradesh Congress Committee shot off a letter to Sonia to demand strict disciplinary action against Jitin Prasada, who signed the letter, soon after the CWC meet called it a truce. It is believed that the UP PCC is firmly in the control of Priyanka Gandhi Vadra and her loyalist Ajay Kumar Lallu, currently the Pradesh Congress chief. Prasada, whose father Jitendra Prasada had unsuccessfully contested against Sonia in the party president’s election in 2000, was in the news recently for floating a Brahmin front, ostensibly to challenge the Yogi Adityanath government. However, many in the Congress believed that by doing so unilaterally, he challenged Priyanka’s leadership in UP.

Similarly, the Maharashtra Congress has also amped up the pressure on the three state leaders – Mukul Wasnik, Prithviraj Chavan and Milind Deora – who signed the dissent letter. Since then, Wasnik has reportedly already apologised to Sonia for signing the letter.

Gandhi family loyalists still in the majority

A close aide to a prominent Congress leader told The Wire that the idea that Sonia should lead the party and then Rahul should take over still has the maximum number of supporters within the party. “There is great acceptance of the Gandhis in the party. In fact, many senior leaders believe that the Gandhis still hold a great deal of respect among common people of India. They understand that they have sacrificed their family members for the sake of the nation,” the party worker said.

He acknowledged that the concerns the dissenting leaders raised are valid, but added that those cannot be addressed without one of the Gandhis spearheading the party. “It just can’t work. Historically, only the family has been successful in keeping diverse interests of the party leaders together. Without them, the party will split into multiple factions, each with their self-serving ambitions,” he said.

While this can be read as a comment on the larger nature of India’s oldest party, there is no denying the fact that the party has successfully brought these diverse interests together into one whole in the past.

“The party has seen similar turmoil in the past. However, the current dissent appears to be more challenging because of Congress’s poor standing in front of the BJP, which has never been so dominant in Indian politics,” a political commentator who had been a member of the Congress told The Wire. 

“One has to however realise,” he added, “that a party like Congress has believed in exercising ‘soft power’ both in organisational matters and while running a government.”

“This is the fundamental difference between the Congress and the BJP, which never elects its leader, has a centralised chain of command and rules with brute force. In fact, the difference in their functioning is almost ideological,” he said.

Yet, many other political observers would say that the system that worked for the Congress in the past has led to a leadership structure which consists mostly of political managers instead of mass leaders, who have become mere puppets in the hands of the current crop of central leaders.

In fact, the confidence with which Sonia moved to sideline the dissenting leaders appears to have stemmed from this realisation.

Also read: The Congress Was Once a Grand Old Party

According to party sources, Sonia and her loyalists have a clear understanding that a majority of the dissenting leaders have no standing of their own. “One, most dissenting leaders, barring Bhupinder Singh Hooda and Prithviraj Chavan, do not have much support within the party, and are seen by common party workers as undeserving beneficiaries in the party. In fact, two young leaders who signed the letter were looking to switch over to the BJP only months ago. Two, senior leaders like Manmohan Singh, A.K. Antony and the four Congress chief ministers entirely sided with Sonia during the CWC meet,” a party functionary said.

“Three,” he continued, “about half of the CWC, including permanent and special invitees, have been appointed at the behest of Rahul, and will any day support the Gandhis over the 23 dissenting leaders. And finally, it was clear that the 23 leaders were triggered into writing the dissent note after they faced backlash from leaders like Rajeev Satav and Shaktisinh Gohil, both of whom were chosen by Rahul. All recent appointments of Hardik Patel or Ajay Maken in important party positions have been steered by Rahul, who did not bother to consult these senior leaders.”

Party insiders also say that the call for internal elections was given by Rahul Gandhi first in 2007, when he was appointed the general secretary of the party. He attempted to conduct transparent elections in the Indian Youth Congress (IYC) and the students’ front National Students’ Union of India (NSUI), but got no support from the party’s senior leaders, many of whom are now calling for immediate elections. There is also a grievance among Rahul’s loyalists that none of the senior leaders who are now calling for internal reforms supported him much during the 2019 general elections.

A bandaid, not a fix

Given this nature of polarisation within the party, the swift retort by most PCCs, vowing their allegiance to Sonia and Rahul, after the letter went public on Sunday, was easy for the Gandhi loyalists in the leadership to orchestrate. The central leadership under Sonia could readily corner the concerns raised by the dissenting leaders by projecting the letter as a sort of betrayal – a move to destabilise the organisation while ailing Sonia was admitted in the Sir Gangaram Hospital in New Delhi and when the party was battling the Rajasthan political crisis. The backlash that individual signatories of the letter are currently facing is clearly a result of this script.

The battle line has now been drawn. The veil of truce seems to be over.

Azad has already come forward to say that if the party election doesn’t happen soon, the Congress will “sit in the opposition for 50 years.”. Kapil Sibal, too, posted a series of tweets, one to defend his standpoint and the other to back Prasada after he was targeted by the UP Congress.

Senior leader and one of the signatories Manish Tewari retweeted the post to term the backlash as  “prescient”.

Given how the political machinations have unfolded within the party, the Congress will likely implode again in the days to come. At the end, Rahul may overcome the dissent to take over the party – perhaps after the Bihar elections, as some partymen project.

Yet, the ethical questions the letter raised will remain. Most party members acknowledge that the concerns the dissenting leaders raised about Congress’s lethargy in the face of BJP’s overpowering challenge, its indecisiveness, lack of a “full and effective leadership”, and the need for internal elections are not merely important but also imperative for the party to survive. Even if one assumes that the dissenting leaders have their own interests to fulfil, as the Gandhi loyalists say, these questions will keep bothering even those leaders who survive the turmoil.