Rahul Gandhi Has Missed the Opportunity to Infuse Fresh Blood in the Congress Working Committee

The long-pending demand of a generational change in the party hasn’t become a reality.

Rahul Gandhi has reconstituted the Congress Working Committee (CWC) – the highest decision-making body of the party – seven months after taking over the reins of the grand old party. The 84th plenary of the All India Congress Committee held in March had authorised Gandhi to set up a new committee. The new CWC is on the lines of the 34-member Steering Committee, formed and functional since February after dissolving the previous CWC.

With the new team taking charge with less than a year to go for the general elections, the long-pending demand of a generational change in the party hasn’t become a reality. The speculations of an “old-guard” (swearing allegiance to Sonia Gandhi) being daggers drawn with ‘Team Rahul’ has also come a cropper, as many among the “old-guard” are still very much part of the new CWC.

The new CWC has a total strength of 51 – 23 members, 18 ‘permanent invitees’ and ten ‘special invitees’ – compared to the 36 members in the previous committee. It has also been clarified that all the Congress ‘in-charges’ of states (who haven’t been accorded the position of a general secretary) will be ex-officio members of the committee. Likewise, five out of the ten ‘special invitees’ are also ex-officio positions reserved for the frontal organisations (National Students Union of India, Youth Congress, Mahila Congress, Indian National Trade Union Congress and Seva Dal) of the Congress.

Janardan Dwivedi, Digvijay Singh, C.P. Joshi, Sushil Kumar Shinde, Veerappa Moily, B.K. Hariprasad, Mohan Prakash and Madhusudhan Mistry are the major omissions from the previous committee. They have been replaced by former chief ministers Tarun Gogoi, Siddaramaiah, Oommen Chandy and Harish Rawat and general secretaries Mukul Wasnik, Avinash Pandey, Deepak Babaria, K.C. Venugopal and Ashok Gehlot (who replaced Dwivedi as the general secretary in-charge of organisation).

The other new faces in the 23-member CWC are Rajya Sabha deputy leader Anand Sharma, Raghuveer Meena and Tamradhwaj Sahu from poll-bound Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh respectively, former Manipur deputy chief minister Gaikhangam Gangmei and Kumari Selja from Haryana.

Among the permanent invitees, P. Chidambaram retained his position and another former chief minister, Sheila Dixit, found herself a place. But other seniors like Karan Singh, R.K. Dhawan, M.L. Fotedar, Mohsina Kidwai, Oscar Fernandes and M.V. Rajasekharan have made way for others. Given the age and seniority of these leaders – many of them relics of the Indira Gandhi era – it doesn’t come as a surprise. Congress chief whip in the Lok Sabha Jyotiraditya Scindia too figures in the list of permanent invitees with new faces Balasaheb Thorat and Tariq Hameed Karra, who had joined the Congress from the People’s Democratic Party last year.

The 12 state in-charges along with Randeep Singh Surjewala – in-charge of the communications department – are among the permanent invitees in an ex-officio capacity. They are Chella Kumar, A.K. Sinha, Asha Kumari, Gaurav Gogoi, P.L. Punia, Jitendra Singh, Rajeev Satav, R.C. Khuntia, R.P.N. Singh, Shaktisinh Gohil and P.C. Chacko.

The relative youth quotient is limited to the special invitees. Four of them – Arun Yadav, Jitin Prasada, Deepender Singh Hooda and Kuldeep Bishnoi – are all in their 40s while 70-year-old K.H. Muniyappa and the ex-officio members of the frontal organisations make up the others. It doesn’t come as a surprise that even these younger men come from dynastic families. Bishnoi, son of Bhajan Lal, returned to the party only a couple of years ago.

Shashi Tharoor is conspicuous by his absence as he didn’t make it even as the chairman of the All India Professionals Congress (AIPC). Congress sources informed that the AIPC is still a designated All India Congress Committee cell/department instead of a frontal organisation. Jairam Ramesh, Rajeev Gowda and the legal luminaries – Kapil Sibal, Salman Khurshid, Abhishek Manu Singhvi, Manish Tiwari et al – failed to make the cut.

Rahul Gandhi and Shashi Tharoor. Credit: Twitter/@INCIndia

Rahul Gandhi and Shashi Tharoor. Credit: Twitter/@INCIndia

“CWC is a microcosm of the organisation and we have included all the general secretaries and in-charges of states in the committee. The PCC chiefs and Congress Legislature Party (CLP) leaders don’t figure as they would be represented in the extended Working Committee meetings,” said a senior Congress leader when asked about the absence of veterans Amarinder Singh and Kamal Nath in the committee (Nath was a member and Singh a permanent invitee earlier).

As for the omission of former chief ministers Virbhadra Singh, Bhupinder Singh Hooda and Prithviraj Chavan, Congress sources indicated that Hooda was likely to replace Ashok Tanwar in the run-up to the Haryana polls next year or be the designated the chief ministerial candidate. Virbhadra Singh too has been vocal about his keenness to continue leading the party in Himachal Pradesh despite his advanced age. He recently shared stage with his chief detractor and PCC chief Sukhwinder Singh Sukhu in the hill state after a long gap when state in-charge Rajni Patel was on tour. No explanation was forthcoming on Chavan, who enjoys a clean image.

All the general secretaries in charge of states apart from C.P. Joshi figure in the 23-member committee. Joshi has lost considerable ground from his once exalted position as the points-man in Bihar and all the northeastern states. After Bihar, Assam has also been taken from him and handed over to Harish Rawat. Once the blue-eyed boy of Rahul Gandhi for his number-crunching skills and his role in the victory of the ‘mahagatbandhan’ in Bihar in 2015, his stocks have diminished considerably. It is unclear if he will have a role in poll-bound Rajasthan, his home state.

Digvijay Singh is another stalwart on the way out after being divested of his supervisory role in states like Goa, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana in the aftermath of Congress failing to stitch-up a coalition in Goa after the assembly elections, despite the numerical advantage over the BJP. But he still has a role as the chairman of the Madhya Pradesh Election Coordination Committee in the poll-bound state.

Janardan Dwivedi, whose term as the general secretary (in-charge of organisation) ran almost co-terminus with Sonia Gandhi’s, has also been ousted from the CWC after two decades. The ouster of Hariprasad, Mistry, Moily, Shinde and Mohan Prakash and replacing them with multiple-term chief ministers is a step towards having more popular and mass leaders in the ranks. Many of these ousted members have forever been in the CWC (ever since nominations replaced elections in the party) as Sonia Gandhi was a status quo-ist. The induction of ex-chief ministers in the CWC also paves the way for a younger generation to emerge in leadership positions in states.

It is unclear if some of these fresh inductees who have no additional responsibility of overseeing states would also be pencilled in for other responsibilities. The “jumbo CWC”, as one leader from Kerala described it, may be a direct result of employing one general secretary or ‘in-charge’ to look after every state. In fact, this streamlining of responsibilities has made central supervision much easier and many of these deputed leaders have attempted to rebuild party organisation in their allocated states.

The profusion of dynasts is another issue and the father-son duo of Tarun and Gourav Gogoi stick out. Dynasts being preferred over equally qualified peers may send the wrong message to youth wishing to dabble in politics. The decision of retaining 89-year-old Motilal Vohra as the treasurer will also put the cash-starved party under scrutiny. With no dearth of wheeler-dealers and moneybags associated with the party, couldn’t they find one such younger individual for the post?

One has to conclude that Rahul Gandhi lost an opportunity to infuse more fresh blood into the organisation. But Gandhi has generally been risk-averse after taking charge. Questions might also be raised about the skewed representation of women in the CWC following his letter to the prime minister backing the women’s reservation Bill ahead of the monsoon session. While the generation of Indira loyalists have mostly been purged, it might not suffice to regenerate and reinvigorate the party. Only time would tell whether this balancing act of sorts bears results in elections.

Anand Kochukudy is a political journalist and lapsed academic.