“Rahul Gandhi should put in place his own team” was the call from the young and the not so young, the fresh and the experienced, those who belonged to political families and those who did not.
The call had reverberated through the Congress plenary session at Burari in Delhi. It was December 2010. The party badly needed an overhaul even though the Congress was in the power at the Centre with the successful installation of UPA-II on the back of the good work accomplished by UPA-I.
But the coalition was facing a credibility crisis on several issues, including corruption and maladministration. Nothing was going right. No one would have believed that it was just a year earlier that the coalition had not only retained power but the Congress had bettered its performance and crossed the 200 mark in the 543-member Lok Sabha after a gap of over 15 years.
A month before the plenary at Burari, the Congress was in pink-slip mode, sacking both the then Maharashtra chief minister Ashok Chavan and Congress Parliamentary Party (CPP) secretary Suresh Kalmadi over the alleged scams in the Adarsh Society in Mumbai and the organisation of the Commonwealth Games in Delhi respectively.
At such a juncture, P. Chidambaram, who was the Union home minister at the time, and then Congress general secretary Digvijay Singh, were pitching for Rahul Gandhi, who was then just 40, to put his best foot forward to bring forward his team to revitalise the organisation. There was also talk in political circles that the two ambitious leaders wanted to become Rahul Gandhi’s “Manmohan Singh”.
A sort of race had begun to be the next prime minister if Rahul chose to follow his mother Sonia Gandhi.
For the younger lot, may it be Jitin Prasada, Deepender Singh Hooda, Sachin Pilot and Jyotiraditya Scindia, they all wanted to be with the rising sun. Prasada and Hooda are now either in the permanent invitee list or among the special invitees. Pilot and Scindia are being banked upon for the fights in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh respectively.
Winds of change
Now eight years later, and six months after becoming Congress president, Rahul Gandhi has finally reconstituted the Congress Working Committee, and things appeared to have changed for the worse for senior leaders.
Digvijay Singh, who at that time was seen to be among those closest to Rahul, has now been dropped from the highest policy making body of the party. Chidambaram, though known to be a key leader in the new scheme of things, failed to make it to the CWC and continues to be one of its permanent invitees.
Singh is not known to take things lying down and the assembly elections in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, due by year end, will show whether he has fallen in line. He has been the only Congress leader who had been chief minister of Madhya Pradesh for ten long years.
Janardan Dwivedi, who was general secretary in-charge of organisation, quit long ago knowing that his hey days are over, and no one expected his renomination. C.P. Joshi, though a known Rahul loyalist, has also ben losing weight politically for some time and the rise of Ashok Gehlot was a signal that Joshi, who also hails from Rajasthan, could be on his way out.
Despite the loss of power in Karnataka, former chief minister Siddaramaiah has got promotion as a member of the CWC in what could be a signal to chief minister H.D. Kumaraswamy of the JD(S) that he should remain on the right side of his predecessor.
The reconstitution, however, has delivered a shock to former Haryana chief minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda, whose known opponent and former Union minister Selja Kumari has got a place in the new CWC. AICC media department chief Randeep Singh Surjewala, who also hails from Haryana and was a minister in the Hooda government, is now a permanent invitee to the CWC. Kuldeep Bishnoi, the son of former chief minister Bhajan Lal, who is also his known opponent, has got a place as a special invitee. PCC chief Ashok Tanwar is also a Hooda detractor. Ahead of the Haryana assembly polls due next year, Gandhi has shown that he has several options available.
Apparently in an effort to mollify the senior Hooda, in a small consolation, his son Deepender has also been made a special invitee.
That senior leader Sushilkumar Shinde was dropped from the CWC shows that the Dalit leader from Maharashtra was only a hot favourite with Sonia Gandhi, who long back had made him the opposition candidate for vice presidentship against the late Bhairon Singh Shekhawat.
Former Maharashtra chief minister Prithviraj Chavan and former AICC general secretary Gurudas Kamat have also not found place in either the CWC or among the permanent invitees. The state is now represented by Mukul Wasnik and Avinash Pande, who both hail from Vidarbha region. Former state minister Balasaheb Thorat from Western Maharashtra and former Indian Youth Congress chief Rajeev Satav, MP from Marathwada are permanent invitees.
The CWC exercise has brought much regional imbalance. While Kerala has three members and Karnataka two members in the CWC, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, West Bengal and Odisha failed to get any representation in the apex policy making body of the party, perhaps in part reflecting the state of the organisation there.
The absence of any leader from Bengal shows that there is still confusion in the party on whether it ought to align with the CPI(M) or the ruling Trinamool Congress.
From Odisha, where the Congress has been out of power for nearly two decades, Rama Chandra Khuntia has been made a permanent invitee.. In Andhra Pradesh, the party has yet to get its act together after it lost power in 2014 following the carving out of Telangana from the state.
Kerala is represented by A.K. Antony, Oommen Chandy and K.C. Venugopal. Congress Lok Sabha leader Mallikarjun Kharge and former Chief Minister Siddaramaiah have been picked from Karnataka, which also has former Union minister K.H. Muniyappa as a special invitee.
As a policy, no PCC chief or party chief minister has been inducted. So the omission of Sachin Pilot from Rajasthan and Punjab chief minister Amarinder Singh and his Puducherry counterpart V. Narayanasamy was only to be expected.
The challenges ahead
When a new leader takes over, he brings in his team. For Rahul to make several changes is only natural.
But the way the Congress president has gone about the task has given the distinct impression of a clear tussle between the young Turks and the old guard. While several seniors have been retained, the fact is that only a handful of them have real power. Mainly, it is the young leaders who will be calling the shots.
The generational change was bound to happen but with the Lok Sabha polls some eight months away, the Congress president could have gone about it more slowly. This is because the challenge ahead is so grave that unity must to be maintained at all cost.
A general facing battle has to give the impression all are useful – the young and the experienced – to defeat the enemy. He cannot allow a breach that could cause sabotage.
Rahul, on his part, is showing that he is playing with a straight bat. But he still has to gauge how the pitch will turn.
Sunil Gatade is a Delhi-based journalist.