With heavy-weight Sonia-loyalist Ahmed Patel gone, the problems at the apex in the Congress party might as well snowball. This is just days after the Congress massively lost in the Bihar assembly polls and is re-positioning itself in the fourth position in the state assembly. Alongside, the defeats in a string of byelections across the country came as another rude shock. Patel was a tower of strength for Sonia Gandhi, and he was a committed aide for her not only in party matters but for personal errands too. He was loyal to the core, and rarely threw his weight around in party circles or in public fora. He kept the media at a distance, and concentrated on the jobs given to him byHis departure is bound to affect the morale of the elderly Sonia, who now acts as interim Congress president in the hope her son, Rahul Gandhi, will return to the party chief post sooner or later. She does not want to hand over the party to anybody else, though now she’s in half a mood for organisational polls. The party is facing one of the most-critical times in national politics, also as the organisational structure has not been maintained properly over the past many years.
Rumblings in the party have resurfaced and show little signs of abating with Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha (Upper House), Ghulam Nabi Azad, raising questions about the party’s functioning and demanding sweeping changes. As he put it, the Congress’ “organizational system has collapsed” and its position will not improve unless reforms are carried out.
The Bihar elections were won by a coalition of the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Janata Dal (United) as part of an alliance led by the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and also comprising the Left parties. Of the 70 seats contested, Congress managed to win just 19. The NDA secured a majority in the assembly and formed government. Congress machinery functioned low-key on the campaign front, and senior leader Rahul Gandhi put up a couple of cosmetic appearances and left the scene half-way through the campaign. Party interim president Sonia Gandhi did not venture out at all, also due to her health problems and Covid situation.
Congressmen are worried that the party is facing humiliations repeatedly in assembly and Lok Sabha polls. Its fate, they fear, could soon be sealed if it remained sort of rudderless. In Maharashtra, which was one of its strongholds, the party came fourth in the assembly polls a year ago, a scenario which saw the BJP, the Shiv Sena, the NCP of Sharad Pawar coming upfront, and Congress becoming junior partners in the Sena-NCP-Congress government. In Haryana too, the party remained in the Opposition benches after the assembly polls even as BJP chief minister Manoharlal Khattar’s performance was lack-lustre. Rahul Gandhi had walked away from President post soon after the Lok Sabha polls, in which the party got a drubbing even as led the campaign against Prime Minister Modi and the BJP.
Azad noted: “Both Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi said that party elections should be held in October. But we said that the elections should be held after six months due to Covid-19.” Azad didn’t blame Sonia or Rahul Gandhi for the setback. But his criticism of the selection process of office-bearers for the party, according to some party insiders, is a veiled protest against the current system. Azad was among a few leaders who took courage in their hands a while ago and wrote a letter to the leadership to hold organizational elections soonest. The Family sensed danger and cold-shouldered these leaders in the new round of positions-distribution at AICC level.
The situation in the Congress is “not good”, Azad said, but he argued that “making it good is in our hands”. He admitted that “our leaders have lost connection with people on the ground.” The only solution for the party’s revival, he said, is organisational election from booth-level upwards. Azad said the pandemic has “derailed” attempts to reform the organization but argued “as and when we have a clear window,” the leadership should push reforms to strengthen the party.
“The defeat in Bihar and the by-elections is a matter of great concern for the party. And for this, I don’t blame the national leadership. We will not improve our position in any state unless we have the block-level, district-level and PCC-level elections, which has been our demand from Day One. By demanding this, we are strengthening the hands of the leadership and the party,” Azad said.
Azad said he had been forced to go public with his views as “there has been no dialogue and there seems to be no effort for a dialogue by the leadership”.
Pointing to the string of bypoll reverses in states like Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh, where the party’s presence is strong, Supreme Court lawyer and party strongman in Delhi, Kapil Sibal, had advised the Congress to “recognise that we are in decline” and that it was essential to converse with “experienced minds… people who understand the political realities of India”. Sibal had also mentioned that he had been forced to go public with his views as “there has been no dialogue and there seems to be no effort for a dialogue by the leadership”.
The chorus also grew louder with senior leader Kapil Sibal iterating that change will not happen unless the Congress goes to the people and tells them what the party is all about. He also stressed that he is not against Rahul Gandhi or the Nehru Family but is unhappy with the functioning of the Grand Old Party.
Kapil Sibal said he stands by his comments that Congress is not an effective opposition to the BJP at the moment. “How can you be an effective Opposition when we don’t even have a full-time president for 18 months when we don’t even have a conversation in the party on why we are losing…,” he said.
Talking about Congress’ poll performances of late, he said, “Today, Congress workers cannot go out of their homes. The question they face is: what has happened to your party? What about their sentiments? My sentiments have also been hurt. I’m talking about the sentiments of millions of Congress workers.”
I’m not challenging anybody. We know change will not happen tomorrow. We lost 2014. We lost 2019. Change will not happen because of [internal] elections. We have to go to the people… and tell them what the Congress ideology is,” added the dissenting Congress leader.
Hitting back at Azad, former external affairs minister and senior Salman Khurshid rejected perceptions of a leadership crisis in the Congress and said all-round support for Sonia and Rahul Gandhi is “apparent to anyone who is not blind”. Khurshid said public statements by Congress leaders critical of the party hurt it.
Acknowledging some home-truths in the middle of the turmoil over Kapil Sibal’s open criticism of the party leadership, former Union minister P. Chidambaram said the Bihar election and by-poll results showed that the Congress has no organisational presence on the ground or has weakened considerably.
He felt the party might have bitten more than it could chew in Bihar, meaning it might have contested more seats there than it should have, and hence could not give much support to all those candidates. The RJD leadership in Bihar had stated as much about the Congress; that its greed for more seats led to defeat for the Mahagatbandhan. Congress lost most of the seats it contested.
“I am more worried about the by-poll results. These results show that the party either has no organisational presence on the ground or has been weakened considerably,” said Chidambaram, adding,
“In Bihar, the RJD-Congress had a chance of winning. Why we lost despite being so close to victory is something that needs comprehensive review. Remember, the Congress had won Rajasthan, MP, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand.”
Chidambaram said the Bihar results had proven that even smaller parties like CPI-ML and AIMIM can perform if they are organizationally strong at the grassroots level. “The opposition alliance can get as many votes as the BJP-led coalition; but to beat them, we have to strengthen our organization at the ground level.”
Sonia loyalist and Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Ghelot said: “There was no need for Kapil Sibal to take our internal issues to the media. This has hurt the sentiments of party workers. We have improved with each and every crisis and also formed UPA government in 2004 under the able leadership of Soniaji, after the BJP rule. We shall overcome this time too. But each time the rank and file of the Congress Party has shown undivided and firm belief in the party leadership and that is why we came out of it stronger and united after every crisis. Even today, the Congress is the only party which can keep this nation united and take it forward on the path of comprehensive development.”
ADHIR RANJAN CHOWDHURY
Congress leader in Lok Sabha Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury said only “speaking for introspection while doing nothing” will not help the party. “Kapil Sibal could have raised the issues inside a party forum instead of making such embarrassing remarks in public. Those who are unhappy with the functioning of the party have the freedom to form a new party or join one if they feel that the Congress is not the right place for them. He seems to be very concerned about the Congress and its need for introspection. Earlier also he had spoken about it in public. But he was not seen campaigning for the party in the elections in Bihar or other states that went to polls last year. Instead of giving sermons sitting in AC rooms, he should work on the ground,” he said.
Days after Azad’s criticism of Congress, the party on November 24 asked the ‘nominated’ senior leaders to maintain discipline and refrain from going public on internal issues. “The nominated senior leaders have access to the party leadership. Azad is a CWC nominated member who can just pick up the phone and call anybody instead of speaking publicly,” Congress spokesperson Pawan Khera said. “These leaders had taught us discipline and how to work in the organisation. So, today when they speak in public, we are shocked. All platforms are available within the party. They are also members of the CWC (Congress Working Committee), nominated members since many years,” Khera said.
WHAT SONIA IS DOING NOW
Meanwhile, Congress working president Sonia Gandhi has constituted three five-member party committees — on economic affairs, foreign affairs and national security — with former PM Manmohan Singh as a member of each. The party announced the formation of the committees and their members Friday. At least four of the 23 signatories to the controversial August letter seeking a leadership change in the party have been made members of the committees — Anand Sharma and Shashi Tharoor in the foreign affairs committee, and Ghulam Nabi Azad and Veerappa Moily in the national security committee. Chidambaram, has been made a member of the committee on economic affairs. Jairam Ramesh has been appointed as convenor of the economic affairs committee. Other members of the panel include Malikarjun Kharge and Digvijaya Singh.
Kharge had on November 19 come out in support of the party leadership, saying some members are “weakening the party from within” by questioning the leadership.
The committee of foreign affairs will be headed by former external affairs minister Salman Khurshid. Other members are Saptagiri Ulaka, Singh, Sharma and Tharoor, who served as junior foreign minister during the UPA government. The national security committee will be headed by Vincent H. Pala, Lok Sabha MP from Shillong. Pala has previously served as the MoS for Water Resources and MoS of Minority Affairs during UPA-I. The other members of the committee include former Puducherry CM V. Vaithilingam, Azad and Moily.
RESPONSE TO RCEP, CHINA
The formation of the committees follows what appeared to be dissonance within the party on articulating its stand on issues such as scrapping Article 370 and India’s decision to opt out of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) agreement. Last November, after the Modi government opted out of signing the agreement, the Congress claimed credit for successfully pressuring the government to do so, saying it didn’t deem the RCEP favorable for India.
The Congress has not seen such coordinated dissent in its recent history, at least not since Sonia Gandhi established her grip firmly on the leadership in the beginning of 2000. However, the party was also in power for 10 years from 2004 to 2014, which was a disincentive to dissent. Since 2014, however, tension has been simmering. There have long been murmurs against Rahul Gandhi, but the disconnect between him and other senior leaders has now reached a point where it had to come out in the open in some way or the other.
Is this show of dissent unprecedented in the Congress? No, it isn’t. The Congress is not new to turmoil, dissent and splits. But the difference this time is that the party has now been out of power at the national level for more than six years – the second longest period in its history. The longest period was between 1996 and 2004. There was a major crisis then too – in 1998. But the difference was that a non-Gandhi – Sitaram Kesri – was heading the party then. And that the rebellion was against him – and it was orchestrated by the Delhi lobby to install Sonia as the president.
Before that, there was a rebellion in the early 1990s – that too, was against a non-Gandhi. The rebellion – against Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao – resulted in N D Tiwari and Arjun Singh breaking away and launching a new party. Even in 1969 or 1977, when the party faced a split, it was a Gandhi leading the rebellion, and not at the receiving end.
In 1969, the tussle between Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and the old guard known as the ‘Syndicate’ came to a head when she threw her weight behind independent candidate VV Giri in the Presidential election. The party’s official candidate, Neelam Sanjiva Reddy, lost and the party split after then Congress president S Nijalingappa expelled Indira Gandhi. In 1977, the Congress’s post-Emergency defeat triggered a crisis when then party president K Brahmananda Reddy and Y B Chavan, its leader in Parliament, turned against Indira. The party split once again, with Indira engineering it.
In fact, the party had suffered a split even before the elections with Jagjivan Ram and others like HN Bahuguna forming a new party, Congress for Democracy. In 1987, however, the party was in power when it faced a crisis.
VP SINGH’S DISSENT OVER CORRUPTION
VP Singh, who as Finance Minister and later as Defence Minister in the Rajiv Gandhi government raised questions about corruption, was ousted first from the Cabinet, and then from the party. VP Singh then launched the Jan Morcha with several other disillusioned Congress leaders.
The only challenge Sonia faced was in her initial years, soon after she took over as Congress president in 1998. Just before the 1999 Lok Sabha elections, Sharad Pawar, P A Sangma and Tariq Anwar raised the banner of revolt. They were expelled, and a new offshoot of the Congress – the NCP – was born. In 2001, before Sonia could consolidate her position, Jitendra Prasada threw a challenge to her leadership when he contested against her for the post of Congress president. He could not do much, and Sonia won easily. That was the last time elections were held for the post of Congress president.
Congress is in power in Punjab, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand and in Maharashtra, the party is a part of Shiv Sena-led Maha Vikas Aghadi; and in Union Territory of Puducherry, Congress is in alliance with Dravida Munnetra Kazham. Assembly elections are due next year in Assam, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal and Puducherry. –IHN-NN
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