At long last, Rahul stirs to make or­gan­i­sa­tional changes in the Congress

On April 26, Congress pres­i­dent So­nia Gandhi ap­pointed for­mer Ra­jasthan chief min­is­ter Ashok Gehlot as the gen­eral sec­re­tary in­charge of Gu­jarat, which is go­ing to polls at the end of the year. On the face of it, the de­ci­sion seemed to defy logic as Gehlot had failed to re­tain his state four years ago. If the man he has re­placed—Gu­ru­das Ka­mat—was dis­grun­tled over be­ing side­lined in his home state Ma­ha­rash­tra, Gehlot has been find­ing it hard to face the prospect of a much younger Sachin Pi­lot lead­ing the party in the 2018 as­sem­bly elec­tions. And Gehlot may have headed the screen­ing com­mit­tee that chose can­di­dates for the as­sem­bly polls in Pun­jab, where the Congress re­turned to power af­ter a decade, but that cer­tainly did not earn him the job.

What seems a rou­tine de­ci­sion is part of Congress vice-pres­i­dent Rahul Gandhi’s new or­gan­i­sa­tional strat­egy. Gehlot is an Ahmed Pa­tel loy­al­ist. Hail­ing from Gu­jarat, So­nia Gandhi’s po­lit­i­cal sec­re­tary has a strong grip on the pol­i­tics of the state, mak­ing his in­volve­ment cru­cial for the party. “By ap­point­ing Gehlot as Gu­jarat in-charge,” says a gen­eral sec­re­tary of the party, “Rahul has made Pa­tel ac­count­able for the state. Con­trary to per­cep­tion, Rahul is not in con­fronta­tion with the vet­er­ans or those close to his mother; he is tak­ing them along.”

That said, some of the new ap­point­ments Rahul has made in the last one week sug­gest that he is work­ing to­wards build­ing a team of his own be­fore the or­gan­i­sa­tional elec­tions at the end of the year. And non-per­form­ing vet­er­ans have no place in this scheme of things. Iron­i­cally, the first to de­mand a “ma­jor surgery” af­ter the Congress de­ba­cles in the 2016 as­sem­bly polls be­came the first ca­su­alty of the op­er­a­tion. Congress gen­eral sec­re­tary Digvi­jaya Singh, who was in charge of Kar­nataka and Goa, was relieved of his du­ties in both the states. While Kar­nataka, one of the two big states where the Congress is in power, goes to polls next year, the party missed the op­por­tu­nity to form a gov­ern­ment in Goa de­spite win­ning 17 of the

40 as­sem­bly seats this March.

How­ever, though his Goa show­ing per­haps mer­ited pun­ish­ment, re­mov­ing Digvi­jaya from Kar­nataka comes as a sur­prise, es­pe­cially af­ter the party man­aged to win both by­elec­tions last month. Sources close to Rahul say that Digvi­jaya was sac­ri­ficed to help the Congress put up a united fight against the BJP in the as­sem­bly poll, bol­stered by the re­turn of B.S. Yed­dyu­rappa, who hopes to come back to power in the south­ern state. And in the fac­tion-rid­den Kar­nataka Congress, Digvi­jaya was seen to be sid­ing with chief min­is­ter Sid­dara­ma­iah. Al­ready fac­ing al­le­ga­tions of cor­rup­tion and non-per­for­mance, the chief min­is­ter ex­e­cuted an illplanned reshuf­fle last year, drop­ping as many as 14 min­is­ters and in­duct­ing 13 new ones. Backed by Digvi­jaya, this move brought the bick­er­ing in the party out into the open. “There have been mul­ti­ple com­plaints against him,” says a sec­re­tary close to Rahul. “He did the same in As­sam where he played Hi­manta Biswa Sarma against then CM Tarun Go­goi.”

The re­spon­si­bil­ity for restor­ing or­der in Kar­nataka now rests with 54-yearold Ker­ala MP K.C. Venu­gopal, who can of­ten be seen seated next to Rahul in Par­lia­ment. Four party sec­re­taries—for­mer

“Congressmen in their 30s and 40s are now be­ing given lead­er­ship roles be­yond their states,” says Ran­deep Sur­je­w­ala

Tamil Nadu MP Man­ickam Tagore, for­mer Ker­ala MLA P.C. Vish­nunadh, for­mer Te­len­gana MP Madhu Yashki Goud and for­mer Andhra Pradesh Min­is­ter Sake Saila­janath—whom Rahul has picked, will as­sist him. Digvi­jaya’s job in Goa has gone to for­mer Tamil Nadu MLA A. Chella Ku­mar, who as AICC sec­re­tary has been at­tached to the Goa desk since 2013. Al­though he has been given the pres­ti­gious post, Chella Ku­mar has not been made gen­eral sec­re­tary. For­mer Ma­ha­rash­tra chief min­is­ter Vi­las­rao Desh­mukh’s son Amit will be his deputy. Even in Ra­jasthan, Gehlot will have four sec­re­taries—for­mer Youth Congress chief and Ma­ha­rash­tra Lok Sabha MP Ra­jeev Satav, for­mer Ma­ha­rash­tra MLA Harsh­vard­han Sap­kal, Ma­ha­rash­tra MLA Var­sha Gaik­wad and Mad­hya Pradesh MLA Jitu Pat­wari—to help him, all of whom have worked with Rahul ear­lier.

“He is writ­ing a new par­a­digm and nar­ra­tive for the Congress,” says Ran­deep Singh Sur­je­w­ala, Congress com­mu­ni­ca­tion in-charge. “Congressmen in their 30s and 40s are now be­ing given lead­er­ship roles be­yond their own states to re­write the party’s poli­cies and pro­grammes. They are tasked with find­ing even younger lead­ers at the grass­roots to be groomed for block dis­trict and state level re­spon­si­bil­i­ties.”

A close aide of Rahul be­lieves the re­cent ap­point­ments sig­nal the emer­gence of a new gen­er­a­tion of lead­ers in states like Ker­ala, Tamil Nadu, Ma­ha­rash­tra and Mad­hya Pradesh. In the next few weeks, there will be changes in sev­eral other poll-bound states, in­clud­ing in MP, where the party has not been able to de­cide between two prob­a­ble chief min­is­te­rial can­di­dates—Ka­mal Nath and Jy­oti­ra­ditya Scin­dia. What the party high com­mand has de­cided on, though, is to change the gen­eral sec­re­tary in-charge Mo­han Prakash, who also han­dles Ma­ha­rash­tra and Mum­bai.

If he goes, it will mark the de­par­ture of Rahul’s one­time favourite troika con­sist­ing of Prakash, Digvi­jaya and Mad­husud­han Mistry. Mistry, who was re­moved as gen­eral sec­re­tary in charge of Ut­tar Pradesh last year, has now been made a mem­ber of the party’s cen­tral election au­thor­ity. And ac­cord­ing to the party con­sti­tu­tion, a mem­ber of the election au­thor­ity can­not hold any po­si­tion in the party.

Yet, an­other gen­eral sec­re­tary who has an even worse record con­tin­ues to en­joy Rahul’s un­con­di­tional sup­port. For­mer Union min­is­ter C.P. Joshi, who is in charge of 11 states, in­clud­ing As­sam, Bi­har and West Ben­gal, has watched three states slip out of Congress hands. His sur­vival, how­ever, is at­trib­uted to two fac­tors—his role in fa­cil­i­tat­ing the Bi­har ma­ha­gath­band­han and his first sug­ges­tion as As­sam in-charge ask­ing Rahul to make Hi­manta Biswa Sarma CM can­di­date. Rahul ig­nored the ad­vice only to have the party lose the state. The other north­east­ern states came to Joshi af­ter V. Narayan­swamy, who han­dled them, left to be­come the Puducherry CM.

Some Congress vet­er­ans, how­ever, don’t read much into th­ese changes, say­ing such reshuf­fles have hap­pened be­fore. Af­ter So­nia took charge as Congress pres­i­dent in 1998, the then Haryana in-charge, Pranab Mukher­jee, was sacked fol­low­ing the Congress’s de­feat in the 1999 state polls. It was seen at the time as a tough step by the Congress pres­i­dent. In 2002, Ghu­lam Nabi Azad was re­moved as UP in-charge even though he had led the party to wins in Kar­nataka and Ma­ha­rash­tra in 1999, Ker­ala and Puducherry in 2001 and Ut­taran­chal and J&K in 2002. The same Azad was brought back to strate­gise for UP in 2016.

“Just chang­ing the gen­eral sec­re­tary in-charge is not the so­lu­tion. You have to de­fine the role of gen­eral sec­re­taries. They should know ex­actly what they are ex­pected to do,” says a party gen­eral sec­re­tary. Iron­i­cally, this was a sig­nif­i­cant part of Rahul’s marathon dis­cus­sion with party work­ers over four months in 2014, af­ter the crush­ing Lok Sabha de­feat. Af­ter the dis­cus­sions, and based on sug­ges­tions from Congressmen, Rahul pre­pared a blue­print for the party’s re­vival, and sub­mit­ted it to the Congress pres­i­dent be­fore leav­ing for a two-month-

long Vi­pas­sana course. The blue­print re­mains on pa­per.

A CWC mem­ber says a gen­eral sec­re­tary must limit his role to sup­ply­ing ground re­ports in the states and sug­gest­ing so­lu­tions. “In­stead, they ag­gra­vate the sit­u­a­tion by tak­ing sides between war­ring fac­tions or with in­ac­tion. They don’t win elec­tions, a pop­u­lar face does, like Amarinder Singh in Pun­jab,” he says. How­ever, bar­ring Kar­nataka, Mi­zo­ram and Ra­jasthan, the Congress is yet to de­cide on a CM can­di­date or giv­ing one per­son the re­spon­si­bil­ity to lead the cam­paign.

In Kar­nataka, de­spite the dis­si­dence against him, Sid­dara­ma­iah’s stock went up af­ter the re­cent wins in the Gund­lu­pet and Nan­jan­gud by­polls. In Ra­jasthan, Rahul strongly backs 39-year-old Pi­lot de­spite the Gehlot camp try­ing to scut­tle his chances. In Hi­machal, the Congress vice-pres­i­dent is des­per­ately look­ing for a CM face to re­place Virb­hadra Singh, who faces al­le­ga­tions of cor­rup­tion and is bat­tling ill health. The state is likely to get a re­place­ment for gen­eral sec­re­tary in-charge Am­bika Soni.

While Gu­jarat has a new gen­eral sec­re­tary in-charge, cur­rent state pres­i­dent Bharatsinh Solanki is un­likely to head the cam­paign panel. In Ch­hat­tis­garh too, there is no de­ci­sion on the CM can­di­date, but the cam­paign will fo­cus pri­mar­ily on ST seats to counter the chal­lenge posed by for­mer Con­gress­man Ajit Jogi-led Ch­hat­tis­garh Janata Congress. In fact, the party plans to tar­get about 294 re­served con­stituen­cies—143 for SCs and 151 for STs—in Gu­jarat, Hi­machal, Ch­hat­tis­garh, Ra­jasthan, Kar­nataka and MP. A con­tin­u­a­tion of Rahul’s Dalit mis­sion in UP, it may not have helped the Congress win a sin­gle re­served seat, but the in­creased vote share has in­spired the party to test it in Ra­jasthan and then in Kar­nataka.

But the big bat­tle is in MP, where the party has to go with ei­ther Scin­dia or Nath. Choos­ing one and tak­ing the other along will be the test of Rahul’s lead­er­ship. Pol­i­tics, af­ter all, is about con­sis­tency, not just one smart move.

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