REVIVING THE PARTY
RAHUL GANDHI TAKES THE FIRST FEW STEPS TO BRING THE CONGRESS OUT OF THE COMA IT FINDS ITSELF IN, STARTING WITH A REJIG OF PARTY STRATEGISTS FOR POLL-BOUND STATES
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.