India Today - - INSIDE - By Kaushik Deka

The old guard un­der So­nia Gandhi begins to as­sert it­self and turfs out Rahul’s favourites in the Grand Old Party

IT WAS LATE IN THE EVENING ON Au­gust 11 when So­nia Gandhi was named Congress pres­i­dent for a sec­ond time. She ap­par­ently asked a long-time Congress leader not known to be close to her: “Are you ready for the bat­tle ahead? It’s go­ing to be a long haul.” The ques­tion was an indi­ca­tor of how she has planned her sec­ond in­nings, one she had to take up fol­low­ing the res­ig­na­tion of son Rahul Gandhi from the post. Her first run lasted two decades and the Congress ruled at the Cen­tre for half that pe­riod.

With trusted lieu­tenant Ahmed Patel by her side, So­nia has once again em­barked on the task of re­build­ing the party. It’ll be a her­culean ef­fort—the party has been wiped out in much of In­dia. The Congress rules just five states in the coun­try now and in two of them—Ra­jasthan and Mad­hya Pradesh—they sur­vive with a thin ma­jor­ity. Af­ter two con­sec­u­tive, hu­mil­i­at­ing de­feats in the gen­eral elec­tions, in­fight­ing and dis­sent are brew­ing in al­most all state units. Sev­eral in­flu­en­tial lead­ers have de­serted the Congress since the May 23 re­sults and oth­ers are bick­er­ing in pub­lic, more so in the two poll-bound states—Ma­ha­rash­tra and Haryana.

The emer­gence of three dif­fer­ent teams within the Congress, at times work­ing at cross-pur­poses, is also lead­ing to spec­u­la­tion about the party’s long-term sur­vival. The first team con­sists of those lead­ers who worked closely with So­nia in her first term. The pro­fes­sion­als with non-po­lit­i­cal back­grounds work­ing in Rahul Gandhi’s of­fice form the sec­ond. Other prom­i­nent lead­ers, those who are not in ei­ther camp or have fallen out of favour with the Gand­his, make up the third. And this team is grow­ing in num­bers.

Ever since So­nia re­turned to power, her stamp and the in­flu­ence of her old team have been ev­i­dent in ev­ery party de­ci­sion. For in­stance, in Ma­ha­rash­tra, which goes to the polls on Oc­to­ber 21, the rel­a­tively low-pro­file Balasa­heb Tho­rat was made pres­i­dent of the state Congress—the same fac­tion-rid­den unit that has seen the exit of nearly a dozen lead­ers since May, in­clud­ing ex-min­is­ters Kri­pashankar Singh and Harsh­vard­han Patil and MLA Nitesh Rane. His se­lec­tion had the back­ing of both Rahul and So­nia, which en­sured there was lit­tle re­sis­tance from high-pro­file lead­ers such as former Ma­ha­rash­tra chief min­is­ters Ashok Cha­van and Prithvi­raj Cha­van. But the cen­tral lead­er­ship was ruth­less with Milind De­ora, who had openly de­manded a young, ef­fi­cient leader as Congress pres­i­dent in the 90-day in­terim be­tween Rahul’s res­ig­na­tion and So­nia’s re­turn. Congress in­sid­ers claim that De­ora, who had re­signed as Mum­bai Congress pres­i­dent fol­low­ing the Lok Sabha poll de­ba­cle, is now per­sona non grata in the party.

In fact, if Congress sources are to be be­lieved, the clam­our for a younger party pres­i­dent, first raised by Pun­jab chief

min­is­ter Amarinder Singh, alarmed So­nia the most. While the ini­tial strat­egy was to in­stal a low-pro­file Gandhi fam­ily loy­al­ist as party pres­i­dent—pre­sum­ably to warm the seat till Rahul changes his mind and re­turns— the call for an elec­tion by lead­ers such as Shashi Tha­roor made So­nia do a re-think. “She was never re­luc­tant, she wants the reins to stay in the hands of a Gandhi,” says a mem­ber of the Congress Work­ing Com­mit­tee. “If elec­tions were held and no Gandhi con­tested, the power could have slipped away to some­one young and pos­si­bly more ef­fi­cient. And while the long-term chances of such a Congress pres­i­dent are slim when three Gand­his are ac­tive in pol­i­tics, she didn’t want to take the risk. She be­came in­creas­ingly sus­pi­cious of the am­bi­tions of Tha­roor, De­ora, Jy­oti­ra­ditya Scin­dia and Sachin Pi­lot.”

That opened the door for the So­nia loy­al­ists. With her back as party chief, those who drew power from Rahul in the top post also had to with­draw. Mad­hya Pradesh Congress leader Jy­oti­ra­ditya Scin­dia, the sole voice of in­tro­spec­tion and self-crit­i­cism at the CWC meet­ing held on May 25, is now fac­ing an un­cer­tain fu­ture. Scin­dia once seemed destined for the top post of Mad­hya Pradesh Congress pres­i­dent, cur­rently oc­cu­pied by Chief Min­is­ter Kamal Nath. But when his sup­port­ers tried to raise the heat on Nath and the other stal­wart from the state, Digvi­jaya Singh, Scin­dia could not back them as he had lit­tle sup­port from Delhi. The fact that he had also lost the Lok Sabha poll did not help his cause. Former Mum­bai Congress pres­i­dent San­jay Niru­pam (who en­joyed Rahul’s con­fi­dence till March when an­other of his favourites, De­ora, re­placed him), has openly re­volted against the old guard al­leg­ing that he has been ig­nored in the ticket dis­tri­bu­tion for the Ma­ha­rash­tra assem­bly elec­tion. “I agree that Scin­dia has some gen­uine griev­ances, but why is Niru­pam tar­get­ing se­nior lead­ers? He was re­moved by Rahul,” asks a leader of the old guard.

In Ra­jasthan, there is spec­u­la­tion that Chief Min­is­ter Ashok Gehlot may soon ap­point some more deputy chief min­is­ters. Gehlot’s ri­val, Sachin Pi­lot, is cur­rently the only one hold­ing the post. While some Con­gress­men ar­gue that this may be a move to woo the in­flu­en­tial castes in the state, many see this as an at­tempt to cut Pi­lot to size. The 42-year-old Ra­jasthan Congress pres­i­dent, who led the party to vic­tory in the 2018 assem­bly poll, lost out to Gehlot in the race to be chief min­is­ter as the Gandhi fam­ily plumped for the old loy­al­ist. “In­stead of as­pir­ing for the CM’s chair, he should fo­cus on sav­ing his po­si­tion as Ra­jasthan Congress pres­i­dent,” says a se­nior party leader.

While Scin­dia and Niru­pam have still not lost faith in the party, some oth­ers have called it quits. In the North­east, Pradyot Manikya Deb­barma, an­other royal head con­nected to the Scin­dia fam­ily, has quit as pres­i­dent of the Tripura Congress. Deb­barma was up­set with the ‘in­ter­fer­ence’ by then gen­eral sec­re­tary in-charge Luiz­inho Faleiro, who asked him to change his stand on the con­tro­ver­sial Na­tional Regis­ter of Cit­i­zens (NRC). Deb­barma, who rep­re­sents the in­dige­nous pop­u­la­tion of Tripura, has been fight­ing a case in the Supreme Court de­mand­ing an NRC in his home state. “The Congress has sev­eral lead­ers who take their brief from the BJP and are work­ing to de­stroy the party,” he says. Weeks af­ter Deb­barma’s res­ig­na­tion, Faleiro was sacked on Oc­to­ber 7. The in­flu­ence of the old guard was ev­i­dent when he was re­in­stated within 24 hours.

But the big­gest ca­su­alty has been former Haryana Congress pres­i­dent Ashok Tan­war. De­spite ex-chief min­is­ter Bhupin­der Singh Hooda’s strong op­po­si­tion, Tan­war re­mained at the helm for more than five years be­cause he had

Rahul’s back­ing. In Septem­ber, So­nia loy­al­ist Ku­mari Selja re­placed Tan­war while Hooda be­came chair­per­son of the elec­tion man­age­ment com­mit­tee. A month later, un­happy with the ticket dis­tri­bu­tion for the assem­bly elec­tion, Tan­war re­signed from the party. With­out nam­ing any­one, he said some well-es­tab­lished peo­ple in the Congress felt they were gods but be­haved like demons to de­stroy peo­ple.

Though they have re­frained from say­ing any­thing against Rahul and So­nia, what has hurt the rebels most is the Gandhi scion’s in­dif­fer­ence to their plight. Rahul has done lit­tle to ‘pro­tect’ them when they were tar­geted by the new regime. In fact, since he demit­ted of­fice on May 25, Rahul has not in­ter­fered in any of the po­lit­i­cal de­ci­sions con­cern­ing his peo­ple, lim­it­ing his ac­tiv­i­ties to vis­it­ing his con­stituency, Wayanad, and tar­get­ing the Modi gov­ern­ment on so­cial media plat­forms. His sud­den trip abroad, with less than two weeks to go for the elec­tion in Haryana and Ma­ha­rash­tra, has also given cur­rency to whis­pers about his in­dif­fer­ence to party af­fairs.

How­ever, his non-po­lit­i­cal ap­point­ments have been in­su­lated from any puni­tive ac­tion. For in­stance, So­nia ap­proved the pro­posal to re­or­gan­ise the party’s data an­a­lyt­ics de­part­ment as the ‘Tech­nol­ogy & Data Cell’ and made Praveen Chakravart­y head of the cell. The old guard had es­pe­cially tar­geted Chakravart­y af­ter the Lok Sabha elec­tion, al­leg­ing that he had mis­led Rahul with fake data. The other loy­al­ist to sur­vive the purge is K.C. Venu­gopal, or­gan­i­sa­tion sec­re­tary of the party (though some in­sid­ers claim it’s only the “official des­ig­na­tion” that keeps him rel­e­vant, and that his role is now lim­ited to re­leas­ing state

ments on ap­point­ments within the party).

Not all young lead­ers have faced the brunt ei­ther. Fam­ily lega­cies of loy­alty to the Gand­his are still a most val­ued as­set and two young turks from As­sam—Gau­rav Go­goi and Sush­mita Dev—prove that. Two-time MP Gau­rav is the son of former As­sam chief min­is­ter Tarun Go­goi. Though the se­nior Go­goi is not a favourite of the old guard, he has the en­vi­able back­ing of all three Gand­his. Af­ter So­nia took charge, Gau­rav was given ad­di­tional charge of two more states—Sikkim and Ma­nipur—be­sides his cur­rent as­sign­ment of han­dling West Ben­gal and An­daman & Ni­co­bar. Sush­mita is the daugh­ter of the late Union min­is­ter San­tosh Mo­han Dev, who was very close to Ra­jiv Gandhi and So­nia. Though Sush­mita lost in May, she con­tin­ues to head the Mahila Congress and en­joys ac­cess to all three Gand­his. “There is no par­tic­u­lar agenda against the young lead­ers,” says a Congress Ra­jya Sabha leader. “The prob­lem is sev­eral of them got too much from the party too early. Count the num­ber of young min­is­ters in UPA gov­ern­ments. It made them too am­bi­tious.”

An­other se­nior leader points to a re­cent vi­ral video of a con­ver­sa­tion be­tween three Congress lead­ers—Patel, Ghu­lam Nabi Azad and Hooda—to drive home the point that the vet­er­ans don’t con­trol ev­ery­thing. In the video, shot in the Par­lia­ment com­plex on Oc­to­ber 2, Hooda is heard com­plain­ing to Patel that tick­ets were not given to can­di­dates rec­om­mended by him. In this bat­tle be­tween the two sides, sev­eral non-aligned lead­ers have be­come in­creas­ingly marginalis­ed. Two glar­ing ex­am­ples are Shashi Tha­roor and Man­ish Te­wari. The former Union min­is­ters were ig­nored for any lead­er­ship po­si­tion of the party in the Lok Sabha. Tha­roor lamented that de­spite win­ning three con­sec­u­tive Lok Sabha elec­tions, he has not been in­volved in any de­lib­er­a­tions on find­ing the causes of the party’s re­cent elec­toral de­ba­cles. An­other former Union min­is­ter Sal­man Khur­shid ad­mit­ted that there was a lead­er­ship vac­uum in the party. “We haven’t re­ally got to­gether to an­a­lyse why we lost. Our big­gest prob­lem is our leader has walked away. It has left a sort of vac­uum,” says Khur­shid.

The vac­uum is also the con­se­quence of the Congress lead­er­ship’s re­luc­tance to groom sec­ond-gen­er­a­tion nondynast lead­ers in the states. The long-haul bat­tle that So­nia seems to be pre­par­ing for will re­quire a co­he­sive unit at ev­ery level—from the CWC to the dis­tricts to the poll booth. What’s adding to the con­fu­sion is the fact that, for the first time in its his­tory, three mem­bers of the Gandhi fam­ily are ac­tive par­tic­i­pants in party af­fairs at the same time. Though Priyanka Gandhi has been call­ing the shots in Ut­tar Pradesh-re­lated is­sues, many within the party al­ready see her as the in­her­i­tor of So­nia’s le­gacy. Many lead­ers are mak­ing des­per­ate at­tempts to gain prox­im­ity to her, in the hope of cre­at­ing an­other power struc­ture.

This has made So­nia’s cur­rent job more com­pli­cated. Though she is sup­port­ive of Priyanka, the mother in her also doesn’t want Rahul to fade away as a fail­ure. Un­like in 1998, when she was just 52, an ail­ing So­nia now needs to not only get her house in or­der quickly but build a bat­tle-ready team to fight the Modi ma­chine. “Mod­ern elec­tions are fought on what I call the 3M frame­work—mes­sen­ger, mes­sage and ma­chine,” says Chakravart­y. “In pre­vi­ous eras, the Congress party won elec­tions with just mes­sen­ger and mes­sage. That is no longer enough. It now needs to build the ma­chine to am­plify its mes­sage and mes­sen­ger. Build­ing the ma­chine re­quires vast re­sources. But first, an earnest in­tent for it is needed.” The Congress has yet to re­veal any clear in­tent. ■


WHICH WAY? Rahul and So­nia Gandhi at a Ma­hatma Gandhi tribute func­tion in Delhi, Oct. 2

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