New Delhi: Senior Congress leader Ghulam Nabi Azad, who quit the party Friday, blamed what he called a “coterie of inexperienced sycophants”, referring to those close to the Gandhis. Azad alleged that this coterie, consisting of “PAs and security guards”, was making all the decisions in the party.
Two days before Azad shot his scathing resignation letter to Congress president Sonia Gandhi, another fellow Congressman said something similar while putting in his papers.
Jaiveer Shergill, one of the national spokespersons of the party, who quit Wednesday, said in an interview to ThePrint after his resignation that the party was being run by “PAs and OSDs and a few select leaders”. Shergill also said that he was unable to secure an appointment with the three Gandhis in spite of trying for over a year.
Azad and Shergill are not the first leaders exiting the party to have spoken about this “coterie”. Other Congress leaders, some in private and some not, have also accepted the decision-making powers this “coterie” has. They have also spoken about how the “coterie” restricts access to the three Gandhis.
But, who forms this “coterie”? ThePrint takes a look.
When Azad spoke about “security guards”, he was most likely referring to K.B. Byju, a former member of Rahul Gandhi’s Special Protection Group (SPG), Congress functionaries told ThePrint.
Byju became a part of Rahul’s team when the latter became the General Secretary of the party in 2007. However, he’s not an official member of the Congress. In fact, Byju’s association with Rahul goes back to 1991, when he was first assigned as the latter’s security detail, party sources said.
They added that Byju is in-charge of all travel, movements and security arrangements of Rahul Gandhi, which makes him a trusted lieutenant of the former party president.
A former ICICI bank executive, Alankar Sawai is a member of Rahul Gandhi’s personal staff and handles his day-to-day engagements. He was also in-charge of Gandhi’s social media accounts for a while. Even as Gandhi’s team has expanded since Sawai joined, he still remains the “Chief of Staff”, say party sources.
In Congress circles, he has been known to restrict access to Rahul Gandhi. He’s also Rahul’s liaison with the media. Gandhi’s interactions with the media, except for the one-off press conferences, are largely restricted. Sawai usually accompanies Rahul on all his political trips.
What Sawai is to Rahul, Sandeep Singh is to Priyanka Gandhi. As the story goes, Singh, a former student activist with the AISA (All India Students’ Association) in JNU, had reportedly raised blacks flags for Manmohan Singh when the former Prime Minister had visited the university campus. He then went on to work with CPI(ML) before starting work with the Congress.
Singh, in fact, worked with Rahul Gandhi before he joined Priyanka’s team in 2018, as she took charge as the party’s general secretary for Uttar Pradesh. He leads Priyanka’s team and advises her in political matters.
Singh also reportedly played a key role in ticket distribution and party strategy during the UP elections earlier this year. Some Congress leaders from UP had reportedly alleged that they needed to get into Singh’s good books to secure tickets for themselves, and that he was restricting access to Priyanka Gandhi.
Sources in the Congress describe Kanisha Singh as “a friend” to Rahul Gandhi. He started his political career in 2003 after quitting his job with the New York-based merchant banking firm Lazard Freres & Co. Kanishka has a MBA from Wharton Business School.
When he started out with the Congress at the time, Kanishka was working with Sheila Dikshit. He was thereafter spotted by the Gandhis after he penned an article in 2004, in which he likened Sonia Gandhi to John Kerry and predicted wins for both.
He has been working with the family, especially Rahul, since the 2004 Lok Sabha elections. Sources say that he handles “critical matters” for the leadership, especially those pertaining to law, security, etc.
From a similar background as Kanishka, Sachin Rao is an MBA graduate in corporate strategy and international business from the Michigan Business School. Rao is presently in-charge of personnel training and the INC Sandesh. He earlier managed the Indian Youth Congress (IYC) and NSUI (National Students Union of India).
In 2007, when Rahul took over as AICC general secretary, he, along with Rao, worked on rejuvenating the IYC and the NSUI. It was then considered the new general secretary’s first assignment in the party.
Sources say, holding internal elections for both bodies, which happened for the first time between 2007-2009 during Rahul’s tenure, was Rao’s idea. Rao is also a member of the Congress Working Committee (CWC), the highest decision-making body of the party.
A 1981-batch IAS officer, K. Raju, started working with the Congress in 2009. He was brought into the Congress fold by Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy. At present, he is a part of Rahul Gandhi’s team and handles affairs related to minority and caste politics, social welfare etc.
Chakravarty is presently the Chairman of the Congress’ Data and Analytics wing and an important sounding board for Rahul Gandhi in all matters related to economic policies. Chakravarty’s team undertakes surveys and data-based technological initiatives for the party.
Recently, he steered the digital membership drive of the Congress. An MBA from Wharton, Chakravarty, worked along with former Union minister P. Chidambaram on the much-hyped NYAY minimum wage guarantee scheme that Rahul promised and projected as the Congress party’s panacea for poverty and unemployment ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. However, NYAY failed to cut ice with the electorate.
The ‘select few’ leaders
Now, this group of leaders in the “coterie” has been largely fluid with some sustaining and others going in and out.
However, the two most consistent members have been K.C. Venugopal and Randeep Surjewala. While Venugopal is the general secretary in-charge of the organisation, Surjewala was, till recently, the in-charge of communications and the state of Karnataka. Presently, he is only general secretary in-charge of Karnataka, after party colleague Jairam Ramesh took over the communications department in June this year.
Made general secretary in-charge of Karnataka in 2017 after Rahul Gandhi took over as president, Venugopal was appointed in his current role in 2019. A former Lok Sabha MP from Kerala, Venugopal now represents the party in Rajya Sabha.
Randeep Surjewala was made general secretary in 2017 and in-charge of its media department, two years before that, in 2015. However, his tenure as head of the department was rife with criticism since many accused him of alienating the national media by being inaccessible.
In electoral politics, Surjewala lost the last two elections he contested from his home state Haryana. He is presently a Rajya Sabha member from Rajasthan.
Apart from this, another leader who enjoys proximity to Rahul Gandhi, in terms of his political advisory, is Manickam Tagore. A Lok Sabha MP from Tamil Nadu, Tagore is presently secretary in-charge of Telangana. Tagore has been instrumental in installing former TDP leader and ABVP activist, Revanth Reddy, as state president of Telangana Congress.
(Edited by Siddarth Muralidharan)