On one of my usual story-fishing expeditions several years ago, I was intrigued to see an influential Maharashtra legislator engaging a 10 Janpath peon in a long conversation in the lawns of the Congress headquarters. As I approached them, Kanhaiyalal Gidwani wound up his conversation, giving the peon his three mobile numbers, including the “private” one, which only “a select few” had.
Gidwani, yet to be named as an accused in the Adarsh scam, had easy access to party bigwigs such as A.K. Antony and Pranab Mukherjee. I was, therefore, surprised to see him indulging a peon. As Gidwani told me later, he, along with a Karnataka leader, had dinner with the peon at the Taj Man Singh hotel in New Delhi the previous evening. The Karnataka leader had a letter — the second one — from H.D. Deve Gowda to Sonia Gandhi, committing Janata Dal (Secular)’s support to his candidature in the legislative council polls. There was just one day left for filing the nomination papers and the challenge was to get Gandhi to see the letter well in time. She eventually did, as the peon placed the letter on top of her work table the next morning, making that Karnataka leader a legislator. “You don’t know the powers of these peons,” Gidwani taunted me for my ignorance.
To be fair to the Gandhi family, it doesn’t discriminate between a peon and a powerful leader or minister. During the UPA days, Rahul Gandhi would make senior ministers wait for hours in his office before meeting them. So, how come I remember this old peon story after so many years? Well, that’s just to illustrate how Congress leaders’ fate may get decided by a peon at a cocktail dinner in a five-star hotel or which side of the bed Sonia or Rahul Gandhi has woken up from or by when they decide to come to their work table. Efforts to see the Gandhi family’s political wisdom and strategy in Friday’s organisational reshuffle — reconstitution of the Congress Working Committee (CWC), creation of a special committee to assist Sonia, and appointment of general secretaries and state in-charges — are pointless. In fact, the reshuffle defies any political sense or logic, not to speak of wisdom.
‘Magnanimity’ of the Gandhis
Yes, the family did try to convey that it’s not going to avenge itself by punishing all 20 dissenters in one go. The Gandhis couldn’t afford to do it because an overwhelming majority of Congresspersons, including family loyalists, would agree to the contents of the letter. Therefore, a six-member special committee has been constituted to assist the Congress president, giving an impression that Sonia is looking into the issues raised in the letter. For the sake of fairness, one of the signatories of the letter, Mukul Wasnik, also finds a place on the committee comprising family loyalists. Wasnik’s choice is understandable. Except the momentary lapse of judgement when he signed the letter, he has been a harmless leader, never offending his party bosses or even political adversaries.
Apart from Wasnik, four other signatories were supposed to be the beneficiaries of the Gandhi family’s magnanimity — Ghulam Nabi Azad, Anand Sharma and Jitin Prasada retaining their places in the CWC (Prasada becoming West Bengal in-charge, additionally) and Arvinder Singh Lovely made a member of the Central Election Authority (CEA). Although Azad was sacked as a general secretary, a CWC berth spared him total humiliation. Jitin Prasada may not be very excited about getting charge of West Bengal. Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi would have any Tom, Dick and Harry lead the party in Uttar Pradesh, but not Prasada. Just when the former Union minister was seeking to consolidate his base by tapping into Brahmins’ disgruntlement in UP, he has been sent to West Bengal where the Congress is virtually irrelevant.
Talking about the ‘magnanimity’ of the Gandhi family, Digvijaya Singh must be feeling slighted by his inclusion as a CWC ‘permanent invitee’. Congress leaders with much less political stature are full-time members of the CWC while Singh has been categorised with Manish Chatrath, Rajiv Shukla, Kuljit Singh Nagra, and Rajiv Satav, among others.
Former Rajasthan deputy chief minister Sachin Pilot must also be feeling the brunt of Gandhis’ ‘magnanimity’. Divested of deputy CMship and the post of state unit president, Pilot was expected to be rehabilitated in the All India Congress Committee (AICC) set-up. He has been left high and dry.
Gandhis’ moves in states defy reason
Around 12 crore people who voted for the Congress in the 2019 Lok Sabha election must be curious about the party’s plan to regain its lost ground in states. Well, going by the credentials of people Gandhis have entrusted the states to, the Congress seems resigned to ceding its ground further — if only to help Rahul Gandhi’s lieutenants gain more clout. The Congress appointed nine general secretaries and 17 in-charges for states. Their list is a testament of the Gandhis’ ‘political wisdom’. Let’s look at some samples:
K.C. Venugopal, a Rahul Gandhi acolyte, has been retained as AICC general secretary (organisation). His credentials: ran away from contesting the 2019 Lok Sabha election from Alappuzha, the only seat the CPI(M)-led LDF ended up winning; recently rewarded with a Rajya Sabha berth.
Randeep Singh Surjewala is the new AICC general secretary in charge of Karnataka. The eligibility criteria: Surjewala lost the last two consecutive assembly elections, including a bypoll, in his home state, Haryana; and, he has been a disaster as AICC communication department chairman, with the opposition party reduced to attacking the media.
Rajeev Satav has been given charge of Gujarat again. His credentials: he was in-charge of Gujarat where the Congress didn’t win a single Lok Sabha seat in 2019; he refused to defend his Lok Sabha seat, Hingoli, in 2019; the Congress lost Hingoli; during his term as Youth Congress president, Rahul Gandhi’s ‘democratisation’ experiment flopped.
Jitendra Singh has been appointed AICC general secretary in charge of Assam. His credentials: he was in-charge of Odisha when the Congress won 9 out of 147 assembly seats in the 2019 state election, ceding the principal opposition party’s place to the BJP. To be fair to Jitendra Singh, the Odisha Congress was already in shambles when he was given charge of that state in March 2018. Rahul Gandhi was said to have told him not to worry about the 2019 election and work for the party’s revival in 2024. You don’t expect Gandhis to remember these things, do you?
A. Chella Kumar has been given charge of Odisha. His credentials: he replaced Digvijaya Singh as AICC in-charge of Goa when Singh failed to form a Congress government after the 2017 assembly election; with Chella Kumar at the helm of the Goa Congress, 10 of the 15 Congress MLAs joined the BJP in July 2019.
Rajani Patil has been given charge of Jammu and Kashmir. Her credentials: she won the last direct election as BJP candidate in Maharashtra’s Beed Lok Sabha in 1996; she had quit the Congress in the 1990s, accusing the party leadership of targeting the Gandhi family; she returned to the Congress after Sonia Gandhi took over in 1998.
Rajiv Shukla has been given charge of Himachal Pradesh. His credentials: never contested a direct election.
Harish Rawat, former Uttarakhand chief minister, has been appointed AICC general secretary in charge of Punjab. Uttarakhand and Punjab go to polls together in early 2022. As it seems, the Congress high command either wants Rawat, the only Congress leader with mass appeal in his state, to stay out of Uttarakhand or it doesn’t bother about Punjab polls.
Oommen Chandy, former Kerala chief minister, has been appointed AICC general secretary in charge of Andhra Pradesh. Kerala is slated to go to polls in May 2021. Again, the Congress high command either wants Chandy to stay out of Kerala or is least bothered about Andhra Pradesh.
In a nutshell, the organisational reshuffle in the Congress might have empowered Rahul Gandhi’s coterie but will end up damaging the party in several states.
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