New Delhi: Former Congress leader Kabil Sibal’s exit from the party was planned before it held its Chintan Shivir brainstorming session — with its promise of reform — earlier this month, ThePrint has learnt.
The former Union minister was part of the ‘G-23’, the name given to 23 Congress dissenters who first sought an organisational overhaul, although the number has changed since. After skipping the Udaipur session held between 13 and 15 May, Sibal announced Wednesday that he had quit the party on 16 May.
At the same time, he also filed his nomination for Rajya Sabha from Lucknow as an Independent candidate backed by the Samajwadi Party (SP).
“I have filed the nomination as an Independent candidate. I thank (SP chief) Akhileshji for supporting me,” Sibal, whose tenure as a Rajya Sabha member ends in July, told reporters in Lucknow. “I resigned from the Congress on 16 May and am no longer a senior Congress leader now.”
Ahead of the Chintan Shivir, he met some members of the G-23 and confided in them about his decision to quit the party, a senior leader of the bloc told ThePrint. The leader said Sibal thought “nothing was moving forward” even two years after the group demanded drastic changes in the party, and there was a need to fight against the BJP independently.
ThePrint has also learnt that Sibal officially ceased to be a “member” of the party from 15 April because he did not register himself in the membership drive that ended that day. He, however, did tender his resignation letter after a meeting with interim Congress president Sonia Gandhi, sources in the party said.
ThePrint reached Sibal for a comment through phone calls and texts, but there was no response by the time of publishing this report.
Although Sibal, a noted lawyer, has formally announced his divorce from the party now, his dissent against the party’s leadership began in 2020 and has been unrelenting since then.
‘Not Jee Huzur 23’
In 2020, a group of 23 leaders from the Congress wrote a letter to interim president Sonia Gandhi demanding an organisational overhaul and stronger leadership after the party’s crushing defeat in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections — a second consecutive drubbing for the Congress after 2014.
That group included Congress heavyweights such as Ghulam Nabi Azad, Shashi Tharoor, Mukul Wasnik, Prithviraj Chavan, and Bhupinder Singh Hooda, besides Sibal.
The contours of the group have since changed — with some no longer associating with it, Jitin Prasada jumping ship, and more names coming on board, such as Mani Shankar Aiyar. Meanwhile, some members of the group are said to have been slowly pushed to the political margins within the party.
Sibal’s stance vis-a-vis the leadership, however, has not only remained unchanged in the last two years but also grown in pitch as he demanded a more “active, visible leadership”.
In August 2021, on his 73rd birthday, Sibal invited a host of opposition leaders to his home, ostensibly for a celebratory dinner.
Discussions at the dinner — attended by NCP chief Sharad Pawar, Shiv Sena’s Sanjay Raut, Trinamool Congress’ Derek O’Brien, and National Conference’s Omar Abdullah, among others — are believed to have centred on the need to strengthen the Congress and for opposition parties to come together.
It was reported at the time that the question of the Gandhis and their leadership was raised at the dinner — a move that did not go down well with the party.
In September 2021 — months before assembly elections in Punjab, when a political crisis roiled the Congress’ state unit following former chief minister Amarinder Singh’s resignation — Sibal once again trained his guns on the party leadership: This time publicly.
Sibal told the press that the G-23 had written to Sonia Gandhi, asking her to convene a meeting of the Congress Working Committee (CWC) — the party’s highest decisionmaking body — immediately to discuss the developments in Punjab.
He also said that since the Congress had “no president”, it was unclear who was making decisions for the party. He made it clear that the dissidents’ group won’t stop talking.
“We are not ‘Jee Huzur 23’,” Sibal said, in a wordplay on G-23.
‘The Gandhi family should step aside’
Sibal’s next public attack against the Gandhis came in March 2022 after the Congress’ dismal performance in the assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Uttarakhand, Goa, and Manipur.
Sibal’s remark came after the Congress’ CWC meeting, held to review the party’s performance. It was at this meeting, which lasted four-and-a-half hours, that the idea of the Chintan Shivir was floated and approved. It was also at this meeting that the CWC said that it “unanimously reaffirms its faith” in the leadership of Sonia Gandhi.
Hours after the meeting, Sibal told the press the Gandhis “should step aside from leadership” to give other people a chance. He even went on to say that the leadership was living in “cuckoo land” if they couldn’t see the party’s decline in the last eight years.
However, Sibal soon found himself alone as fellow G-23 members distanced themselves from him — Ghulam Nabi Azad even met Sonia Gandhi to assure her that there was “no question” over whether she should continue as Congress chief.
At the same time, Azad and other leaders of the G-23 demanded that the party could call for CWC elections, make the Central Election Committee — the committee that manages elections in the party — an elected body, and revive the party’s defunct Parliamentary Board to ensure that decisionmaking is collective.
These demands are yet to be fulfilled despite the fact that several G-23 leaders attended the brainstorming session in Udaipur and were even accommodated in Sonia Gandhi’s advisory committee and the newly-instituted task force for the 2024 Lok Sabha elections.
Since he’s been nominated as an Independent candidate to the Rajya Sabha, rules dictate that Sibal must resign if he decides to join a party.
For now, he says his decision to remain outside the folds of any party will not change any time soon.
(Edited by Uttara Ramaswamy)