New Delhi: There has been a growing clamour among sections of the Congress party for elections to be held for the Congress Working Committee (CWC) as well as the Central Election Committee (CEC).
In the CWC meeting Friday, senior leaders of the party including Anand Sharma and Ghulam Nabi Azad reiterated the demand for an election, which was expressed in the letter written to party president Sonia Gandhi in August last year.
While the party’s general secretary K.C. Venugopal subsequently announced that the Congress will have an elected president by June this year, there still isn’t much clarity on the date or procedure that will be adopted to hold the CWC and CEC polls.
“Our demand has always been that the party’s constitution be upheld, and the constitution very clearly says that a section of the CWC and the CEC will be elected, not nominated,” an AICC member, who was among the 23 senior leaders who had written the letter, told ThePrint.
Section XIX(A) of the Congress’ constitution explicitly puts forth the composition of the CWC — “The Working Committee shall consist of the President of the Congress, the Leader of the Congress Party in Parliament and 23 other members of whom 12 members will be elected by the AICC, as per rules prescribed by the Working Committee and the rest shall be appointed by the President.”
The CWC is further described as “the highest executive authority of the Congress” which “shall have the power to carry out the policies and programmes laid down by the Congress.” Thus making the CWC a fairly influential body in the party.
“But today, its powers are rendered practically nil given that it has no option but to abide by the whims and fancies of the president. The CWC now is just an extension of the party president’s office,” an AICC member told ThePrint.
“The difference between being part of an elected CWC and a nominated CWC is like the difference between being a Lok Sabha MP and a nominated Rajya Sabha MP. I am not saying an elected CWC member will necessarily start rebelling, but will at least be able to stand on his or her own feet, can’t be rebuffed at the drop of a hat, and will have some modicum of authority and discretionary powers,” the leader added.
However, another AICC member and senior leader said that the “real deal” will be when the CWC elections are held prior to the post of the Congress president. “The MPs need to be elected before the PM, it shouldn’t be the other way round,” the leader said.
When asked in Friday’s press conference about the prospect of CWC elections, Venugopal had said that there is “clarity needed” on whether the constitution allows for the CWC and presidential elections to be held together or not.
Veteran Congress leader Janardhan Dwivedi told ThePrint that according to the party’s convention, first the election to the party president is held, followed by election to the CWC.
“There is no bar on holding the two elections together, but the convention is that the election to the post of the president precedes that of the CWC,” Dwivedi said.
Revival of parliamentary board
The CEC, too, is supposed to have been an enormously powerful body in the party — tasked with the responsibility of making the final selection of the candidates for the assembly and Lok Sabha polls, and conducting election campaigns. But leaders said it merely has a “rubber stamp value.”
“Some very important decisions are meant to be taken by members of the CEC. So only favourites shouldn’t get to be a part of the body, there should be some meaningful voices there who have the courage to make some striking changes in candidate selection,” another Congress leader said.
The CEC is supposed to include members of the Central Parliamentary Board (CPB) and nine other members elected by the AICC, according to the party’s constitution.
The CPB, which is supposed to have 10 members including the party president, is meant to set up the CWC. However, for several decades now, the party has had no CPB, making the concept archaic.
“The last time there was a parliamentary board was in the early ’90s, since then several requests have been made to the top leadership to revive it, but in vain,” another party leader said.
The Central Parliamentary Board or CPB was disbanded by P.V. Narasimha Rao after he took over as the Congress president and the Prime Minister in 1991.
Senior leaders of the party had pushed for the revival of the parliamentary board first in June 2019, after the Congress faced a drubbing in the Lok Sabha elections.
The demand also featured in the letter written in August, and most recently, the idea was revisited when some of the leaders who had written the letter met with Sonia Gandhi at her residence in December last year.
“Reviving a CPB will have a trickle-down effect, and will also hopefully force the CEC to abide by the constitution and have elected members,” a party leader said.
No CWC election since 1997
While the letter-writers aren’t wrong when they say that the constitution of the party unequivocally mentions holding elections to the CWC and CEC, it hasn’t quite been the convention.
In 2018, Ghulam Nabi Azad, who is presently one of the most prominent voices demanding a CWC election, had argued against the elections.
At the 84th AICC plenary session at Talkatora Stadium in the national capital, Azad had moved a proposal to authorise the Congress president to nominate members to the CWC.
“In our party’s constitution, there is a provision of election for the Congress Working Committee. In 135 years of our history, many elected leaders became president, but less than a dozen times there were elections for the working committee,” Azad said.
“Mostly AICC left it to the president to form the CWC. Looking at our huge nation, they have the responsibility to include leaders from different regions. It has been our culture that the formation of the CWC is left to the president. I move a motion that the INC president should be authorised to nominate the working committee. I am happy that this motion has been passed by voice vote,” he added.
The video of Azad’s speech, which is available on the Congress’ website, resurfaced when he signed the letter sent in August for CWC election.
Azad’s proposal was then accepted, following a voice note, after which a CWC resolution was passed allowing then party president Rahul Gandhi to choose his own Working Committee.
Azad was right when he said that there have been very few times that the CWC has come into existence via an election. The last time the CWC saw a contest was in 1997 during the Kolkata plenary session, and prior to that in 1992 at the Tirupati session. Since 1997, there has been no election to the CWC.
Rajasthan CM Ashok Gehlot argued on similar lines at Friday’s CWC meeting, where he rebutted Azad and Sharma’s plea for an election.
“All of us here have been CMs, Union ministers as well as CWC members, not on the basis of any polls, but because the party leadership chose us to hold those roles. Now suddenly, everyone is talking about holding an election,” a source at the meeting had quoted Gehlot as saying.
Dwivedi, who is also a member of the CEC, said that the constitution of the party should be read in tandem with the party’s existing convention.
“The party’s constitution has some overlapping and some contradictory clauses, but they need to be seen and read in tandem with the convention that has long existed in the party,” Dwivedi said.
‘Illusion of grandeur’
According to political analyst Rasheed Kidwai, the demand for CWC and CEC elections are “merely smokescreens.”
“The demand for elections is a pretext. The idea is to target Rahul’s style of leadership and functioning, which is not inclusive. He is rather indifferent to the party hierarchy and he is blunt in his approach, which is opposite to Sonia’s leadership. The leaders are trying to get back at him by creating all this noise,” Kidwai said.
Kidwai added the reason there seems to be a ‘deadlock’ and why the Gandhis aren’t relenting and agreeing to the demands is because they carry an “illusion of grandeur.”
“They continue to believe that the reason Congress is standing tall is because of them. They have a certain illusion of grandeur and don’t want to give in easily,” Kidwai said.
Rahul Verma, fellow at the Centre for Policy and Research (CPR), said the leaders’ demand for CWC and CEC elections is “key to securing their own for future, as well as the party’s.”
“There is a legitimate grievance that many people holding important positions have been handpicked by the party president, and don’t necessarily have the proportionate national stature, and are lightweights,” Verma said.
Verma added that “given the fact that Congress has been witnessing an electoral decline, the leaders are trying to stir the pot or start some mechanism via which there can be a revival of the party. This is for both — their own political growth, and also the party’s.”