February 22, 2020
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Awaiting The Shakeout

The party prepares for a new guard as Sonia Gandhi contemplates crucial structural changes

Awaiting The Shakeout

GIVEN the sheer size of restructuring involved, the Congress has rarely attempted anything like it. First the task force headed by P.A. Sangma to literally redesign the AICC. Then four party committees set up to analyse why the party fared so badly in UP, Bihar, West Bengal, Karnataka, Orissa and Tamil Nadu in the Lok Sabha elections. Also on the anvil are 17 different committees to oversee crucial BJP ministries as 'shadows' and a plethora of sub-committees. Indeed, in the weeks to come, the Congress seems well on its way to changing colour—in the words of a CWC member, the new guard cometh.

There is a good reason for that as well.Congress leaders, particularly the ones regarded close to Sonia Gandhi, see a deep chasm between those in the party who want changes quickly as opposed to those who do not seem to be in a hurry as there are no deadlines to be met. Says party vice-president Jitendra Prasada: "The need of the hour is to galvanise the party. If left for too long, there develops an inertia." But could a sweeping change—like shaking up the CWC and other party outfits—leave out Prasada as well? "It is highly likely," he concedes and is candid enough to admit that any change would mean that the old guard has to make way.

While most Congress leaders prefer not to voice their thoughts, the consensus within the party seems to be veering around to the induction of younger leaders to crucial positions, especially the CWC. The names doing the rounds for induction into the CWC are Rajesh Pilot, Purno Sangma and Sushil Shinde. Persons likely to "fall out of favour" include the old guard, Pranab Mukerjee, Prasada (who may be given another important position), R.K. Dhawan, Ghulam Nabi Azad and Meira Kumar (who is tipped to head the Mahila Congress).

The imminent changes have many backers. Says Makhan Lal Fotedar, once a key Rajiv aide and now in a bit of political wilderness: "The party needs a leader, which it now has. It is only proper that new people are inducted."

 According to well-placed sources in the Congress, some indication of what is on Sonia's mind can be gauged from the interim report submitted by the task force last fortnight. She reportedly does not favour an official number two in the party, something that is not designed to please the older leaders. The younger leaders in the party are generally upbeat. And they have reason to be. Following in the footsteps of Rajiv who attempted to mobilise camps, particularly in the rural areas among young men and women through his Nehru Yuvak Kendras and National Literacy Missions, Sonia favours a large shot of young blood.

The task force report—compiled under the chairmanship of San-gma with help from Sharad Pawar, Arjun Singh, Manmohan Singh, Ahmed Patel and A.K. Antony—proposed that a five-member committee be constituted to recommend amendments in the party constitution to make it compatible for a wider spectrum, especially women and weaker classes. The task force recommendations are expected to change the party from top to bottom—from suggesting the setting up of a research and training institute which could function as a think tank to changing the century-old seating arrangements at the CWC into a modern corporate entity.

Points out a senior Congress leader: "There is a feeling that some of the older men in the party owing allegiance to various satraps like Sitaram Kesri or even Sharad Pawar might deliberately tender wrong advice on how to run the party organisation. Some people in the party will be more than keen to see Sonia's efforts go up in smoke. " According to him, these are the same people who are now keen to see the Congress make a bid for power. "With the numbers in the Lok Sabha, the BJP government can be quite easily upset, but Madam is not keen. These leaders are not willing to wait."

Quite apart from the fact that the Congress and their allies currently do not have the numbers to upset the BJP-led government, just how important it is to bring changes in the state units was evident during Sonia's recent trip to Champaran in Bihar. That the rally was a disaster is no longer a topic of debate, but the way it was handled suggests the patterns of things to come. According to a senior Congress leader from Bihar, at the Patna airport only five persons were cleared by security to receive the party president. Despite being told about her trip several days in advance, some partymen—allegedly under the tutelage of senior state leader Radhanandan Jha—ensured that no venue was fixed. Two venues were mentioned,confusing the scene and ultimately the meeting was held at a chosen spot designed to accommodate upwards of five lakh people. When the rally started, there were just a few thousand.

Observers point out that changes in the party structure would have to be real changes, not cosmetic ones. In Madhya Pradesh, for instance, senior party leaders are already demanding that the responsibility for the poll failures should rest with the state government of the day.Some indication of this came in Pilot's report submitted to the high command. It is said to have blamed the distribution of party tickets and the incessant Congress bugbear—internecine, often fatal, infighting. Madhavrao Scindia told Outlook that though he had not seen Pilot's report on the state, "some moral responsibility must rest with the executive, not Digvijay Singh in particular".

SINGH, on the other hand, told reporters in Delhi that only "heavyweights from the state were opposing him while 80 per cent of the MLAs were with him". There could be an element of truth in that assertion because Madhya Pradesh is due for assembly elections later this year and a new chief minister may lead to problems for the party in a state where voters traditionally favour a Congress-led government. A Narora-style meeting is also expected to be held in Madhya Pradesh to formulate a clear-cut party line.

The report of K. Karunakaran and K.K. Tewary on the Orissa debacle is also along similar lines. After talking with a cross section of partymen, the committee felt that part of the blame should be placed at the doorstep of chief minister J.B. Patnaik for unwise distribution of tickets and intense infighting. The situation in Bhuvaneshwar became so bad that even while the committee was conducting its hearing, partymen opposed to and favoured by Patnaik came to blows over the question of who did more for the Congress. While that issue is unlikely to be resolved in a hurry, Sonia is said to be working out a new deal for the state PCC. Among the names doing the rounds for the top job are veteran Congressman Giridhar Gomango, who is known for his prowess with the flute.

Trouble for Sonia can come from unexpected quarters. In Bangalore, little-known Congressman Basavraj Patil demanded the dismissal of Sonia-aide Vincent George over his "unchallenged and exclusive" access to the party president. Patil upped the ante when he alleged that George was promoting the interests of only the Christian community in the Congress. Patil's charge: George would be nominated to the Rajya Sabha from Karnat-aka. He demanded that Christian rootless wonders—Sangma, Fernandes and Margaret Alva—be removed if the party is to be revived. While Patil did not mention Antony, his name is also being bandied about as part of the great Christian conspiracy. According to Patil, while Sangma was heading the task force over the heads of Pawar and Arjun Singh, both of whom were senior ministers in the Narasimha Rao cabinet while Sangma was a junior, Fernandes was nominated to the Rajya Sabha. It was only after this that Sonia publicly stated that no one else who lost elections would be nominated to the Upper House. Others would argue that Sangma cannot be dismissed a 'junior', given his emergence as a leader of stature.

In the days to come, the party will be analysing its position on alliances as well. Clearly there are two lines of thought on the subject: the Sonia line which is circumspect on the question of alliances and the Sharad Pawar line which stresses that alliances are here to stay. Pawar quotes the example of Maharashtra to show how the Shiv Sena was hammered comprehensively with the help of the Republican Party of India. The real action would begin when Sonia executes the changes recommended. Because that could throw up a new Congress leadership all over the country, something that the party could do well with.

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