As the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) gets down to the business of governance after a week of birth pangs, the Congress, heading a conglomerate of such varied hues for the first time, is gearing up to face an all-new set of political challenges. It must maintain a frictionless coalition by keeping its allies happy and at the same time work towards reviving the Congress in a coalition environment—at the expense of those same allies. "Look at the map of India. In large parts of the country, we don't have a presence. That's the challenge," says party strategist Jairam Ramesh.
Congress leaders say the message from 10, Janpath is clear: there's no room for complacency. Even though it is peacetime, the party isn't shutting down its war rooms. Congress president Sonia Gandhi's promised "mahasangharsh (grand struggle)" to re-establish the party and change the face of the Indian polity has a large number of takers in the organisation. The key players in the Congress election campaign, particularly the core committee which manned the crisis councils, have stayed in the party rather than join the government. Among them are Congress Working Committee (CWC) members Ambika Soni, Ahmed Patel and Motilal Vora and strategists Ramesh and Salman Khursheed. "With Mrs Gandhi staying out of the government, the party is where the action is," says a buoyant Khursheed.
Soni turned down a cabinet berth for a chance to be part of the new Sonia team, much to the chagrin of her CWC colleagues who migrated to the government. By emulating Sonia's example, fumed a septuagenarian cabinet minister, Soni had tried to "make us all look small". Another CWC figure felt she should have taken up a cabinet post and then given it up after a few months. But the responsibilities of being in government would have meant her closeness to the sanctum sanctorum—the Congress President's Office—could not have been maintained. Even so, her colleagues acknowledge, turning down a heavy-duty portfolio like power (which went to P.M. Sayeed as a result) would've been tough. "Her motivation must have been very powerful...bazee maar gayee (she has won this round)," said a senior party leader. Soni has proved her loyalty beyond doubt and her position is, for now, unassailable. Similar "sacrifices" have been made down the line. Even media secretary Tom Vadakkan, offered a position on the personal staff of a cabinet minister, preferred to stay with the AICC!
In terms of the proposed reshuffle in the party set-up, Sonia has a blank canvas to work with, as the entire CWC and AICC have put in their papers. Key players like Kamal Nath, Priyaranjan Dasmunshi, Ghulam Nabi Azad, Prithviraj Chauhan (all in charge of states) and S. Jaipal Reddy (chief spokesperson) have gone to the government, leaving a large number of vacancies to be filled.
The most high-profile new inductee is likely to be Rahul Gandhi. He is expected to join the AICC as general secretary, probably with charge of frontal organisations, although he may also be given charge of UP and Bihar. Among others who may be inducted as general secretaries are Margaret Alva, Salman Khursheed, Mukul Wasnik, Digvijay Singh, Ashok Gehlot, Sukhbans Kaur and Ramesh Chennithala. Prabha Thakur and B.K. Hariprasad are likely to be entrusted with new responsibilities. Vilasrao Deshmukh and Soni may continue as general secretaries, while Ahmed Patel may be political secretary to Sonia Gandhi. When his health improves, loyalist Ajit Jogi is tipped to be accommodated in the AICC as well, particularly because Chhattisgarh has found no place in the council of ministers. Satyavrat Chaturvedi is in the running for the high-profile position of spokesperson, as the present incumbent, Rajya Sabha MP Anand Sharma, will have to handle responsibilities in Parliament.
Veterans Mohsina Kidwai, Ram Niwas Mirdha and R. K. Dhawan are likely to be packed off as governors. Young MPs like Ajay Maken, Jitin Prasad, Sachin Pilot, Milind Deora and Sandeep Dikshit are tipped to be either parliamentary secretaries or attached to the AICC. Most of the 30-odd AICC secretaries are seen as deadwood, so there is room enough and more for the younger lot. Gwalior's royal scion Jyotiraditya Scindia, however, is believed to be keen on acquiring some experience in a ministerial berth.
The appointment of 10, Janpath's favourite bureaucrat, Pulok Chatterjee, as PS to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh makes it clear that a link already exists between the CPO (Congress President's Office) and the PMO. At the top level the relationship is expected to be frictionless. As a senior Congress leader put it, "P.V. Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh are both rootless wonders. The difference is that the latter has no illusions about his rootlessness". At the lower rungs, however, Sonia is expected to designate two or three people from the party to act as interface between the Congress and the government. Soni, who is close to both the Congress president and Manmohan Singh, could well be one of those designated for the job. Jairam Ramesh is seen by partymen as being a bit too abrasive for the job, but he is likely to be attached to the Congress president's office. Going by the number of ministers who called on the party's 99, South Avenue office (which supervised the election campaign) last week, the party continues to remain supreme.
And its job is clearly laid out. Khursheed acknowledges that the Congress is facing the unprecedented challenge of trying to bounce back in a coalition environment. "In Bihar, it's been a friendly takeover (by the RJD). In UP, it has been kind of a hostile one (by the SP)," he says wryly. Party leaders agree that the long-term objective is to eliminate the Congress dependence on allies. To do so, the party will have to be pro-active in states where it has been marginalised. After all, the next time around, it is the Congress which will face the burden of anti-incumbency.
The scenario in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Gujarat and Chhattisgarh is cut and dry, with the NDA and Congress in direct conflict. In MP and Rajasthan, which have found more than their fair share of berths in the cabinet, former CMs Digvijay Singh and Ashok Gehlot are still seen as the best bet to revive the party. But in Orissa and Gujarat, the Congress is under pressure to find a new leadership. Kerala, too, has emerged as a serious cause of concern after the recent round of elections, say Congress leaders. Not so much because it yielded space to the Left Democratic Front, but because the NDA has done well to open its account—winning a Lok Sabha seat for the first time and expanding its voteshare.
However, the main focus is likely to be on UP, with Rahul playing a crucial role. "We have to work out how to translate the crowds he attracts into votes, which we did not manage to do this time," says Jairam. It is a ticklish situation with the SP supporting the UPA at the Centre and the Congress backing Mulayam Singh Yadav in the state. But Rahul's no-holds barred criticism of the SP during the election campaign has indicated that the party sees potential for a comeback in UP. "Let Mulayam fight for his political space," comments Soni. With Rahul in its armoury and the Lok Sabha victory under its belt, the Congress appears ready to take on all challengers.