Weeks after 23 Congress veterans asked her to effect an organisational revamp of the party and resolve its leadership vacuum, interim party chief Sonia Gandhi, on Friday, carried out a much-anticipated rejig of the All India Congress Committee. However, for the band of 23 party veterans who had sought wide-ranging reforms in the Congress organisation to make it battle-ready for taking on the BJP, there was not much reason to either rejoice or even claim a vindication of their stand.
The biggest organisational change made by Sonia, though anticipated in wake of discussions at the stormy Congress Working Committee meeting that was convened to discuss the letter by the 23 leaders last month, is the constitution of a six member “special committee to assist the Congress President in organisational and operational matters”. The committee constitutes Nehru-Gandhi family loyalists AK Antony, Ahmed Patel and Ambika Soni, along with KC Venugopal and Randeep Surjewala, both confidantes of former party chief Rahul Gandhi. It may be recalled that at the CWC meet held on August 24 to discuss the contents of the letter, Antony, Patel and Soni were among those members who had chastised the 23 colleagues who had demanded intra-party reforms. The lone member of this committee who was also a signatory to the pro-reform letter is party leader Mukul Wasnik, who has also managed to stay on as the party’s in-charge general secretary for Madhya Pradesh which is due for key by-elections next month. This panel will function till an AICC session is convened to elect a full-term president in accordance with the CWC resolution passed last month.
The biggest loser Friday’s exercise seemed to be party veteran and key Sonia aide of many years, Ghulam Nabi Azad who was seen as the main driving force behind the calls for reform. Azad, who was party general secretary in-charge of Haryana, has now been relieved of the charge. Though, he will continue to be the Leader of Opposition in Rajya Sabha for now, his term in Parliament’s Upper House ends in February next year. If speculations within the Congress are anything to go by, the mild-mannered former J&K chief minister who often served as Sonia’s emissary during talks with difficult Congress allies, like the DMK, in the past, is unlikely to be re-nominated to Rajya Sabha by his party.
Azad can, however, draw some solace from the fact that he has been retained as a member of the CWC but that is perhaps owing to his position as LoP in the Rajya Sabha and may not be a sign of any thaw in the distrust that the party seems to have developed against him since the letter episode. Similarly, his co-signatories to the letter – Anand Sharma and Mukul Wasnik and Jitin Prasada – have also managed to retain their place in the CWC.
The changes to the CWC – the apex decision making body of the Congress – have, however been largely cosmetic. Senior party leaders Motilal Vora, Luizinho Faleiro, Asha Kumari, and Tamradhwaj Sahu have been dropped. Rajya Sabha MP and former chief minister Digvijaya Singh, who had earlier been removed from the body to accommodate bête noir and now BJP member Jyotiraditya Scindia, makes a comeback as a permanent invitee. The list of permanent invitees to the CWC has also been expanded from the current strength of 15 to accommodate 25 leaders. The new inductees also include party veterans Salman Khurshid, Jairam Ramesh, Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, Avinash Pande, Pramod Tiwari, Pawan Kumar Bansal, Rajeev Shukla, Vivek Bansal, Devendra Yadav, Manish Chatrath, Manickam Tagore, Dinesh Gundu Rao and others.
The list of new party general secretaries and in-charges or of those who have been reassigned arouses little confidence about the Congress party’s sincerity in putting up a fight for its own survival, leave alone that of fighting the BJP. The revamp, however, has a clear stamp of Rahul Gandhi who is yet to give any firm indication of his willingness to return as party president; a post he had stepped down from following his party’s disastrous rout in last year’s Lok Sabha polls. In fact, when the 23 Congress leaders had sought organisational reform, one of their unstated concerns, as reported by Outlook, was Rahul’s “back-seat driving” of the party and his continued imprint on all intra-party appointments.
The revamp only strengthens this notion further. So, while Azad and scores of other party leaders – particularly the letter writers like Kapil Sibal, Veerappa Moily, Bhupinder Hooda, Prithviraj Chavan, Manish Tewari, Renuka Chowdhury, Vivek Tankha, Shashi Tharoor – have been left out of any key responsibility, leaders like Jitendra Singh, Rajani Patil, Shaktisinh Gohil, Rajeev Shukla, Dr. Chellakumar, Manish Chatrath, Bhakt Charan das and Kuljit Singh Nagra have either been retained or granted new roles.
As reported by Outlook earlier, the party has also sought to grant a sort of punishment posting to young leader Jitin Prasada, who was also among the signatories of the letter. Left out from all the committees formed by the party earlier this month to help the Congress prepare for the 2022 Assembly polls in his home state of Uttar Pradesh, Prasada has been appointed in-charge of West Bengal, where the Congress has been a fringe political entity for over two decades, and far-away Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
Priyanka Gandhi Vadra will continue to be the party’s in-charge general secretary for Uttar Pradesh while Ajay Maken will continue in the same capacity in Rajasthan; a task he was given after Sachin Pilot’s recent rebellion. Contrary to rumours that had done the rounds after he ended his month-long rebellion against Ashok Gehlot on August 10, Sachin Pilot has not been accommodated in any key organisational role in Friday’s reshuffle. Former Union minister Pawan Bansal returns to the AICC as in-charge administration while Rahul confidante Dinesh Gundu Rao has been made in-charge of Tamil Nadu, Puducherry and Goa.
Sonia has also reconstituted the party’s Central Election Authority. The panel is now packed with Rahul confidantes. Madhusudan Mistry will be its chairman while other members include Rajesh Mishra, Krishna Byre Gowda and S. Jothimani. Here too, one member from the letter writers brigade – Arvinder Singh Lovely – has been included.
The reshuffle is expected to put those demanding reform in a dilemma. They had sought change and Sonia has conceded in her own way. This, however, is not the reform that the 23 signatories had hoped for but they now know the price for speaking out.