It took over a year, an ugly spat among the senior-most colleagues of her party and questions raised over her leadership to ultimately force interim Congress president Sonia Gandhi to revamp her organisation. Yet, there is not much about the mega reshuffle of the All India Congress Committee, effected on September 11, which inspires any real confidence about the party’s willingness to shed its organisational inertia. Nor does it address concerns about its internal rot as raised recently by 23 leaders in their letter to Sonia.
Much of the criticism against the Congress’s organisational drift in recent years has stemmed from the fact that most of its leaders – CWC members, general secretaries or in-charges of states – are handpicked by the Nehru-Gandhi family on a ‘love at first sight’ basis. This may not necessarily be a bad thing if these leaders proved their mettle in their assigned responsibilities. But then the chosen ones invariably fail on this count. Yesterday’s reshuffle is an extension of this selection criteria and though predicting the outcome may be too early, it needs to be emphasised that most of those given new roles have remarkably failed in similar assignments given to them in the recent past.
Among the list of general secretaries and in-charges of states are leaders like Oomen Chandy (Andhra Pradesh), Randeep Surjewala (Karnataka), Jitendra Singh (Assam), Ajay Maken (Rajasthan), Rajani Patil (Jammu and Kashmir), Rajeev Shukla (Himachal Pradesh), Jitin Prasada (West Bengal, Andaman and Nicobar Islands), Dinesh Gundu Rao (Tamil Nadu, Puducherry and Goa), among others. Chandy has been in-charge of Andhra for nearly two years and has nothing to show for the party’s revival in this former bastion while Surjewala’s stint as media cell chief (a charge he continues to hold) has failed to find his party any favourable mention in the media. Singh’s stint as in-charge of Odisha saw the Congress steadily lose ground in the state while Patil’s previous charge of Himachal was marred by infighting within the state unit. Prasada, one of the signatories to the letter who has been sulking over his neglect in the party for over a year, has been assigned Bengal where assembly polls are due next year and the Congress isn’t even a major contender for power. This role seems cleverly crafted to keep Prasada away from his home state of Uttar Pradesh, which is bound for elections in 2022, but where in-charge general secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra has kept him away from all key party panels.
The other big criticism that comes the party’s way is that it relies too heavily on deadwood while routinely stifling younger leaders capable of toiling in the field. There is no denying that Sonia has tried to address this imbalance through the rejig by relieving most of the veterans from the job of party general secretary or in-charges of states and placing them in the party’s internal House of Elders – the Congress Working Committee. The task of tilling the soil in difficult states where the Congress is facing an electoral drought has instead been given to a bunch of relatively younger leaders. It is not surprising that a majority of them draw their elixir of political relevance from former—and likely future—party president, Rahul Gandhi. Rahul, who had resigned the Congress presidency after the party’s decimation in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls but continues decide the fate of his colleagues in the party, has predictably not been assigned any organisational responsibility except that of being a CWC member.
Sonia has reconstituted the CWC, expanding its strength from 51 members to 57 – that’s four more leaders than what the Congress currently has in the Lok Sabha. While it’s true that pro-reform leaders like Ghulam Nabi Azad, Anand Sharma, Mukul Wasnik and Jitin Prasada have retained their spot in the party’s apex decision making body, none of their co-signatories to the letter who have vast organisational and electoral experience were deemed fit for this panel. However, a wide range of leaders who enjoy the confidence of Sonia and Rahul but have repeatedly failed in the tasks given to them by the party in the past have found a seat at this high table. Votaries of reform like former chief ministers Veerappa Moily, Bhupinder Hooda (though his son Deepender Hooda has been retained as a special invitee) and Prithviraj Chavan, former Union ministers Kapil Sibal, Manish Tewari and Shashi Tharoor have all been kept away from the CWC. Tariq Anwar (expelled from the Congress in 1999 for joining Sharad Pawar’s revolt against Sonia), Salman Khurshid, Jairam Ramesh, Digvijaya Singh, Meira Kumar, Pramod Tiwari, Devendra Yadav, Manish Chatrath, Vivek Bansal, Chinta Mohan, Kuljit Singh Nagra, Bhakt Charan Das, Rajeev Shukla are all in the CWC along with old loyalists Dr. Manmohan Singh, AK Antony, Ambika Soni, Ahmed Patel, and others.
The tokenism towards tolerating dissent has been shown by Sonia by constituting a six-member special committee that will assist her in organisational and operational matters till the time an AICC session is convened to elect a full-term president. The letter writers had sought a collective leadership formula to help revive the party and this panel is now being passed off as that concession by Sonia. However, the party has made it clear that this is just a temporary panel. It includes AK Antony, Ahmed Patel, Ambika Soni, KC Venugopal, Randeep Surjewala and Mukul Wasnik, one of the letter’s signatories. Antony, Patel, Soni and Venugopal had caustically attacked the letter writers at the last CWC meeting and it remains to be seen whether Wasnik will be given any quarter by them when the panel begins its work.
The party’s central election authority has also been reconstituted. The reconstitution of the panel and the inclusion of another pro-reform leader, Arvinder Singh Lovely, appear to be Sonia’s way of conceding to the demand of the letter writers for elections to various organisational posts. Given that the committee comprises leaders handpicked by Rahul – Madhusudan Mistry, S. Jothimani, Krishna Byre Gowda and Rajesh Mishra – it is unlikely that the transparency sought in organisational elections by the 23 leaders will become a reality in the near – or even distant – future.
The AICC revamp came in the backdrop of a major push for organisational reform by some of the party’s and Nehru-Gandhi family’s staunchest loyalists. The expectations prior to the letter bomb were of dynamic changes, in keeping with the party’s current political needs, and of a vibrant organisation that could fight its nemesis in the streets and not just on social media. After the letter controversy the anticipation, however, was whether the 23 signatories will have their wings clipped or whether Sonia will attempt a meaningful reconciliation. What should have been an exercise for course-correction was reduced to a measure of damage control and mending fences.
Hence, what we have at the end of a mammoth exercise is an unclear blueprint of reform that only endorses once again the undisputed supremacy of the Nehru-Gandhi family within the Congress but does nothing to give the party a glide-path to electoral recovery in 2024, or in the many assembly polls that will happen until then.