Congress turning back to the old guard
Leaders who had been apprehensive about their future under the leadership of Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi are now heaving a sigh of relief after they got clear signals from Congress president Sonia Gandhi that she still depends on them. Party leaders are now assured that they will not become a vanishing tribe.
The appointment of veteran Ghulam Nabi Azad and old warhorse Kamal Nath as the general secretaries in-charge of poll-bound Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Haryana respectively is a clear indication of this. The move comes in the wake of calls for a ‘major surgery’ in the Congress and criticism that Rahul Gandhi’s hand-picked men have not delivered. However, Kamal Nath has stepped down from the post of the general secretary following a controversy over his alleged role in the 1984 Sikh riots.
Azad is presently the Leader of Opposition in Rajya Sabha where the Congress is in a majority and Nath was a successful Parliamentary Affairs Minister. Both men replaced two of Rahul Gandhi’s men – Madhusudan Mistry in Uttar Pradesh and Shakeel Ahmad in Punjab. Mistry was found not to be up to the mark and Ahmad was unable to handle Punjab. While the Congress is hoping to come back to power in Punjab, it is aiming to improve its position in Uttar Pradesh.
There are more than one reasons why Sonia Gandhi is turning back to the old guard. The morale of the party is at its lowest after a massive defeat in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls and the subsequent defeats in Assembly polls. She had been patient with Rahul Gandhi’s team but obviously does not want to take any more risk as they have not delivered. The recent revolt in Haryana where votes of 14 Congress MLAs were found to be invalid in Rajya Sabha polls stressed on the need to intervene. Azad is an organisational man and knows Uttar Pradesh well. Moreover, he is a good Muslim face who can be effective in a State which has a sizeable number of Muslims.
Prashant Kishor, the election strategist who was part of the Narendra Modi campaign in 2014 and the Nitish Kumar mission in Bihar in 2015, is chalking out a strategy for the Congress in both the States. It is to be seen how he manages these two senior leaders. Nath, a nine-time MP had been a good negotiator.
The Congress is worried about the rise of the Aam Admi Party in Punjab which is wanting to come to power by banking on the anti-incumbency of the Akali-BJP combine. Haryana needs urgent attention.There is continuing feud between former Chief Minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda and Pradesh Congress Committee (PCC) chief Ashok Tanwar.
The tussle between the old guard and the younger lot began in 2013 when Rahul Gandhi became the vice president of the party. Since then, several second-rung leaders have quit the party. They include, Birender Singh, GK Vasan, Kiran Reddy, Purandeswari, Jayanthi Natarajan, Giridhar Gamang, and in recent times Himanta Biswa Sarma, Ajit Jogi and Gurudas Kamat.
It is no secret that Rahul Gandhi does not inspire confidence to the old guard which wants Sonia Gandhi to take the charge especially in view of the present crisis. Last September, Congress veterans had blocked Rahul Gandhi’s elevation. They feel Sonia Gandhi is a better organiser, communicator and crowd puller who can mobilise the Opposition.
The return of the veterans began late last year with the appointment of Captain Amarinder Singh as the PCC president and chief ministerial face in Punjab replacing Rahul Gandhi’s handpicked man Pratap Singh Bajwa. The Captain was almost threatening to launch his own outfit. Former Union Minister Ambika Soni was also made the head of the campaign committee.
In the recent Rajya Sabha polls, Sonia Gandhi brought back stalwarts like P Chidambaram, Kapil Sibal, Ambika Soni and Jairam Ramesh to indicate that she is more comfortable with them. Rahul Gandhi has also realised that the old guard’s advice was required. What happens to team Rahul is to be seen when further re-structuring of the party takes place. No doubt he would like to have his own team.
The wise thing will be to not marginalise the seniors but ease them out in phases. Problems always emerge when a generational change takes place and the Congress has to go through it just as the BJP did since Modi took over.