Sonia banks on senior Congressmen
The Congress veterans who had been apprehensive of their future under Rahul Gandhi’s leadership are heaving a sigh of relief that they will not become a vanishing tribe now that there are clear signals from Congress President Sonia Gandhi that she still depends on them.
The appointment of two old warhorses – Kamal Nath and Ghulam Nabi Azad – as general secretaries in charge of the poll-bound Punjab and Uttar Pradesh respectively this week is a clear indication. The move comes in the wake of calls for a "major surgery" in the Congress party and criticism that Rahul’s handpicked men have not delivered.
Though Kamal Nath resigned from the Punjab assignment due to the controversy over 1984 riots and Sonia accepted it, the Congress President has full confidence in his capability. Azad is also presently Leader of Opposition in Rajya Sabha and Kamal Nath had been a successful Parliamentary Affairs Minister.
They have replaced two of Rahul Gandhi’s men – Madhusudan Mistry in U.P and Shakil Ahmed in Punjab. Mistry was found to be not up to the challenge in U.P and Shakil Ahmed 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 U.P.
There is more than one reason why Sonia is looking again to the old guard. The morale of the party is at its lowest after the defeat in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections and subsequent Assembly polls. She had been patient with Rahul’s team but obviously does not want to take any more risks, as they have not been able to deliver. The recent revolt in Haryana where votes of 14 Congress MLAs were found to be invalid in the Rajya Sabha polls, has stressed the need to intervene urgently.
Azad is an organisational man and knows U.P well. Moreover, he is a good Muslim face that could be effective in UP, which has a sizeable number of Muslims. In recent times, as an observer to Uttarakhand when the Chief Minister Harish Rawat was facing a crisis, he resolved it. He also negotiated successfully with the DMK in the recent Tamil Nadu polls.
The poll strategist Prashant Kishore who behind the success of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014 Lok Sabha polls and Bihar Chief Minister in 2015 Assembly elections is chalking out the Congress strategy in both the states. It will be seen how he manages with these two senior leaders.
Kamal Nath has been a nine-time MP and known as a good negotiator. He has been given charge of Haryana in place of Shakeel Ahmed. The Congress is worried about the rise of Aam Admi Party in Punjab. The party is hoping to come back to power banking on the anti-incumbency of the Akali-BJP combine.
Haryana needs urgent attention after the fiasco in the recent Rajya Sabha polls when 14 Congress MLAs defied the party. There is continuing feud between the former Chief Minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda and the PCC President Ashok Tanwar.
The tussle between the old guard and the younger lot began since 2013 when Rahul Gandhi became the Vice President of the party. Several second rung leaders have left since then including Birender Singh, G.K.Vasan, Kiran Reddy, Purandareswari, Jayanthi Natarajan, Giridhar Gomango, and in recent times Hemanta Biswa Sarma, Ajit Jogi, and Gurudas Kamat. Most of them had been either PCC Presidents or Chief Ministers. To check further erosion Sonia had to change tactics.
It is no secret that Rahul Gandhi does not inspire confidence in the old guard who want Sonia to continue at the time of the present crisis. It was the Congress veterans who blocked Rahul’s elevation last September. They feel Sonia is a better organiser, communicator, and crowd-puller who can mobilise opposition. But these virtues are not enough to get the party elected. She has already completed 18 years - the longest serving chief in the party’s 131-year-old history.
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’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.
Sonia had fielded the senior leaders like Ghulam Nabi Azad, Ahmed Patel, and Anand Sharma to defend the party in the past three Parliament sessions. It was the old guard that planned and executed the whole affair from the Gandhis’ appearance in court to their addressing the party in the National Herald case. It was the seniors who had advised that it should be a low profile affair and that the Gandhis should take bail rather than follow Rahul Gandhi’s idea of going to jail.
In the recent Rajya Sabha polls, she brought back stalwarts like P. Chidambaram, Kapil Sibal, Ambika Soni, and Jairam Ramesh to indicate she is more comfortable with them. Rahul has also realised that the old guard’s advice was required. What happens to the Rahul team is to be seen when a further restructuring of the party takes place.
No doubt, he would like to have his own team. The wise thing would be not to 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.
(The views expressedare strictly personal.)