In a major reshuffle, Congress(I) president Sonia Gandhi puts her strong supporters in important party positions.
THE latest reshuffle in the All India Congress Committee (AICC) reflects Congress(I) president Sonia Gandhi's desperate search for a reliable Number Two in the party in case she takes up prime ministerial responsibilities. She was on the look-out for someone who could be of help in running the organisation but would be unable to pose a challenge to her authority. Sonia Gandhi's decision to appoint not one but two political secretaries for herself - the post of political secretary had been lying vacant since the days when Sitaram Kesri was party president (for about two years from September 1996) - indicates that she is earnestly preparing for an eventual shift to 7 Race Course Road, the official residence of the Prime Minister. Another indication of this came in Sonia Gandhi's inaugural address at a conference organised by the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) on April 26. "When the captains of Indian industry invite the Leader of the Opposition to inaugurate an event of this importance, you can well imagine which way the political wind is blowing in the country," she told the gathering of industrialists. It is in such a context that the changes effected in the AICC are viewed.
Initially, the appointment of Ambika Soni and Ahmed Patel as her political advisers did not appear to make much sense. Appointing two persons to a post that was lying vacant seemed to defy logic. In fact, it was a shrewd move, which probably stemmed from her experience with the late Jitendra Prasada. Prasada had worked as political adviser to former Prime Ministers Rajiv Gandhi and P.V. Narasimha Rao. By means of his proximity to the centre of power and involvement in crucial party affairs, Prasada had emerged as a parallel power centre by the time Sonia Gandhi took charge as party president. He even contested against Sonia Gandhi for the Congress(I) president's post.
By appointing two political advisers, Sonia Gandhi has attempted to reduce their individual influence and importance. Moreover, both Patel and Soni are political lightweights with no mass following and are known not to nurse any personal political ambitions. On the other hand, their sound grooming in organisational matters makes them useful aides.
Both Soni and Patel joined the party in the 1970s and rose from the ranks. Initially, Soni was the party joint secretary in charge of the international relations cell. Later she became Youth Congress general secretary and finally Youth Congress president in 1974, replacing Priya Ranjan Das Munshi. In the Congress(I) under Sonia Gandhi, except for a brief period spent in the wilderness, she has acted as the eyes and ears of Sonia Gandhi. She is in charge of the party's media department, looks after the Congress(I) president's office, and is also a party spokesperson. In the latest reshuffle, she has been made general secretary, besides being political adviser to the party president, and given charge of party affairs in four Congress(I)-ruled States - Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Kerala and Rajasthan.
Ahmed Patel, who has generally kept a low profile, was joint secretary under Rajiv Gandhi and also party treasurer for some time. In his elevation to the post of political secretary there is a subtle message to the minorities in Gujarat. Sonia Gandhi hopes to reap the political benefit of the communal divide whenever elections are held in the State. Patel's elevation is also a message to senior party leaders from Gujarat such as Madhavsinh Solanki and Amarsinh Chaudhary that it is a new era for the Congress(I) in the State.
The other changes in the AICC reflect the changed situation in the party. Treasurer Motilal Vora has been given charge of party affairs in Uttar Pradesh and Uttaranchal, replacing Ghulam Nabi Azad, who is now Jammu and Kashmir Pradesh Congress Committee president. Vora's appointment is politically significant in the context of a Bharatiya Janata Party-Bahujan Samaj Party coalition having formed the government in Uttar Pradesh. Vora's long stint as the Governor of Uttar Pradesh, including during a fairly long spell of President's Rule, makes him a seemingly right choice to rejuvenate the party in the State. Also, former PCC president Salman Khurshid, known for his strong anti-Mulayam Singh views, has been made a special invitee to the Congress Working Committee (CWC). Their moves are a signal that the Congress(I) wants to be on its own in any future election in the State. In any case, there is a clear effort to put the Congress(I) back on its own feet.
Another significant move is the induction of Shivraj Patil and former Kerala PCC president Vayalar Ravi into the CWC. While Patil's induction did not raise eyebrows as he is the party's deputy leader in the Lok Sabha, Ravi's came as a surprise. Ravi is known for his views against economic liberalisation, and making him a CWC member may be the first indication of an impending change in the party's stated economic policies.
SONIA GANDHI has also made a conscious effort to create a blend of the young and the old. The elevation of former Youth Congress president Mukul Wasnik to the post of general secretary in place of Mahavir Prasad is seen as an effort to infuse young blood. Prasad was dropped for under-performance, though he has been retained in the CWC. On the other hand, in order to give adequate representation to experience, veterans such as former Orissa Chief Minister J.B. Patnaik and former Union Home Minister S.B. Chavan have been inducted into the CWC. All Congress(I) Chief Ministers have been made permanent invitees to the CWC.
Supreme Court lawyer Abhishek Singhvi, a friend of Madhavrao Scindia, has been added to the list of spokespersons, and Ghulam Nabi Azad, Priya Ranjan Das Munshi, Suresh Pachauri, Eduardo Faleiro and Prabha Thakur have been included in the media committee. While Anil Shastri has been appointed editor of the party organ Sandesh, K. Natwar Singh continues to be the chairman of its editorial board. The chief spokesperson, S. Jaipal Reddy, by virtue of his post, has been made an ex-officio invitee to the CWC.
One interesting point that has emerged with the latest changes, beginning with the shifting of Ghulam Nabi Azad to the Jammu and Kashmir PCC, is the fact that the so-called heavyweights, who were supposedly controlling the party from behind the curtains, have been sidelined. The current team comprises people totally dedicated to Sonia Gandhi.