“It is a dystopian deja vu for us once again. The familiar repetition of a series of electoral defeats over the last eight years starting with the 2014 Lok Sabha election, followed by the seemingly never-ending iteration of the need for political introspection and organisational reinvigoration, all accompanied by the ultimate refusal to fix accountability and accept responsibility leading to persisting stasis.”
That was how a veteran South Indian leader of the Congress, who has been with the party and its governments for nearly five decades and worked in various capacities—as Union Minister and president of a State unit—responded to the goings on in the grand old party in the aftermath of the massive reverses it recently suffered in five State Assembly elections. He specifically referred to a tweet made amidst these developments by Sashi Tharoor, another senior politician belonging to the South Indian State of Kerala. Tharoor tweeted: “I have learned so much from my mistakes, I'm thinking of making a few more.” Quoting this, the veteran leader said that “my learned friend has also been observing these goings-on quite keenly, though he was a late entrant into Congress politics. And, of course he has summed up the situation brilliantly in figurative speech.”
Tharoor did not volunteer to explain what he actually meant by his cryptic tweet. But the veteran leader speaking to Frontline took it to be a reference to the mistakes of the Congress high command, especially its first family—interim party president Sonia Gandhi, former president Rahul Gandhi and general secretary in charge of Uttar Pradesh Priyanka Gandhi. These mistakes ranged from the manner in which the recent elections were fought—the election tactics and strategies—to the response to the election results, at both political and organisational levels. “Put simply, the cumulative effect of all this was at the same time farcical and tragic,” the leader added.
Some of the mistakes listed by this veteran were discussed at the Congress Working Committee (CWC) meeting held on March 13, three days after the announcement of the results on March 10. Sonia Gandhi herself admitted that she had delayed the removal of former Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh from his position and protected him for too long. On hindsight, the delay in replacing Amarinder Singh is being seen as a serious factor that affected the Congress campaign to retain power in the border State. Several other members referred to the dissipative role played by Navjot Singh Sidhu, Punjab Congress president, Sunil Jhakar, former Minister, Charanjit Singh Channi, incumbent Chief Minister during the election, and Harish Rawath, the high command’s observer in the State.
Other issues that came up for discussion were the party’s failure to come back to power in Uttarakhand despite the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government facing tremendous resentment from the public and the failure to put up successful electoral contests in Manipur and Goa, where the Congress had fancied its chances in the election. Absent in the meeting were former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and five other senior members—former Defence Minister A.K. Antony, MP A. Chella Kumar, former Manipur Deputy Chief Minister Gaikhangam, Tariq Hameed Karra, and G. Sanjeeva Reddy. Antony was apparently down with COVID-19, but the reasons for the other absences were not clear.
Former Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad led most of the criticism. He, along with 22 other senior leaders, had formed the Group of 23 (abbreviated as G-23), which wrote to Sonia Gandhi in August 2020 demanding comprehensive reform and revamp of the party. (The other leaders of the group are Anand Sharma, Kapil Sibal, Manish Tewari, Shashi Tharoor, Vivek Tankha, M. Veerappa Moily, Mukul Wasnik, Jitin Prasada, Bhupinder Singh Hooda, Rajinder Kaur Bhattal, Prithviraj Chavan, P.J. Kurian, Ajay Singh, Renuka Chaudhary, Milind Deora, Sandeep Dixit, Raj Babbar, Arvinder Singh Lovely, Kaul Singh Thakur, Akhilesh Prasad Singh, former Haryana Speaker Kuldeep Sharma and former Delhi Speaker Yoganand Shastri.) They specifically demanded a “full time and effective leadership” that was both “visible” and “active” in the field. They also called for democratic elections to the CWC and the urgent establishment of an institutional leadership mechanism to collectively guide the party’s revival.
At the March 13 meeting, Azad specifically pointed out that Rawath should have been moved to the election campaign in Uttarakhand much earlier. He reportedly pointed out that Rawath was unnecessarily forced to spend a lot of time dealing with inner-party tussles in Punjab at various levels. A majority of the CWC members, including Sonia Gandhi, apparently accepted these criticisms.
Yet, the Congress first family’s responsibility in committing all these errors did not figure prominently in this so-called soul-searching exercise. Indeed, several senior Congress leaders, privy to the happenings in the CWC, told Frontline that the meeting witnessed the all-too-familiar offer by Sonia Gandhi suggesting that she and her children were ready to do anything—euphemism for stepping aside for another leader or other non-family leaders—if the party so wished. She reportedly said that if some people felt that the Gandhi family was responsible for the state of affairs and should step aside, she, Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra were ready for any “sacrifice” for the party’s sake and would withdraw. And again, true to form, a large majority of the CWC members would have none of it; one after another they urged Sonia Gandhi to continue in her role and reaffirmed their faith in her leadership. The refrain from all of them was that she should “lead from the front, address organisational weaknesses, and effect necessary and comprehensive organisational changes in order to take on the political challenges”.
At the end of it all, K.C. Venugopal, party general secretary in charge of the organisation, read out the CWC’s official statement, which stated: “Senior members openly participated in the discussions to analyse themselves. It was a sincere and fruitful discussion. The CWC unanimously accepted the following things. The recent assembly elections in five States are a cause of serious concern for Congress. The CWC unanimously reaffirms its faith in Sonia Gandhi.” The CWC also stated that it had decided to hold a “Chintan Shivir” (brainstorming meeting) after the current session of Parliament.
Also read: Lessons from history for the Congress
Randeep Singh Surjewala, Congress communication department head, has said that the next Congress president would be decided through the organisational election process which was under way. In a move interpreted by a number of party office bearers as signalling the initiation of this process, Sonia Gandhi called for the resignation of Congress chiefs in the five States that went to the polls. Among them was Navjot Singh Sidhu, who presided over the party’s drubbing in Punjab and has been blamed for a series of missteps by the first family in the State. Sonia Gandhi’s call went out two days after the CWC meet and all the State unit chiefs concerned complied with her demand.
Interestingly, even as the CWC meeting was being held, a group of Congress workers gathered outside the All India Congress Committee (AICC) headquarters and raised slogans against the G-23 leaders. These workers, like the majority of the members of the CWC, made it clear through their loud proclamations that they would not brook any criticism of the first family. Many of the slogans called for Rahul Gandhi’s return as Congress president and expulsion of the leaders in the G-23 group from the party.
For the veteran South Indian leader, the entire content of the CWC statement, its tone and tenor and the manner in which it was delivered in the background of a partisan, sloganeering mob, was in line with the sycophantic charades that have played out in the higher forums of the party following every one of the serial reverses suffered by the Congress after the Lok Sabha election defeat of 2014. “What happened after the 2019 Lok Sabha defeat as well as after the Assembly election reverses in 2021 were almost carbon-copy replicas of the present goings-on in the CWC. Similar scenes had unfolded in the higher echelons of the party when the G-23 raised the demand for comprehensive organisational reform in August 2020. Then too many CWC members, including veterans like A.K. Antony, had rallied for the first family of the party and launched vicious criticism of the leaders associated with G-23. The sloganeering mobs were also on display then,” the leader said.
Evidently, this veteran leader was sympathetic to the points raised by the G-23 group but was not ready to come out openly in their support or be identified with them. “There must be hundreds of senior activists and leaders like me across the country who are closet supporters of the G23 initiative. But I suppose many of them would take their time to openly express their sentiments,” he said. In his view, the single most important reason for such hesitancy is the sense that no one leader in the party can be an effective alternative to the Gandhi family members. However, he believes that any further violation of the promise to build up a comprehensive system of inner party democracy with a time-bound completion of organisational elections across all units could act as a catalyst for some sort of implosion. “The promise about inner party democracy and completing organisational elections was made repeatedly from 2019. In fact, after the formation of G-23 in August 2020, Rahul Gandhi himself assured the party that an AICC session would be convened in the next four to six months to elect a new party president. It is almost two years now after that promise was made. Once again, there is talk of a fixed time frame for the organisational elections. All hell could break lose if this promise too is violated.”
Kapil Sibal speaks his mind
Most of the G-23 leaders and their closet supporters have adopted a wait-and-watch policy without taking on the first family publicly. Only former Union Minister Kapil Sibal, who is a prominent member of the group, has gone ballistic against the Gandhi-Nehru family and openly called for removing them from the top positions of the party. Sibal minced no words to assert that “it is time the Gandhis step aside from the leadership role and give some other person a chance”. In an interview to the Indian Express , he said the Gandhis should “voluntarily move away” because “a body nominated by them will never tell them that they should not continue to hold the reins of power”.
Sibal said he was not surprised by either the party’s defeat in the Assembly elections or the CWC’s decision to reaffirm its faith in Sonia Gandhi’s leadership. But he added that a large number of leaders outside the CWC had an entirely different point of view. “There is a Congress outside the CWC. Kindly listen to their views, if you choose to… Lots of leaders like us who are not in the CWC but in the Congress have an entirely different point of view. Is it that we don’t matter because we are not in the CWC? Therefore, the CWC, according to them, represents the Congress party in India. I don’t think that’s correct. There are lots of Congressmen around the country, people from Kerala, from Assam, from Jammu and Kashmir, from Maharashtra, from Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, who don’t hold that point of view,” he said.
He went on to add that the leadership was “in cuckoo land if it is not aware of the reasons for the party’s decline even after eight years.” Making a special mention of the sustained demands from many seeking the return of Rahul Gandhi as Congress president, Sibal said: “Some people have expressed their views that there can be no Congress without A, B or C. Obviously, they believe that ‘Sab ki Congress’ cannot survive without ‘Ghar ki Congress’. That’s the challenge. This is not against A, B or C. I want a ‘sab ki Congress’ [the Congress of everybody]. Some want a ‘ghar ki Congress’.”
Specifically referring to the “chintan shivir”’ idea, Sibal said that “the chintan [thinking] should all have been done. They should allow someone else to lead. Give someone else a chance. Sunil Gavaskar, for example, had to retire one day. Here, we are not dealing with Gavaskars. Sachin Tendulkar had to retire one day. Until yesterday, Virat Kohli was the captain of the team. The names of all three will be written in golden letters in the cricketing history of the world. They too had to retire. They had to also move away. So if men of great excellence also, at some stage, think that it is time to go, then surely, after the debacles that we have seen, the leadership should leave this space for somebody else who will be elected and not nominated. Allow that person to perform.”
At the moment Sibal is the only leader making such trenchant public statements against the first family. Other leaders in the G-23 have only adopted a line of posturing without direct confrontation. In fact, a meeting of the group scheduled to be held at Sibal’s house was shifted to that of Azad after Sibal’s pronouncements against the Gandhis became public. However, they have also showed that they are determined to stick together for the time being. These leaders met on two consecutive days, March 16 and 17, in Delhi to draw up their own plans. Among those who met on March 16 at Azad’s house were Kapil Sibal, Shashi Tharoor, Anand Sharma, Manish Tewari, Bhupinder Hooda, Akhilesh Prasad Singh, Prithviraj Chavan, Raj Babbar, P.J. Kurien and Mani Shankar Aiyar. The presence of Tharoor, Aiyar and Preneet Kaur is considered significant because Aiyar is a long-time Gandhi family loyalist and Tharoor is known to hold the view that in spite of the differences, the party structure should not be rocked. Lok Sabha MP Preneet Kaur is the wife of former Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh, who was expelled just before the election. Singh’s party is now an ally of the BJP and performed miserably in the elections. Former Gujarat Chief Minister Shankarsinh Vaghela, who quit the Congress in 2017 and joined the Nationalist Congress Party in 2019 was also present. He is reportedly keen to come back to the Congress.
After the first day’s meeting, the group issued a statement signed by 18 leaders. It stated: “We the… members of the Congress party met to deliberate on the demoralising outcome of the recent results of the Assembly elections and the constant exodus of both our workers and leaders. We believe that the only way forward is for the Congress party to adopt the model of collective and inclusive leadership and decision-making at all levels. In order to oppose the BJP, it is necessary to strengthen the Congress party. We demand the Congress party to initiate dialogue with other like-minded forces to create a platform to pave the way for a credible alternative for 2024.”
Congress insiders told Frontline that following the first day’s meeting there was a telephonic conversation between Azad and Sonia Gandhi. The details of the conversation have not come out. As things stand on March 17, both the supporters of the first family as well as the overt and covert sympathizers of G-23 are making their own moves. While the majority of leaders on both sides are moving cautiously, some persist with public statements. These outspoken leaders include Sibal on the G-23 side and Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot, Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel and Manickam Tagore, a close associate of Rahul Gandhi, on the side still loyal to the Gandhi family. Tagore has been vocal in his assertions that Congress will disintegrate if the Gandhis step down. “The Gandhis unify the Congress across the country and I strongly believe Rahul Gandhi should be Congress president,” Tagore told the media.
Meanwhile, senior leaders like former Union Minister P. Chidambaram and party spokesperson Abhishek Manu Singhvi are urging moderation on both sides saying that the party needs to remain united at the current moment of crisis. How these three streams would play out in the future is to be seen. But one thing is clear. Given its repeated failures at the hands of the BJP and the emergence of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) as a contender in national politics after humbling the Congress in Punjab, the grand old party is bound to see a period of intense turbulence.