With Sonia & Rahul Abroad, Can ‘Reshuffled’ Congress Take On Modi?

Sonia Gandhi’s reshuffle may help quell dissent in Congress but may not make it battle ready against Modi’s BJP

Updated
Politics
5 min read
Image of Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi used for representational purposes.
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Congress president Sonia Gandhi left for the United States for a "routine medical check-up" on Saturday 12 September. She is being accompanied by her son and former party chief Rahul Gandhi.

Party sources say that the check-up had been delayed for some months because of the travel restrictions in place due to COVID-19.

Their departure comes barely a few days after the Congress carried out a major reshuffle of its organisation. And In their absence, it would be the newly constituted decision making bodies of the Congress that would have to manage party affairs.

The question is - can the reshuffled Congress handle the challenges before it?

First, the highlights of the reshuffle.

THE RESHUFFLE

Highlights

  • A committee of six leaders has been formed to help Congress president Sonia Gandhi on organisational matters: AK Antony, Ahmed Patel, Ambika Soni, KC Venugopal, Mukul Wasnik and Randeep Singh Surjewala.
  • Ghulam Nabi Azad, Mallikarjun Kharge, Luizinho Faleiro, Ambika Soni and Motilal Vora have been dropped as general secretaries.
  • Many of the other general secretaries and state in-charges have retained their positions. Among the new general secretaries and in-charges are Tariq Anwar and Jitendra Singh.
  • A central election committee has been constituted with Madhusudan Mistry as chairman and Rajesh Mishra, Krishna Byre Gowda, S Jothimani and Arvinder Singh Lovely as members.

Winners and Losers

A lot of the coverage of the reshuffle has been restricted to who gained and who lost out. But that's relatively easy.

  • Randeep Singh Surjewala and Tariq Anwar would definitely top the list of winners. Surjewala is now part of the important six-member committee assisting the Congress president and was also made general secretary in-charge for Karnataka. He retains the position of communications in-charge for now though there is speculation that someone else may be given the charge in the near future.
Randeep Singh Surjewala is one of the biggest gainers in the reshuffle. He’ll be part of the six member committee to assist the Congress president.
  • Tariq Anwar rejoined the Congress last year after 20 years in the NCP. He's now general secretary in-charge for Kerala, which goes to polls next year.
  • The key losers would include some of the dropped general secretaries and in-charges and many who haven't been accomodated despite their seniority.

But the real question isn’t the promotion and demotion of individuals but what the reshuffle achieved and what it didn't.

WHAT THE RESHUFFLE ACHIEVED

The biggest thing that Sonia Gandhi achieved through the reshuffle is that it has almost put an end to the 'dissent' that was brewing in the party.

The 23 Letter Writers: Some Accommodated, Some Sidelined

Remember, the reshuffle comes barely a few weeks after 23 leaders wrote a letter to the Congress president complaining about the state of affairs in the party.

The reshuffle itself appears to be in response to the criticism in the letter. The letter-writers' demand for an organisational overhaul has been partially met, but not through an electoral path as they had wanted.

Gandhi has cleverly accommodated some of the signatories, elevated at least one and sidelined many of them.

Sonia Gandhi has cleverly accommodated some of the 23 signatories of the letter, quelling the possibility of a united rebellion
  • For instance, Mukul Wasnik, who was also a signatory to the letter, is now part of the six-member committee assisting the Congress president.
  • Ghulam Nabi Azad, the senior-most signatory, has been retained in the Congress Working Committee, but dropped as general secretary.
  • However, Azad doesn't seem to have been singled out as non-signatories like Motilal Vora, Luizinho Faleiro, Mallikarjun Kharge and Ambika Soni were also dropped as general secretaries.
  • Besides Azad, signatories like Anand Sharma and Jitin Prasada have also been retained in the CWC.
  • On the other hand signatories such as Milind Deora, Shashi Tharoor, Prithviraj Chavan and Manish Tewari haven't been accommodated as of now, neither has Sachin Pilot who led an aborted rebellion against the Congress government in Rajasthan.

So by accommodating many of the critics, Sonia Gandhi appears to have pre-empted any attempt to incite a major rebellion in the party.

The Importance of Being Tariq Anwar

Elevating Tariq Anwar is also a symbolic of the spirit of accommodation as he had left the party over 20 years ago along with Sharad Pawar and PA Sangma, in protest against Sonia Gandhi's foreign origins. He returned only last year.

His promotion is Gandhi's way of saying that rebels who return to the Congress won't just be forgiven but also given a respectable place.

Balance Between Factions

The reshuffle has managed to strike a balance between Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi’s loyalists and between young and old leaders.

For instance the six member committee has Sonia Gandhi loyalists like AK Antony, Ahmed Patel, Ambika Soni and Mukul Wasnik and Rahul Gandhi loyalists like KC Venugopal and Randeep Singh Surjewala.

While several senior leaders have retained their positions, a number of younger leaders like Jitendra Singh and Rajeev Satav have also been given prominence.

So from the point of view of keeping the party together and quelling rebellion, the reshuffle appears to have been reasonably successful.

WHAT IT MISSED

While the reshuffle may help prevent a rebellion or split, it hasn't quite succeeded in another task - making Congress a battle ready force to take on the Narendra Modi-led BJP. A case in point here is Parliament.

The Monsoon Session of Parliament begins on 14 September. This is a golden opportunity for the Congress to put the Modi government on the mat on three of its ‘failures’: handling of the COVID-19 crisis, the fall in GDP and China's incursions into Indian territory.

But then who will lead the charge?

Lok Sabha

  • Wayanad MP Rahul Gandhi, the party's main face in national politics and the favourite of its rank and file, will be abroad and miss the first part of the Monsoon Session. As Gandhi has been leading the Congress’ charge on these key issues on social media, his absence is likely to affect the Congress.
  • Congress' leader in the Lok Sabha Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury has recently been appointed chief of the West Bengal Pradesh Congress after the death of Somen Mitra. So even though he'll still lead the party in the House, clearly his priorities would be divided.
  • Then two other prominent voices in the Lok Sabha - Manish Tewari and Shashi Tharoor - were among the 23 signatories so it isn’t clear how much prominence the party would give them.
  • In the Lok Sabha, the party would run the risk of being overshadowed by articulate Opposition MPs from other parties like AIMIM's Asaduddin Owaisi, DMK’s TR Baalu and TMC's Mahua Moitra.

Rajya Sabha

  • Though Congress has much better numbers and bench strength in the Rajya Sabha, there is still a problem. The Leader of the Opposition is Ghulam Nabi Azad, who has been sidelined and may not entirely command the party's backing following the letter row.
  • The same goes for Anand Sharma his de-factor number two in the Upper House as well as senior MPs like Kapil Sibal and Vivek Tankha, all of whom were signatories to the letter.

So at a time when the Congress has an excellent opportunity of turning the narrative against the Modi government, its top two leaders won't be in the country and its bench strength in Parliament may not be up to the mark.

SONIA GANDHI’S MESSAGE

During the CWC meeting that took place after the contents of the letter by the 23 leaders became public, Sonia Gandhi said something very important: “Our job is to fight the Modi government, not fight each other”.

The success of Sonia Gandhi’s reshuffle lies in addressing the second part - it may have stopped internal bickering for now. But it still doesn’t have answers to the first challenge - fighting the Modi government.

The next few weeks are also an opportunity for the Congress to put forward collective leadership.

In the absence of Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi, it is likely that the six member committee comprising AK Antony, Ahmed Patel, Ambika Soni, KC Venugopal, Mukul Wasnik and Randeep Singh Surjewala, may be taking key party decisions.

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