On 16 May 2022, Kapil Sibal ended his over two-and-a-half-decade-long association with the Congress and is set to enter the Rajya Sabha from Uttar Pradesh with the support of the Samajwadi Party.
What went wrong between Sibal and the Congress?
What does his entry into the Rajya Sabha with the SP's support mean for the Opposition?
This story will try and explore these two questions.
But first, a brief look at Sibal's political journey. Interestingly, several non-Congress parties have played a role in Sibal's rise even within the Congress.
Kapil Sibal's Political Journey & Role of Regional Parties
Kapil Sibal's rise as a politician has been closely tied to his legal career. Sibal is the youngest son of eminent jurist and former advocate general of Punjab, Hira Lall Sibal. With his three brothers becoming civil servants, Sibal was the primary heir to his father's legal legacy.
He joined the bar association in 1972, became a senior advocate in 1983, and was an additional solicitor general between 1989-90 – interestingly, during a non-Congress government.
He joined the Congress before the 1996 Lok Sabha elections and contested from the South Delhi constituency, but lost to BJP's Sushma Swaraj.
However, he became a prominent spokesperson and media face for the party, an important role at a time when private news channels had started proliferating.
In 1998, he entered the Rajya Sabha from Bihar with the help of Lalu Prasad's Rashtriya Janata Dal. With Lalu being embroiled in several cases, Sibal's equation with him deepened over the years.
In 2004, he contested from the Chandni Chowk Lok Sabha constituency. His victory wouldn't have been possible had it not been for the withdrawal and support of Janata Dal (Secular) leader Shoaib Iqbal. In both 1998 and 1999, Iqbal, the MLA from Matia Mahal, polled over 25 percent votes – mostly from Muslims of Old Delhi – and the Congress lost the seat both times.
However, in 2004, Sibal 'convinced' Iqbal to withdraw and this contributed to his massive win over BJP candidate Smriti Irani. Sibal won once again in 2009 but came third in 2014.
He was made the minister for science and technology during UPA-1 and in UPA-2, he was first given HRD and later telecom. He had his share of controversies as the telecom minister, especially with his "zero loss" comment around the alleged 2-G scam and his call for regulating online content.
He entered the Rajya Sabha from UP in 2016 with the Samajwadi Party's support as the Congress didn't have adequate numbers in the Uttar Pradesh Assembly.
He is now set to enter the Upper House as an Independent, this time, entirely with SP support and no help from the Congress.
Much like the RJD earlier, Sibal's equation with the SP is also due to the legal help he provided the party on critical occasions – first, to Akhilesh Yadav during the dispute over the party symbol with his patriarch Mulayam Singh Yadav in 2017, and more recently, his help in securing bail for senior party leader Mohammad Azam Khan.
Besides the SP and RJD leadership, Sibal has also represented Trinamool Congress leaders in the Supreme Court. But it's not just regional parties – in his capacity as a lawyer, Sibal has also represented Muslim organisations in key cases.
For instance, he represented the All India Muslim Personal Law Board in both the Triple Talaq and Babri Masjid cases. He is said to have recused himself from the latter, following pressure from sections of the Congress who were afraid this would be used to portray the party as "anti-Hindu."
Most recently, Sibal represented the Jamiat Ulema-i-Hind in its petition against the Jahangipuri demolitions.
The Sibal-Congress Fallout
One major turning point in Sibal's equation with the Congress was the demise of senior party leader Ahmed Patel in November 2020. Sibal was known to be close to Patel and had played a key role in the BJP's petition against the latter's election to the Rajya Sabha.
With Patel's death, an important bridge between Sibal and the party was broken and he began speaking out against the state of affairs a lot more openly. The fact that he didn't enjoy a good equation with Rahul Gandhi made matters worse for him.
In August 2021, he hosted a dinner attended by several key regional leaders and some Congress leaders who were part of the G-23.
A number of attendees openly criticised the Gandhis at the dinner.
In September 2021, Congress workers staged massive protests outside Sibal's residence in Delhi after his remarks criticising the party leadership.
In March 2022, The Quint had reported that the Congress high command was willing to accommodate almost all the G-23 leaders with the clear exception of Sibal.
The reason given by party sources was that Sibal was the only one among the G-23 who had openly targeted the Gandhis, unlike the others, who had mainly criticised the party's functioning and spoken about the need for reforms.
There were also allegations of some financial disputes between Sibal and one of the state units.
The Chintan Shivir in May made the singling out of Sibal quite apparent, with G-23 members like Mukul Wasnik, Bhupinder Singh Hooda, Ghulam Nabi Azad, Anand Sharma, Shashi Tharoor, Prithviraj Chavan, and others accommodated in key committees, and Sibal left out.
Many of these leaders have also been made part of the task forces created by the Congress president earlier this week.
What Next for Sibal, Congress, and Rest of Opposition?
Sibal hasn't formally joined the SP and will enter the Rajya Sabha as an Independent. In some ways, for the Congress, this makes things more tricky than his joining the SP formally.
He is likely to use this as a platform to continue pitching for an Opposition coalition that doesn't have the Congress as its fulcrum.
The dinner he hosted in August was the first step to demonstrate his clout among regional parties of all hues – those allied to the Congress, like the DMK, firmly anti-BJP parties but non-UPA like the SP, TMC, and RJD, as well as fence-sitters like the YSRCP, TRS, AAP, BJD, SAD, and TDP.
This space will remain relevant until 2024 but its centrality would depend on how the Congress performs in the Assembly elections that lie in between.
If the party is able to win a few states and establish that it can defeat the BJP, it would make Sibal's attempted coalition a much more distant prospect. If the Congress continues to falter, then the Sibal model for the Opposition may become more central and a few more Congress leaders may follow his example.
Meanwhile, Sibal's exit brings down the G-23 number to 20, the other two having left being Yoganand Shastri who joined the NCP, and Jitin Prasad who went to the BJP.