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Kapil Sibal’s Congress Exit: Questioning the Gandhis Can Be Dangerous

Ever since he publicly demanded that the party seek a leader outside the Gandhi family, his days were numbered.

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The departure of senior leader Kapil Sibal from the Congress after 31 years in the party is not just another high-profile exit. His declaration of independence – he will be contesting for a Rajya Sabha seat as an independent with the help of the Samajwadi Party – is likely to paralyse the G-23, the group of Congress leaders seeking reform within the Grand Old Party, and of which he was the moving spirit.

Sibal put in his resignation on 16 May, a day after the Congress’s Chintan Shivir in Udaipur, by which time it was evident that the three-day exercise at a picturesque resort had been held more as an image-building exercise for the heir apparent Rahul Gandhi than for conducting any serious introspection on why the party has been withering away in recent years. Of course, ever since the former minister had publicly demanded two months ago that the party seek a leader outside the Gandhi family, his days were numbered. Sources in the G-23 said that was one of the reasons Sibal did not attend the Udaipur conclave – he did not wish to be “humiliated” there. For, it is well-known in the party that anyone who directly attacks the Gandhis is unlikely to be forgiven.

Snapshot
  • Ever since Kapil Sibal had publicly demanded two months ago that the Congress party seek a leader outside the Gandhi family, his days were numbered. It is well-known that anyone who directly attacks the Gandhis is unlikely to be forgiven.

  • Sibal is hoping that the friends that he has made over his three decades in politics will help him play a behind-the-scenes role in mobilising the opposition.

  • But little has changed for the Congress, which has been co-opting the G-23 leaders. The party must seriously address its leadership problem, make structural changes in the party, and work unitedly with the rest of the opposition.

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The Case of Milind Deora

For instance, after the party’s humiliating defeat in the Lok Sabha polls in 2014, Milind Deora, then a close confidante and personal friend of Rahul Gandhi, publicly criticised the latter’s inexperienced advisers in an interview with the Indian Express, as being “people with no electoral experience … no stature, standing, respect and credibility in the party”. He then went on to add: “A lot of us felt that our voices were never heard. We felt our voices don’t matter. This has to change. The MPs and ministers should not feel we are being not heard.” And then came the clincher: “It is not the advisors alone. The people who take the advice also have to bear responsibility.”

At that time, a senior Congress leader told this writer, “I wish Milind had not gone public with his criticism. I know the Gandhis – he will never be forgiven.” And so, Deora, seen once as a promising member of Gandhi’s generation, remains out in the cold eight years after that damning interview.

Chintan Shivir Was Just an Image-Building Exercise

The Chintan Shivir was also a very disappointing event. Instead of becoming an occasion for the party to introspect on why it has been faring poorly and formulate ways to strengthen itself on the ground to take on the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in a slew of upcoming assembly polls, the overly structured discussions became another occasion to simply attack the Modi government. And, instead of announcing its intention to work with other opposition parties, regional outfits were attacked as being bereft of ideology – hardly a propitious start to any sort of cooperation in the future.

Clearly, the present Congress leadership is either unable or unwilling to read the writing on the wall. It must put its house in order before it can be in a position to take on anyone else.

Having failed to have his voice – and that of the others in the G-23 - heard in the Congress, Sibal, soon after he filed his nomination as an independent candidate, said, “I have always wanted to be an independent voice in the country ... It is important to be an independent voice. While staying in the opposition, we want to create an alliance so that we can oppose the Modi government.”

Sibal is clearly hoping that the friends that he has made in his three decades in politics – and many more as a lawyer – especially in the SP and in the Rashtriya Janata Dal, will help him play a behind-the-scenes role in mobilising the opposition and bringing them onto one platform.

Co-opting the G-23 Leaders

Meanwhile, as stated earlier, little has changed in the functioning of the Congress. Instead of heeding the words of the G-23 leaders on the need to restructure and revamp the party, and focusing on the need for an effective and full-time leadership, something that had been reiterated in detail in the Prashant Kishore plan, the current party bosses have focused on co-opting as many of the G-23 leaders as possible.

At the Chintan Shivir, G-23 members found places in the six discussion groups. While Bhupinder Singh Hooda headed the group on agriculture, Ghulam Nabi Azad and Prithviraj Chavan were in the political group, and Anand Sharma and Manish Tewari were in the economy group. Of course, since the discussions were carefully structured and scripted, there was very little scope for any self-criticism.

Hooda has been silenced almost entirely with one of his confidantes being appointed president of the Haryana Congress even as he remains the CLP leader. In short, he controls the party apparatus in the state. Ghulam Nabi Azad (who has been toying with the idea of breaking away and forming his own party in Jammu and Kashmir) and Anand Sharma have been included in an eight-member political affairs group that Sonia Gandhi has constituted to advise her. Now, it remains to be seen whether the two of them will be considered for Rajya Sabha seats, and if not, whether they will remain in the party.

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Cong's Real Problems Lie Elsewhere

Sonia Gandhi also announced a task force for the 2024 Lok Sabha elections, in which Mukul Wasnik, another signatory to the G-23 letter, has found a place. Finally, Shashi Tharoor, another G-23 member, has been included in her central planning group for the coordination of the Bharat Yatra, which will begin on 2 October. In any case, as a Lok Sabha MP, like Manish Tewari, another G-23 member, he cannot afford to quit at this stage. There is, however, talk that Tewari may join the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) closer to the 2024 polls, unless things change dramatically in the Congress.

But co-opting those who speak out is not the answer to the Congress’s long term problems. If it wants to be in any position to take on the BJP in 2024, the party must seriously address its leadership problem, make structural changes in the party, and work unitedly with the rest of the opposition.

(Smita Gupta is a senior journalist who’s been Associate Editor, The Hindu, and has also worked with organisations like Outlook India, The Indian Express, Times Of India and Hindustan Times. She’s a former Oxford Reuters Institute fellow. She tweets @g_smita. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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