What has changed in the Congress after Rahul Gandhi took over the party reins? Ask this question to any of the party higher-ups and the answer one would get is as good as looking the other way. And an uneasy reservation marks the refrain by old party hands about the steps taken by Rahul since he took over as party president.
Hence, another question that arises is why the old guards are keeping their fingers crossed about the changes that are taking place in the party since Rahul’s ascent to the top party post?
Congress party stables bereft of old hands
The answer simply is that the party stables are being cleared of the old lot that has for long been used to sit and wait for orders from above. So much so that every other evening a note signed by party general secretary Ashok Gehlot arrives, appointing a new person as per the wishes of the party president and relieving this or that incumbent to make way for the new appointee. Yet, this is nevertheless with a few words of appreciation for the outgoing functionary for his or her contributions over the years to the party.
The duty of assigning new functions besides doing other party chores that Gehlot has now taken over were earlier with former party general secretary Janardan Dwivedi. He too has been relieved of his myriad functions. This is so despite the fact that Dwivedi has for long been thought to be close to Rahul’s predecessor and his mother, Sonia Gandhi. Like Dwivedi there are others who are virtually out in the new power scheme of the party. Among them are quite a few senior Congress leaders like Mohsina Kidwai, Digvijaya Singh (he was virtual guru of Rahul Gandhi for quite some time), Sushil Kumar Shinde, CP Joshi, Oscar Fernandes, Salman Khurshid, BK Hariprasad, Gurudas Kamat, Mohan Prakash, Madhusudan Mistry and Shakil Ahmed.
None of these Congress leaders could make it to the new Congress Working Committee formed mid-July. From the old lot, the names of only Motilal Vora, Ahmed Patel and Ambika Soni besides Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh figured in the 23-member CWC. Others in the list include four former Congress chief ministers Oommen Chandy (Kerala), S Siddaramaiah (Karnataka), Tarun Gogoi (Assam) and Harish Rawat (Uttrakhand). Some of the old faces like P Chidambaram and Sheila Dikshit were included in a separate 18-member list of permanent invitees to the CWC. The two share the invitee space in the crucial party body with Randeep Singh Surjewala, Rajeev S Satav, Shankarsinh Gohil and Gaurav Gogoi.
The need for large-scale changes in the party
Thus, the old order is giving way to the new though the party veterans call the team-Rahul which is thought to be somehow still in the making as a blend of old and new. Clichéd as this may sound, the reality is that new and also not so new faces are either appearing on the Congress’ scene or going several notches up from their past positions in the party. Those who have, thus, been kicked up are KC Venugopal, Surjewala, Dipak Barbaria, Shaktisinh Gohil, Jitendra Singh, Rajeev Satav, Gaurav Gogoi, RPN Singh, Avinash Pandey, Nadeem Javed and Anugrah Narain Singh. All of them have been given key roles.
The need for such large-scale changes in the party was felt because as party insiders point out “nothing was moving in the party for months and years.” So much so that district Congress committee chiefs in an election-bound state like Madhya Pradesh could be appointed only about a month ago from now.
Insiders say that more importantly the party’s social positioning vis-à-vis others, or its rivals, has been weakening for long. The caste question and the communal onslaught had cornered the Congress. An upper caste party like the BJP moved fast in accordance with the lower castes upsurge by giving prominence to leaders from backward castes like Uma Bharti, Babu Lal Gaur, Kalyan Singh, Vinay Katiyar and Sakshi Maharaj to name a few while the Congress did not move beyond its Brahminical core fortified by a few other upper castes that stood guard to check others’ entry.
The sea change in the Congress
Rahul has been aware of the caste anomaly and imbalance in his party right from the day he was appointed vice president of the party at a Congress conclave held at Jaipur in January 2013. The party insiders say that in Jaipur Rahul walked into a room where some of his party satraps were discussing the issues related to underprivileged classes like backwards, intermediary castes, scheduled castes and tribes and minorities under the broader framework of social justice. He then asked how many people were from the communities whose plight was being discussed? Only one or two persons could raise their hands to answer what Rahul was asking. The Congress leader soon walked away from the venue of the discussion, Congress insiders recall, adding it was the day when it was decided that the social complexion of the party was going to change.
Although it took a long time for this to come about today, they point out, there is no Brahmin Congress State unit chief except a southern state where a Brahmin, former Chief Minister’s son, has been appointed as PCC, or Pradesh Congress Committee, president only recently. And at the AICC, among the officials, the backward castes and those coming from poor families have been given a fair or larger share. This trend became palpable when Keshav Chand Yadav was appointed by Rahul as president of Youth Congress. He is also a special invitee to the CWC. Those who have been watching Congress for years point out that of the 30 AICC secretaries, very few come from privileged castes or moneyed families.
This is a sea change in the Congress from the past when the party like a large joint-family was confined to caring even its distant cousins while shunning others. Caste and clan played so great a role in proving a drag upon the party that it shrunk as badly as to have less than 50 seats in the Lower House of Parliament. And it is from such a low that an old party has to be rebuilt by so young a leader who can’t do much except to give a big jolt to the Congress family. This is more so since the party has to be woken up from its deep slumber.