Challenges ahead for Cong as it sets in motion party revamp plan

Over the past weeks, the grand old party lost key leaders like Sunil Jakhar in Punjab, Hardik Patel in Gujarat and Kapil Sibal in Delhi, indicating the organization is not able to retain talent at a time when the Congress is planning to get a new look, reports Amit Agnihotri

The Congress is trying hard to revamp its organization to take on the ruling BJP ahead of the 2024 Lok Sabha elections but the opposition party still faces several challenges before it can become a strong national alternative.

Over the past weeks, the grand old party lost key leaders like Sunil Jakhar in Punjab, Hardik Patel in Gujarat and Kapil Sibal in Delhi, indicating the organization was not able to retain talent at a time when the Congress is planning to get a new look.

Further, the party has to deal with the Enforcement Directorate’s questioning of party chief Sonia Gandhi and former chief Rahul Gandhi in the National Herald case, which will bring negative publicity to the top leadership.

The Congress claims the case itself and the ED summons resulted from BJP’s “vendetta” politics as the charges of money laundering against the Gandhis are “false.”

To express solidarity with Rahul, the top party leaders accompanied him to the ED office in Delhi, while the state units staged satyagraha outside the agency offices across the country in a show of strength.

Though there was no obvious link between the two issues, the summons in the old case came days after Rahul slammed the central government during public events in London.

The notices are also related to the opposition party’s plans to launch a Kashmir to Kanyakumari foot march on October 2, the birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi, to counter the central government, said party insiders.

Before the yatra, the Congress is working on revamping the party structure and bringing in more younger leaders as office bearers.

The exit of former Punjab chief Sunil Jakhar came while the party was busy preparing its roadmap for the 2024 Lok Sabha polls at Udaipur from May 13-15.

Jakhar, who later joined the BJP, took away five more Congress leaders, including four former ministers, and claimed that many more were waiting to leave the Congress.

Former Punjab chief minister Amarinder Singh, who was forced to resign by the high command last year and who later formed his own party the Punjab Lok Congress, welcomed the decision of the former ministers to leave the Congress saying that their exit was only the tip of the iceberg.

The Congress lost the state to AAP in March and though it is the main opposition party, the grand old party is struggling to regain ground in Punjab.

New Punjab Congress chief Amrinder Singh Brar feels the defections are good for the grand old party and will pave the way for the younger leaders to emerge.

In Gujarat, which will have assembly polls later this year, the Congress high command ignored the warning signals when its dynamic Patel community leader Hardik Patel has expressed his frustration with the senior state leaders. He later joined the BJP. In Hardik’s exit, the Congress will have to find a suitable face to woo the crucial Patel community which has 15 percent votes in Gujarat.

Former union minister Kapil Sibal left the Congress as he felt sidelined in the party after he was not invited for the Udaipur strategy session.

Sibal later contested the Rajya Sabha polls as an independent candidate from UP backed by the Samajwadi Party. He had notably questioned the leadership and suggested that the Congress should elect a non-Gandhi president after the party performed badly in the five assembly polls in March.

The exit of the senior leaders is not the only problem being faced by the Congress. The ED summons for both Sonia and Rahul in the National Herald case indicates the high command will continue to be in the government’s focus.

Though there is no link between the two developments, the ED summons came after Rahul slammed the central government at two separate interactions – one organised by NGO Bridge India on the theme “Ideas for India’ and the second in the Cambridge University on the theme ‘India at 75’.

During his interactions, Rahul blamed the BJP for playing divisive politics. He said the ruling party had spread kerosene all around and even a single spark could lead to a big problem. He also noted that people were suffering due to a sliding economy, lack of jobs, high prices of fuel and essential food items. His statements provoked the central government which reacted strongly to the allegations.


Red-faced Congress

An embarrassed Congress sought to play down the resignation of Kapil Sibal. “It has been proved now that Kapil Sibal was raising questions over the leadership due to personal interests. We had in mind that he might leave the party. Delhi had sent him to Parliament but he ignored the party workers and raised questions on leadership,” Delhi Congress chief Anil Chaudhary said.

Former MP and senior UP Congress leader Rajesh Mishra said, “Kapil Sibal’s leaving the party will not impact the Congress. A leader who cannot get votes in Delhi, won’t be able to harm the party nationally.”

Earlier, former law minister Ashwini Kumar had resigned from the Congress before the Punjab assembly polls while former ministers RPN Singh and Jitin Prasada had quit the grand old party ahead of UP polls.

The timing of Sibal’s announcement was crucial as it also came a day after Sonia Gandhi’s Task Force 2024, headed by P Chidambaram, held its first meeting to discuss a roadmap for the party’s revival after a series of devastating election defeats.

Sibal had resigned on May 16.

The revelation from Sibal came a day after two other G23 members, Ghulam Nabi Azad and Anand Sharma. were named by party chief Sonia Gandhi in a key Congress panel to prepare for the 2024 national elections.

Sibal’s Rajya Sabha nomination is likely to create a tiff between the Congress and the former ally SP as he filed his nomination papers in the presence of Samajwadi Party chief Akhilesh Yadav. Sibal had represented Azam Khan, who was recently released on interim bail by the Supreme Court after two years in prison. Sibal however claimed he is an independent nominee for the Rajya Sabha polls.

In 2020, Sibal was one of the signatories to the G23 letter to Sonia demanding a complete overhaul of the organization and a full-time elected president. Sibal, a noted lawyer, had defended the Congress in various cases in the Supreme Court, including the one related to the National Herald newspaper started by former prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru.

But he got into the bad books of the Congress high command after he recently suggested that the Gandhis should leave the grand old party to pave way for a better leadership.

In Gujarat, too the party will face a difficult situation, said party insiders. Hardik had shot into fame after leading the Patel quota movement in 2015 and was later roped in by Rahul Gandhi. However, he had been miffed over the Congress’ attempts to rope in another community leader Naresh Patel.

Naresh Patel, known as a social worker and chairman of the Khodaldham trust, widely regarded by his Leuva Patel community, was being wooed by the Congress on the suggestion of poll manager Prashant Kishor. But the plan suffered a setback when Kishor decided to part ways with the Congress in April.

Congress strategists said though the withdrawal of cases against Hardik and his supporters was linked to the young leader’s resignation, his style of functioning had miffed several senior leaders.


Bharat Jodo Yatra

The Congress plans to get into an agitation mode over the coming months and plans to launch its nationwide Bharat Jodo Yatra from Kashmir in the north to Kanyakumari in the south.

The yatra is an attempt to counter the BJP’s divisive politics and revive the Congress across the country.

Before that, the AICC in charge held workshops across the states to brief local leaders on how to implement the Udaipur declaration which aims at reforming the party.

According to party insiders, the key challenge before the central leadership is to implement the decision of having half of all office bearers under 50 years of age.

The party has targeted to complete the roll out of the plan over the next three-four months but is facing resistance from the seniors who have been around for decades and are not comfortable with the changes.

At the same time, there are several promising youngsters who have been waiting to get key party roles and need to be roped in now, said party insiders.

The changes are important for the grand old party to bring in fresh talent, give it a more youthful look and change the way its functions ahead of the 2024 Lok Sabha polls.

Organisational gaps were identified as one of the reasons behind the party’s poor performance in the five states, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Goa, Punjab and Manipur.

Besides, lack of strong connection with the voters was identified as the other key reason for the poll losses, said sources.

As part of the exercise to restructure the organization, Uttar Pradesh in charge Priyanka Gandhi Vadra reached capital Lucknow for the first time since the recent assembly polls to pep-up the party workers.

The grand old party, which could win just 2/403 assembly seats in UP, is trying hard to regroup and motivate the workers, said party insiders. Of  late, the party rank and file in UP had been feeling low as there was no communication from the top on how to move ahead.

The party is also in the process of sprucing up its communications besides having proper systems to assess current political situations and evaluate the work being done by the party functionaries across the country.