Though Sonia Gandhi holds the post of party chief, her children Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, represent the new high command and are driving change in the 136 years old organisation, writes AMIT AGNIHOTRI
The Congress is reinventing itself by overhauling the state units and leading the opposition to take on the Centre ahead of the 2024 Lok Sabha poll battle.
Though Sonia Gandhi holds the post of party chief, her children Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, represent the new high command and are driving change in the 136 years old organization.
Former party chief Rahul Gandhi, who may be appointed to the post again, emerged in a new avatar during the Monsoon Session of Parliament where he regularly hosted like-minded opposition parties to firm up joint strategy to corner the government over pressing issues.
Rahul’s breakfast meeting at the Constitution Club attended by leaders from parties like Trinamool Congress, Communist Party of India (Marxist), Communist Party of India, Nationalist Congress Party, Shiv Sena, Dravida Munnetra
Kazhagam, Rashtriya Janata Dal, Loktantrik Janata Dal, Samajwadi Party, Jharkhand Mukti Morcha, Revolutionary Socialist Party, Kerala Congress (M), Indian Union Muslim League and the Jammu and Kashmir National Conference drew nationwide public attention as the move signalled the leader’s coming out of the shadows.
“The single motive to invite you is that we should unite. The more this voice unites, the more powerful it will become, the more difficult it will become for the BJP and RSS to suppress this voice,” Rahul urged the opposition leaders.
The Aam Aadmi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party stayed away from the get-together but AAP Rajya Sabha member Sanjay Singh later clarified his position. “Attending or not attending [the meet] is not important. Whenever a discussion is held in parliament, we will support the farmers and raise the issue of snooping row,” Singh tweeted.
The former Congress chief also staged protests against high fuel prices by leading a bicycle rally of opposition leaders from the Constitution Club to the Parliament and demanded repeal of three anti-farmer laws by riding a tractor inside the Parliament House complex.
The Congress has been against the three controversial laws that were passed in June last year and later supported the farmers agitation that continues at Delhi’s borders since November 2020.
To express solidarity with the farmers, Rahul led an opposition group to participate in a Kisan Sansad held at Delhi’s iconic Jantar Mantar and later addressed a rally there to highlight that the government was not ready to debate people’s issues inside the House.
Rahul’s efforts to forge opposition unity received a boost when West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee, who is also the head of Trinamool Congress, visited the national capital during the monsoon session to further put pressure on the government.
Banerjee met Congress interim chief Sonia Gandhi and Rahul besides speaking to NCP chief Sharad Pawar over phone and interacting with Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal in a bid to strengthen opposition bonding.
Together, a united opposition could pressure the government over the alleged snooping issue and charge that the Centre rushed through several legislations without debating them.
The opposition had been pressing for a structured and detailed discussion on issues like high fuel prices, high food prices, a sliding economy and the anti-farmer laws but it was most riled over the alleged use of Pegasus software to hack the mobile phones of several important persons, including Rahul.
The Congress also sought a Supreme Court-led probe into the snooping allegations.
An upbeat opposition disrupted both the Houses of Parliament, causing disruptions and adjournments. At one point, Trinamool Congress member Santanu Sen snatched papers from IT minister Ashwini Vaishnaw when he was about to make a statement on the Pegasus scandal in the Lok Sabha.
TMC MP Derek O’Brien said: “They (Centre) should start with the issue of national security and Pegasus with the prime minister and the home minister present. There is a complete agreement of all Opposition parties on it. We are on the same page. So, the BJP with their dirty tricks should not make a mess of it.”
The situation led to a blame game between the Centre and the Opposition. The government denied the snooping charge and alleged the Opposition was derailing democracy while the opposition parties charged the Centre was running away from key issues.
For long, the opposition had faced the charge that it lacked cohesiveness but in contrast with the previous sessions, the Congress appeared more determined to play the role of an opposition anchor and also displayed its willingness to take the other parties along in a spirit of cooperation.
The new approach of the grand old party is welcome, but the opposition will now have to carry forward this unity to the future Parliament sessions and the assembly elections lined up in 2022.
Revamping state units
Before the Congress got active during the Monsoon Session of Parliament that began on July 19, the party had started revamping its state units given assembly polls in Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Punjab, Goa, Gujarat and Manipur in 2022.
The most visible imprint of the new high command’s style of working showed in Punjab, where cricketer-turned-politician Navjot Singh Sidhu was named the state unit chief despite a veto from chief minister Amarinder Singh. After resolving the power tussle in Punjab, the new high command is trying to settle the tiff between Rajasthan chief minister Ashok Gehlot and his former deputy Sachin Pilot.
In August last year, Pilot had raised certain issues and was promised that the same would be addressed. However, nothing much happened since then making him a bit restless. Of late, the high command instructed AICC in charge Ajay Maken to talk to the lawmakers in the state and work out a cabinet expansion and changes in the state unit in consultation with the chief minister.
Pilot, who had been asked by Rahul to keep calm, said that once the party high command took a decision everyone should abide by it.
Rahul restructured the Uttarakhand team making Ganesh Godiyal the new state unit chief and named former state unit chief Pritam Singh as party leader in the Assembly. The Congress recently lost leader in the state assembly Indira Hridayesh to Covid-19.
Former chief minister Harish Rawat will head the poll campaign committee in the hill-state while former AICC secretary Prakash Joshi has been made the head of election management committee. Jeet Ram, Bhuwan Kapri, Tilak Raj Behar and Ranjeet Rawat have been appointed as Working Presidents.
Given the state BJP in a disarray, with three chief ministers in the past five years, Rahul senses an opportunity to regain Uttarakhand next year.
In another hill-state Himachal Pradesh, the new high command is aware of the power vacuum that has been created after the passing away of former six-term chief minister Virbhadra Singh.
As a result, various factions in the HP Congress have started jostling for political space and have been told sternly that no dissent would be entertained till the party is able to chart out the future course of action.
There are reportedly various factions in the state unit led by Virbhadra Singh, former state unit chief Sukhvinder Singh Sukkhu and veteran GS Bali.
Along with Punjab, the new high command is trying to restructure the party unit in neighbouring Haryana while trying to balance the rival factions of Jat leader and former chief minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda and state unit chief Kumari Selja, a Dalit leader.
Rahul recently summoned Maharashtra unit chief Nana Patole to Delhi and told him not to make any provocative remarks against NCP chief Sharad Pawar, who is the key architect of the Shiv Sena-NCP-Congress ruling coalition.
The former party chief also summoned Leader of the Opposition in Karnataka Assembly K Siddaramaiah and state unit chief DK Shiva Kumar, who have been at loggerheads, to Delhi and asked them to drop their factional fights and work unitedly in the southern state where a new team may soon unfold.
The Congress — which ruled the state in alliance with HD Kumaraswamy’s Janata Dal-Secular before its government collapsed — is targeting to win 150-plus out of total 224 assembly seats in the 2023 polls.
While Priyanka Gandhi Vadra helped Rahul in resolving the Punjab tangle, she is leading the party’s revival attempts in Uttar Pradesh ahead of the 2022 assembly elections. The party hopes to capitalize on Priyanka’s charisma and strategy to present the Congress as a better option over the regional opposition parties like the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party, which is down but not out.
She launched the party’s poll campaign on July 16 by questioning the state government over violence in the recent Panchayat polls and the mismanagement of the pandemic. While the Congress plans to go solo in UP, it has kept the alliance option in a bid to keep the BJP guessing.