Rahul Gandhi was anointed Congress president 15 months ago and has since displayed remarkable tenacity in the face of crippling adversity and steered generational transition in the Grand Old Party without any hiccups. He turned out to be a gritty political campaigner making even the Prime Minister sweat. Nevertheless, political optics and narrative change dramatically and therefore depending solely on them for electoral success is tricky.
A robust party organisation is imperative to win elections and sustain the tempo. However, Rahul has been lax in addressing two critical issues: depleting leadership base in states and organisational atrophy. He opted for piecemeal AICC rejigs instead of a major overhaul. The cautious approach was seen as a ploy to lull the entrenched old guards who could have rebelled against wholesale purge.
He may have bought peace with them but the holdup is detrimental to party’s long-term interests. Anti-incumbency of Vasundhra Raje, Shivraj Singh Chouhan and Raman Singh substantially helped Congress form governments in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh last December and governance deficit at the Centre may help the party swell its Lok Sabha tally in May.
The AICC is populated by octogenarians, septuagenarians, sexagenarians, and on the younger side those between 50 and 60. Many veterans died, some met with untimely death and some were earlier packed off to Raj Bhavans. Thanks to the looming leadership crisis, though not his making, Rahul was forced to import leaders from outside; the quick-fix therapy did not help either.
Way back in 2003, at the Shimla AICC conclave, Sonia Gandhi had announced the setting up of a Congress Training Academy to prepare future leaders and in 2013, Rahul talked about converting the Jawaharlal Nehru Leadership Initiative into a university to groom Gen Next leaders but nothing tangible has been done.
The Youth Congress is yet to produce a single leader of national standing. Veterans like Ghulam Nabi Azad, 70, Kamal Nath, 72, Ambika Soni, 76, Anand Sharma, 66, etc. are among the last crop of leaders mentored by late Sanjay Gandhi in the 70s and early 80s.
If it is to make a serious bid for power at the Centre, the party needs to urgently address the two debilitating concerns. The leadership crunch is so grave that the party does not have strong PCC chiefs in critical states like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Gujarat, Haryana, West Bengal, Odisha, Telengana, Andhra, Tamil Nadu and Delhi where it dusted off and brought back 81-year-old Sheila Dikshit as PCC president last month.
Though she had a very good track record as Delhi chief minister, age is not on her side ahead of a tough electoral battle. In 2017, she was projected as UP CM candidate but the strategy was abruptly changed after the Congress stitched up a pre-poll pact with the SP.
Some PCC chiefs have created a piquant situation for the high command opposing alliances with parties they do not like. Lok Sabha member Adhir Chowdhury, who does not see eye to eye with West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee, had threatened to quit Congress if it allied with the TMC.
(He was replaced as PCC chief five months ago). Ajay Maken, who is opposed to any tie-up with the AAP, has been relieved as Delhi PCC chief (ostensibly on health grounds) paving way for Sheila Dikshit’s return. He was appointed president in 2014 but failed to revive the party in the national capital despite being at the helm for four years.
Haryana PCC chief Ashok Tanwar is not on good terms with his senior and former CM Bhupinder Hooda. In Mumbai, Milind Deora is up in arms against city chief Sanjay Nirupam. A leadership tussle is going on in the Gujarat PCC also.
In August last, the Congress president constituted three election management committees comprising 42 members (nine-member core committee, 19-member manifesto committee and 14-member publicity committee). Though a few veterans and domain experts were included, about 50 pc of the inductees are light weights betraying the casual manner in which these key panels are treated. Some party men in private blame Rahul’s advisers for giving precedence to loyalty than merit or experience.
In some states, Parliament members have been made election in-charge as AICC general secretary and secretary. While it is okay with Rajya Sabha members, the Lok Sabha MPs, who will have to fight tough battle to retain their own seats, will find it difficult to cope with the dual role of campaigning for own their seats and managing election in another, allotted state.
Jyotiradiya Scindia, Lok Sabha MP from Guna, Madhya Pradesh, has been made general secretary in-charge of Western UP. If Scindia or his wife decides to contest Parliament seat from MP, he will be sandwiched between his family interests in the Gwalior region and party’s interest in UP.
Lok Sabha MP Rajiv Satav from Maharashtra has been given the charge of Gujarat. He needs to campaign for his own seat back home while tending a crucial state like Gujarat. Former minister RPN Singh, who is required to contest LS seat from UP, has been made in-charge of Jharkhand. Former Uttrakhand CM Harish Rawat, who has been allotted Assam, is keen to contest LS poll from his home state and may find it tough to manage the two terrains.
Same is the case with Mallikarjun Kharge, MP from Karnataka, and given charge of Maharashtra. Recently, 56-year-old Lok Sabha MP K C Venugopal was appointed AICC general secretary in-charge of organisation; a position hitherto held only by senior leaders.
Naysayers fault his elevation to the key post saying the Kerala law maker may find it difficult to deal with Hindi speaking heartland leaders. And he also needs to campaign in Kerala to win his seat. Critics say the manpower deployment for election management has been made without application of mind. But that is easier said than done in the absence of a talent pool.
Kay Benedict is an independent journalist.