Digvijaya Singh, Salman Khurshid and Tariq Anwar — the comeback men in Congress rejig

NEW DELHI: With the Congress effecting a major rejig ahead of internal polls for a new chief, political pundits feel the entire exercise is as much about stamping Rahul Gandhi‘s authority as it is about a careful balancing act done through the return of stalwarts like Digvijaya Singh, Salman Khurshid and Tariq Anwar along with cutting down to the size of several dissenting voices.

Political observers also feel these organisational changes may not quell the simmering dissent completely and it remains to be seen whether the country’s grand-old party eventually heads for a split, as those having sought large-scale reforms have been craftily divided — a few have been co-opted, some have been given time to make up their minds and the rest have been left out in the cold.

Several leaders and observers are of the opinion that some old-timers might have been brought back in the organisational fold to counter the ‘Group of 23’, who had written to interim president Sonia Gandhi seeking urgent organisational overhaul, including an active and full-time leadership. But, not many of them were not willing to be quoted for their views, citing the ‘sensitivity’ involved in talking about ‘the family’ matters.

The massive organisational shake-up is also being seen as having a dominant Rahul Gandhi imprint with Randeep Singh Surjewala and Jitendra Singh, both considered to be close to the former party chief, becoming new general secretaries along with the veteran Anwar.

Even the reconstituted ‘Central Election Authority’ has a Rahul Gandhi stamp on it with his loyalist Madhusudan Mistry heading it and Krishna Byre Gowda and S Jothimani becoming its members.

Though several leaders such as Pawan Kumar Bansal and Rajeev Shukla, who are former Union ministers but did not have any significant assignments in the party till recently, have also made a comeback of sorts as AICC in-charges, the party watchers feel the big comeback has been of Singh, Anwar and Khurshid.

Singh, once considered a close confidante of Rahul Gandhi, was dropped by him from the Congress Working Committee (CWC), the party’s highest decision-making body, in 2018 ahead of the Lok Sabha polls.

Singh, who has been brought back into the CWC as a permanent invitee, seems to have won back the confidence of Gandhis in the aftermath of Jyotiraditya Scindia’s exit from the party. He had also openly backed Priyanka Gandhi Vadra and Rahul Gandhi amid rumblings over the leadership issue.

Another interesting inclusion is that of Khurshid as a permanent invitee in the CWC along with that of Jairam Ramesh, who was recently appointed convenor of a five-member committee formed to discuss and formulate the party’s stand on key ordinances promulgated by the government.

Khurshid, known to be among leaders considered close to the Gandhi family, did not have any significant party assignment after his Lok Sabha poll defeat from Farrukhabad. However, his steadfast support for the Gandhi family’s leadership seems to have worked in his favour.

Asserting that there was no urgency to have an elected Congress president, Khurshid had recently told PTI that he “can’t see the heavens falling” for the need of a party chief as Sonia Gandhi was still at the helm and should be the one to decide on the leadership issue.

Khurshid had also said he would not have signed the letter even if he was approached by the group of 23 letter writers. He was also named in the party’s manifesto committee for Uttar Pradesh earlier this week.

Another dramatic comeback to the top echelons of AICC is of Anwar, who has been made general secretary in-charge of Kerala and Lakshdweep.

In 1999, Anwar had raised the banner of revolt against Sonia Gandhi along with party stalwarts Sharad Pawar and PA Sangma on the issue of her foreign origin. Nineteen years later, Anwar returned to the Congress in 2018 after being with the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) all along.

After about two years of his return, Anwar has returned to AICC headquarters where he wielded enormous power in the 1990s.

Rasheed Kidwai, senior journalist and writer of the book “24 Akbar Road”, said the three leaders seem to have been brought in as a counterbalance to the letter writers.

“It has been a very crafty act (by Sonia Gandhi). With a single stroke, she has dismantled this whole group of dissenters. The letter writers are now divided into three categories — those who have been co-opted, those who have been given time to make up their minds and the ones who have been left out in the cold,” Kidwai he told PTI.

She has comprehensively outmaneuvered the dissenters, Kidwai said.

Sanjay Kumar, Director at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, also echoed Kidwai’s views, saying that Singh, Khurshid and Anwar have benefitted from the letter issue.

“At least two of them — Singh and Khurshid — are very strong Gandhi family loyalists. They (Gandhis) would not like to take a chance after the letter and, therefore, have brought in these loyalists whose loyalty cannot be questioned,” he told PTI.

Kumar, however, opined that the move to bring about organizational changes may not quell the dissent completely and Congress was likely to head for a split.

While there are some comebacks in the rejig, a careful balancing act and striking of a conciliatory note is also visible.

On one hand, Azad has been stripped of his post of general secretary, on the other he along with Anand Sharma, Mukul Wasnik and Jitin Prasada have retained their CWC spots.

Prasada and Wasnik have also got a leg up in terms of responsibilities with the former having been made AICC in-charge of West Bengal and the latter being named to the six-member special committee to assist Sonia Gandhi in organisational matters.

However, many of the 23 letter writers seem to have been ignored and their future remains uncertain.

The likes of Kapil Sibal, Manish Tewari, Shashi Tharoor and M Veerappa Moily have not been given any assignment, though they many within the party and outside feel these leaders have a wealth of talent and experience behind them and have held charge of important ministries during the UPA rule at the Centre.

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‘Can’t see heavens falling’ for need of elected Congress president, says Salman Khurshid

Khurshid said the leaders who have written to Sonia Gandhi always had access to her and could have approached her rather than writing to her.

Asserting that there was no urgency to have an elected Congress president, senior leader Salman Khurshid on Sunday said he “can’t see the heavens falling” for the need of a party chief as Sonia Gandhi was still at the helm and should be the one to decide on the leadership issue.

Mr. Khurshid, a former Union minister and among the leaders considered close to the Gandhi family, told PTI in an interview that he would not have signed the letter even if he was approached by the group that wrote to Ms. Gandhi seeking urgent organisational overhaul, including an active and full-time leadership.

Also read: Should the Gandhis disengage from the Congress?

On Ghulam Nabi Azad, the most vocal among the 23 letter writers, seeking organisational elections to ensure that the Congress does not remain out of power for decades, Mr. Khurshid said the senior leader from Jammu and Kashmir had been part of the top echelons of the party for years when there has been no such elections and still the party prospered.

He said probably Mr. Azad wanted a change now in what the party has been doing over the years and expressed confidence that the leadership will give a thought to what he is saying as he is a senior leader

Also read: Congress must give consensus a chance instead of elections for leadership, says Salman Khurshid

Mr. Khurshid said the leaders who have written to Sonia Gandhi always had access to her and could have approached her rather than writing to her.

“It is very clear that the important persons in this letter do belong to the top echelons of our party and therefore Mrs Gandhi has indicated that it was best that they could have discussed it within the confines of the party,” he said.

Also read: Sibal targets Rahul, then deletes tweet

Mr. Khurshid’s remarks assume significance as they come days after the ‘group of 23’ wrote to Ms. Gandhi calling for far-reaching reforms within the party such as having a “full time, active and visible” leadership, devolution of powers to state units and revamping the Congress Working Committee (CWC) in line with the party constitution.

Asked about the suggestions made in the letter, Mr. Khurshid said the discussion seems to be about electing a leader and the Congress president has indicated that it can be done at an appropriate time when physically it is possible.

Also read: ‘Team Rahul’ takes on UPA Ministers at Congress meeting

“For people like me, we already have leaders, we have a leader in Mrs Sonia Gandhi, we have a leader in Rahul Gandhi. So for me there is no sense of urgency about electing leaders. Electing a president, yes that will happen when it happens, I can’t see the heavens falling down. What is the sense of urgency that is being expressed, is not clear to me,” he said.

“We don’t have a part-time president, we have a full-time president but the full-time president is an interim president and no ordinary person as an interim president as she is the longest serving president. We must just trust and leave it to the longest serving president to take steps when she thinks it is appropriate,” the Congress leader said.

On whether it would have been better to go to the president for articulating concerns than writing a letter, Mr. Khurshid said the leaders had done that for the last 20 years and he did not know what was different now or had changed that they felt the need to write a letter.

Also read: Ahead of CWC, Congress CMs and 10 State units back Sonia Gandhi

Asked about the future of the party with knives out within the organisation at a time it needs to be revitalised, he said, “The pens are out, so what is the problem. Of course the words written with pens can hurt and they did, but they don’t draw blood…it’s only ink, it’s something we can live with and I am sure that the ink will fade in due course.”

Mr. Khurshid said no one had approached him for signing the letter and even if anyone had done so, he would not have signed because he does not agree with the letter.

“There is nothing about that letter that gives an opportunity for me to express and say that I may want to say…We have always spoken directly with the leadership, so I don’t know what changed because of which people are not speaking directly. Nothing has changed for me and therefore, I don’t see the urge for writing the letter,” he said.

Mr. Khurshid said he still feels that instead of leaders continuously urging Rahul Gandhi to come back as party chief, they must leave the decision to him.

“Surely he understands the implications of that letter more than I do, he will do what he thinks is the best to do,” he said, when asked if it was now imperative for Rahul Gandhi to return as party chief to set the house in order.

After the seven-hour meeting of the party’s top decision-making body last week, the CWC urged Sonia Gandhi to continue as its interim chief till an AICC session could be convened and authorised her to effect necessary organisational changes to deal with the challenges facing the party.

It made it clear no one would be permitted to undermine or weaken the party and its leadership.

The CWC also resolved that inner-party issues cannot be deliberated through the media or in public fora and all such issues must be raised within the party “in the interest of propriety and discipline”.

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