The more things change in India's main opposition party Congress, the more they seem to remain the same. This was the most important takeaway from the party's interim President Sonia Gandhi when she carried out a major organisational reshuffle on September 11.
If there is one man who grabbed the unanimous highlight of the changes, it was Ghulam Nabi Azad whose is undoubtedly the biggest name among the 23 party leaders who questioned the leadership of the Gandhi clan in a letter to Sonia in August. Azad has been removed as General Secretary although he was retained as a member of the party's highest decision-making forum, the Congress Working Committee (CWC).
Not just Azad—his senior party colleagues Motilal Vora, Ambika Soni and Mallikarjun Kharge too have been removed as general secretaries. Some commentators have tended to see this as the start of the phase-out of the party's old guard. The CWC has been reconstituted and P Chidambaram, Tariq Anwar, Randeep Surjewala, and Jitendra Singh have been named as its regular members. Sonia also set up a committee of leaders to help her in steering the party towards a session of the All India Congress Committee where a full-fledged president of the party is expected to be elected. The committee also has in it Gandhi family loyalists like Ahmed Patel, AK Antony, Randeep Singh Surjewala, Ambika Soni and KC Venugopal.
But a much more important message of Sonia's organisational rejig is the importance given to an array of leaders who are considered close to her son Rahul Gandhi, who resigned as Congress President soon after the party's dismal performance in the general elections last year. Just look at the names of at least Rahul-loyalist leaders: Venugopal, Surjewala, Jitendra Singh, Shaktisinh Gohil, Ajay Maken, Manickam Tagore, Rajeev Satav and RPN Singh. Surjewala is the biggest winner of the reshuffle as he has been named as General Secretary in charge of the party's affairs in the southern state of Karnataka, inducted as a member of the special committee to oversee organisational changes, besides retaining his responsibilities as the party's chief spokesperson.
Venugopal too is a member of most of the committees. Jitendra Singh has been made in-charge of Congress affairs in the north-eastern state of Assam, which is about to witness fresh assembly polls next year when the battle will be between the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress. The reshuffle has seen either entry or elevation of some Rahul supporters in the party's secretariat. The party's Central Election Authority reconstituted by Sonia is headed by Madhusudan Mistry, who is known to be close to Rahul, and has two other members who are acolytes of the Gandhi family scion.
In all fairness, it must be noted that Sonia also brought in Mukul Wasnik, who was among the signatories to the letter that called for leadership change, as a General Secretary and given him the charge of party affairs in Madhya Pradesh where the party lost power some months ago. Wasnik has also been included in the committee formed by Sonia to oversee the party's organisational elections. But Wasnik's presence in the committee does not go beyond tokenism as it has been made abundantly clear that the committee is a temporary mechanism for ensuring the logistics of organisational poll.
It must also be pointed out that another man who continues as General Secretary is Jitin Prasada, who too was among the 23 leaders who shot off the letter in what was seen as a banner of revolt against the Gandhi family and demanded an overhaul of the party, internal elections in the organisational hierarchy from the grassroots to the top, and a "full-time, visible leadership". But Prasada was shifted as General Secretary in charge of India's politically most crucial state, Uttar Pradesh, to West Bengal where fresh assembly elections are due next year. While the Congress has a big stake in Madhya Pradesh politics because it is the only principal challenger to the BJP in the Hindi heartland state, the 135-year-old party has over the decades been reduced to a marginal player in West Bengal.
Though the letter by the 23 leaders had also suggested that the Gandhi family would always be a part of collective decision making, there was little doubt that its thrust was a critique of the Gandhis, especially Rahul Gandhi, who quit as President last year over the Congress's election defeat. Over the past few months, the Congress has been sharply divided between the old guard and the new generation of leaders, many of whom would like to see him back to the top job.
Sonia's September 11 organisational reshuffle, which has once again showed the culture of selection as opposed to election in the running of the Congress, has sparked speculations in political circles if she has begun the spadework for bringing Rahul back in the saddle as party president by building a Team Rahul. Is the script being readied for Rahul's second appointment as the party head? Sonia quit as the party chief in 2017 after being in the post for 19 years at a stretch, and then Rahul took over the mantle from her in December 2017 in what represented a generational shift. And when Rahul stepped down and refused to withdraw his resignation in the wake of the party's electoral debacle, the baton once again passed to his mother, albeit in an interim capacity. And if Rahul gets back the party presidentship in the All India Congress Committee session, possibly sometime early next year, it will once again drive home the message of indispensability of a Gandhi family member to lead the party.
Murmurs of discontent are already in public domain about Sonia's organisational changes. Kapil Sibal, a legal luminary and one of the party's senior-most leaders, in an interview to The Indian Express has said that Article 14 of the party's Constitution provides for All India Congress Committee's (AICC) election of 12 of the 23 members of the Congress Working Committee. But that has not happened, Sibal said, and made it a point to be caustic: "if nominations are the norm and elections are anathema, then we might as well change the Constitution of the Congress party."
Pallab Bhattacharya is a special correspondent of The Daily Star. He writes from New Delhi, India.