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New CWC: Rahul Gandhi in saddle as Congress gets into election mode

Congress President Rahul Gandhi, former party president Sonia Gandhi, former prime minister Manmohan Singh at the Extended Congress Working Committee (CWC) meeting in New Delhi. Photo: PTI
In January 2013, at the AICC session in Jaipur, Rahul Gandhi was elevated to the position of Vice President of the Indian National Congress. In a much-anticipated speech delivered at the session, he delivered his firebrand oratory on ‘power is poison’.

In the five years that have passed since, Congress watchers may have been forgiven if they were frustrated by two recurring arguments made by Congress insiders, off-the-record. One was that Rahul Gandhi was a reluctant politician and the second concerned rumours of his impending take-over of the Congress party, replacing his mother, Sonia Gandhi as Congress president.

Incidentally, Sonia Gandhi has been the longest-serving Congress president ever, having been in the position for 19 years and leading it to form government at the centre, twice.

Rahul Gandhi’s elevation as VP in January 2013 happened at a time when UPA-2 was facing a crisis of legitimacy and then Gujarat CM, Narendra Modi, was going from strength to strength in his challenge. Gandhi was expected to play a much bigger role to try and revive Congress’ hopes for 2014 but much to everyone’s surprise he did not take the lead role and deferred to decisions taken by the existing team which was in charge.

Ever since the Congress was reduced to 44 seats in the Lok Sabha in the 2014 elections, Rahul Gandhi’s impending elevation was predicted in hushed rumours in Congress circles in Delhi. In early 2015, he surprised everybody by taking a 60-day leave of absence. It was later reported that he had spent the period travelling across different countries in South Asia. Congressmen say that after this trip, Rahul Gandhi assumed a much more assertive role in the party and this culminated in his playing a role in the formation of the grand alliance in Bihar with RJD and JDU.

It took a little over two years since his return, for him to take over as Congress president in December, 2017. The latest act in this long play was seen in New Delhi last week, when he constituted the Congress Working Committee. He had dissolved the previous one ahead of the Congress plenary held in Delhi earlier this year.

Why the delay?

It took more than five years for Rahul Gandhi to move from becoming the VP of the party to taking over as its president. What was the reason for this delay, when the Congress had lost 2014 polls and Sonia Gandhi had taken a backseat in running the party?

Party sources take the clock back to 1984, to recount the experience the Congress and the family had when Rajiv Gandhi was forced to take over after Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s assassination. As Rajiv Gandhi tried to break from the past and introduce his own team, the Congress saw a struggle between the old and the new. As the party struggled with the ambitions of different factions, the likes of Pranab Mukherjee left, while V P Singh fought against the Congress and formed government with allies in 1989. It was to avoid a repeat of such a struggle that the party took half a decade to paper over such differences and ensure that the elevation this time would not be beset by internal wrangling.

Short of becoming the Congress President, Rahul Gandhi had been taking important decisions on alliances, state units and such like even earlier. With the constitution of the new CWC, this long-drawn process of take over is now complete.

During the past three years, Rahul Gandhi’s decision making has come to the fore in building alliances, appointing state chiefs or secretaries, streamlining the party’s external communication apparatus and the reorganising the social media game. With his important nucleus in place, he has now placed the final piece of the puzzle, the CWC in its slot.

The party organisation, especially at the Centre, now seems ready for battle in 2019. With Rahul Gandhi in saddle, the party is now in election mode.

Congress Working Committee

The CWC is the executive committee and the paramount decision making body of the Congress party. It is this committee which is often referred to as the High Command by members of the party across states. The CWC had 22 members previously, including then Congress president Sonia Gandhi and VP, Rahul Gandhi. The new CWC announced last week has 23 members including the President. Nine members of the old CWC don’t have a place in the new list, while 10 new ones have been added to the new committee. This does not include the list of permanent or special invitees.

The big names dropped from CWC are C P Joshi, Digvijay Singh, Janardan Dwivedi, Kamal Nath and Sushil Kumar Shinde. Of these names, Kamal Nath was appointed Madhya Pradesh Congress chief earlier this year and is seen to be marshalling the party’s campaign for the assembly polls to be held later this year.

When asked about the likely line the party will take now, partymen point towards the CWC meeting held on Sunday, in New Delhi and specifically refer to Sonia Gandhi's and Rahul Gandhi’s addresses. In her address, Sonia Gandhi compared the current political situation to that in 2004 and invoked the voters by saying that the party must not underestimate the wisdom of the people of India. It was her statement about the reason for the alliance that was very interesting. She compared the situation to the days of UPA-1 and said that the reason for going for alliances was not because the party was weak, but because the election was about India and not individuals or parties and different parties needed to be taken on board to better represent the country.

It was Rahul Gandhi’s address that clarified any doubts that this was the moment of the takeover being complete as he informed those present about their importance for 2019. Taking off from his speech in the parliament during the no-confidence motion on 20 July, 2018, he spoke about the Congress not fighting dirty. He told those present that no matter how low the discourse gets, they will not go down to those levels. Referring to the ‘there is no alternative’ theory as pushed by the BJP, he said the alternative was not an individual but a different politics and ideology.

He even had a stern message for his partymen when he said that he wouldn’t hesitate to take action against those who speak out of line and weaken the party’s stand.

“I am fighting bigger fights… everyone has the right to speak in the party forum but if a party leader gives a wrong statement and weakens this fight, I will not hesitate to take action,” he said

The CWC also authorised him to decide on alliances for state or general elections. The coming days should see more action on this front.

Dropped: B K Hari Prasad, C P Joshi, Digvijay Singh, Hemo Provo Saikia, Janardan Dwivedi, Kamal Nath, Mohan Prakash, Sushila Tiriya, and Sushil Kumar Shinde

New members: Deepak Babaria, Anand Sharma, Oommen Chandy, Tarun Gogoi, Harish Rawat, Kumari Selja, K Siddaramaiah, Raghuvir Meena, Gaikhangam, and Tamradhwaj Sahu /> The author tweets @bhayankur