Ashok Tanwar has joined the Trinamool Congress (TMC). Does it even matter?
At one point, the party in which he grew up, the Congress, thought highly enough of him to make him its Haryana unit chief. In Jawaharlal Nehru University, where he studied history in 1997-98, he was part of the students’ union panel from the National Students Union of India (NSUI). What followed was a dizzying rise: He was made Youth Congress president, and, as part of the Rahul Gandhi plan for restructuring the Congress, he was appointed Haryana Congress chief in February 2014. Mr Tanwar had all the credentials for the Rahul Gandhi brand Congressman: He is Jatav by caste, belongs to an entirely non-political family (most of his clan has served in the Indian Army, including his father, who fought the 1971 war); and it was Sonia Gandhi who intervened to arrange his marriage with Avantika Maken, the daughter of Lalit and Gitanjali Maken and the granddaughter of former president of India, Shankar Dayal Sharma. The Makens were gunned down in a Sikh terrorist attack in 1985, when Avantika was just six and the Gandhi family took her under its wing. When her first marriage ended in divorce, Sonia Gandhi brought Mr Tanwar and Ms Maken together.
But could Mr Tanwar have got too much too fast? Or did structural problems within the Congress prevent him from functioning? Probably both. Soon after he became state party chief, the party faced defeat in three successive elections — the Lok Sabha polls in 2014, the Assembly elections later the same year, and the Lok Sabha polls in 2019. Weeks before the 2019 Assembly elections, Mr Tanwar was replaced by Selja, a rival from the Scheduled Castes, while B S Hooda, chief minister from 2004 to 2014, was made campaign committee chairman. Mr Tanwar left the party and announced his support for the newly formed Jannayak Janata Party ahead of the Assembly polls. Before quitting, he wrote a four-page letter to Sonia Gandhi in which he detailed all the ways in which he had been prevented from functioning by party colleagues, mainly Mr Hooda. “In the last few years, numerous conspiracies are being hatched to eliminate all those young leaders who have been groomed by Shri Rahul Gandhi in the last one and half decade. Unfortunately, most victims of this conspiracy may not have the courage to stand up, but I think it is my moral duty to resist, oppose and expose this onslaught,” he wrote.
This claim — that Rahul Gandhi’s men had been targeted — might have had some credibility had Mr Tanwar not turned around, formed his own party, and, at the launch, claimed that the Congress was only full of “chors”. Anyway, his party sank without a trace. And now he’s found a new mentor in Mamata Banerjee.
Ms Banerjee’s own party-building spree outside West Bengal is largely on the back of disgruntled Congressmen (and women). Inducting Sushmita Deb and others in the Northeast is a logical progression for a party that has a presence in West Bengal. But in distant Haryana, it is hard to see how the TMC
will get any brand recall.
Besides, in caste terms, there are only two groups in Haryana: The Jats and the non-Jats. The Jats are divided between Mr Hooda and the extended Chautala clan. The non-Jats made Bhajan Lal their leader. With his passing, it is the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Manohar Lal Khattar who has taken on that role. If Mr Hooda were to decide not to wear his caste-heart so prominently on his sleeve, it is possible that non-Jat castes might have viewed him as the best among the worst — the worst being Om Prakash Chautala, his cronies, and his sons. Mr Hooda’s son, Deepinder, is a courteous, well-spoken young man, in complete contrast to the Chautala cherubs. Mr Tanwar negotiated an alliance with the Indian National Lok Dal (INLD) ahead of the Ellenabad by-election last month. Abhay Chautala, who had quit the seat in protest against the farm laws, re-contested the seat from the INLD. He managed to win, though Mr Tanwar’s contribution to the victory is judged to be small.
Mr Tanwar and the TMC’s entry in Haryana politics might make a dent in the non-Jat coalition. The dent is expected to be only very slight. But that is not the question. Mr Tanwar, like Sushmita Deb, left the Congress not for the BJP but for a leader who, he believes, has leadership qualities. However, judging by the experience of many who have worked in the TMC, the functioning here is as arbitrary as it was in the Congress. Besides, building up a party that has no self-image in Haryana will not be easy. As political moves go, Mr Tanwar might have jumped from the frying pan into the fire. Judgement day is not far. And he has much more to lose than the TMC.
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