File image: Priyanka Gandhi Vadra (left), Rahul Gandhi (centre) and Sonia Gandhi. (Image: PTI)
Each time the Congress faces internal revolt, crisis or disquiet, party President Sonia Gandhi, who holds the distinction of longest serving All India Congress Committee (AICC) chief in the 136-year-old party, appoints panels and committees to accommodate the disgruntled lot.
True to her style, a day after the Congress Working Committee (CWC) once again deferred the crucial leadership decision, the AICC’s ‘interim’ chief appointed two committees, ostensibly to look into the poor showing of the party in the recently assembly elections — in of Assam, Kerala, Puducherry, Tamil Nadu, and West Bengal — and to co-ordinate COVID-19 relief activities.
The presence of Ghulam Nabi Azad and Manish Tiwari — two prominent dissenters among a Group of 23 (G-23) leaders who had a signed a letter in August 2020 asking Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi to hold organisational polls and ensure decentralisation in the decision-making process — indicates the political motive of these panels. Both Azad and Tiwari have been vocal in criticising the Gandhis’ style of functioning.
Some Congress leaders marvelling at Sonia Gandhi’s political acumen point out that as head of the Congress parivar, she may use the poll debacle panel report’s findings (expected to be submitted in two weeks) to corner Team Rahul which had taken charge of the polls in Kerala and Assam. She is aware that much of the G-23’s anger is not directed against the Gandhis, but against the coterie surrounding Rahul Gandhi.
The poll debacle panel, headed by Ashok Chavan and consisting of Tiwari, Salman Khurshid, Vincent H Pala and Jothimani, therefore, has a potential to articulate why Team Rahul failed. It can also give an opinion which is different from the official explanation offered by KC Venugopal, Bhanwar Jitendra Singh, Tariq Anwar, Jitin Prasada and Dinesh Gundu Rao.
Since August, Sonia Gandhi has been using party panels to lure dissidents. On March 1, she appointed Prithviraj Chavan, another G-23 signatory, to head the AICC screening committee for Assam. The job of an AICC screening committee is to vet the list of party candidates recommended by the state party unit. Normally, the head of the screening committee is seen at par with the AICC general secretary.
In fact, barely a month after the G-23 dispatched the missive to her, Sonia Gandhi had reconstituted the CWC retaining Azad, Anand Sharma, Mukul Wasnik, Prasada and RPN Singh who were then seen hostile to the party leadership.
Few would recall that Sonia Gandhi, in April 2020, appointed an 11-member consultative group to formulate the party's views on various issues of the day. She had also set up a panel to deal with the COVID-19 situation on a daily basis. But the committee, consisting of Manmohan Singh, P Chidambaram, Tewari, Jairam Ramesh, Randeep Singh Surjewala, Praveen Chakravarty, Gaurav Vallabh, Supriya Shrinate and Rohan Gupta, seldom met or acted upon. Even if it met, somehow the deliberations did not become a talking point in either the media or social media.
In 2019, a few weeks before Jyotiraditya Scindia’s revolt and the toppling of the Kamal Nath government in Madhya Pradesh, Sonia Gandhi appointed several panels for the party-ruled states of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Puducherry. Several stalwarts were part of it, but the outcome of their meetings or deliberations was neither debated nor made public.
When the 2019 Delhi assembly polls were underway, Sonia Gandhi named various panels for the elections, drafting 607 members in it. The outcome did not matter as the grand old party failed to win even a single seat.
Thrice has Sonia Gandhi constituted panels headed by AK Antony to suggest a plan to revive the party: in 1999, after losing the general elections, in 2008 after losing power in four states: Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan, and; in 2014 after the humiliating defeat in the general elections.
The 1999 panel put forward 20 recommendations which included changes in the party structure and focused on inner-party elections and democracy. In short, an overhaul was recommended, but the high command sat on it. Antony’s efforts in 2008 and 2014 saw similar reactions.
The Congress headquarters at 24, Akbar Road, New Delhi, is the resting place of several such reports submitted by various panels constituted by the party high command over the decades: on organisational polls there is the Ram Niwas Mirdha report, on party modernisation there is the PA Sangma and Sam Pitroda report, on funding there is the Manmohan Singh reports, among many more.
The party leadership appoints committees to study what kind of changes are required to keep the party in motion, but almost always refuses to implement or even consider those suggestions. The 2007 Pranab Mukherjee panel suggested that block and district level committees be scrapped and instead the focus be on booth-level groups in assembly and parliamentary constituencies. The high command is yet to give its go ahead on this.
As mentioned earlier, setting up committees has almost become second nature to the high command, but one is not sure if anyone, even in the Congress, is holding their breath to see what their findings are — even the latest two committees.