Old warhorses rise to bring back sparkle to Cong fortunes
New Delhi: Despite poll pundits almost writing the Congress off after the Lok Sabha drubbing and the long-drawn drama over Rahul Gandhi’s resignation, the grand old party has made a striking turnaround in Haryana and Maharashtra elections, thanks to the old guards who under Ahmed Patel have revived some of its sparkle on Diwali.
With Patel and other senior leaders, like Ghulam Nabi Azad, Shivraj Patil, Meira Kumar, Motilal Vora and K C Venugopal, calling the shots, the young turks of the former party chief are all but sidelined.
The tug of power started on August 10 following Rahul Gandhi’s exit from the top post and his mother Sonia Gandhi being appointed to helm the party affairs. Sonia entrusted Patel, known as ‘AP’ in the power corridors, the job to ensure the party’s good performance in the Assembly polls as well as by-elections.
Patel was sidelined in December 2017 after Rahul Gandhi became the party chief and started promoting young turks, like Ashok Tanwar, Jyotiraditya Scindia, Sachin Pilot, Pradyut Debburman and Milind Deora.
After Sonia handed him the task of improving the party’s showing, Patel’s first step was to push out the inexperienced young turks.
Ever since Patel played a key role in getting Sitaram Kesri to step down as the party chief when he was resisting attempts to make Sonia the party president in 1998, AP has been close to her. During the two terms of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), Patel was political secretary to Sonia and had her eyes and ears.
Last year, Patel was made the party treasurer, a position kept only for those with unquestionable record of loyalty to the family.
After Rahul took control of the party, first as vice-president and then as president, stories were doing the rounds about his apparent “dislike” for Patel and his style of functioning, which involved “managing” politicians, bureaucrats and industrialists.
Patel is also one of the few Congress leaders who has worked closely with Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi, Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi.
In Haryana elections, Patel and the other seniors played a key role. Azad, the in-charge for Haryana, was asked to prepare reports on state party chief Tanwar and his relations with Bhupinder Singh Hooda.
Azad briefed Patel on Tanwar. The matter was discussed with Sonia and it was decided to replace him with Kumari Selja, considered close to the Gandhi family. Patel also brought back the party’s old guard and two-time Chief Minister Hooda.
And the gamble paid off. The party has more than doubled its tally in the Assembly, where it was virtually written off.
With Hooda made virtually the face of the party, it helped Congress gel with voters directly, especially the Jat vote bank. Also, Hooda’s past performance as the Chief Minister in 2004-14, was a big factor.
Patel is known to have great faith in Hooda, who has delivered in the most tough circumstances, both in 2004 and 2009 elections.
In Haryana, party veteran and former treasurer Moti Lal Vora played a key role too. Vora was kept in the loop of every move. Both Vora and Hooda had been named in the CBI chargesheet in the Associated Journals Limited (AJL) land case.
Vora, 90, the senior-most general secretary and in charge of administration, is a quiet, behind-the-scenes worker, much like Patel, and wields immense clout.
Azad, another key member of the old guard and known as a ‘crisis manager’, was the voice of the Opposition against the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the Rajya Sabha.
Members of the party’s disciplinary committee, comprising Vora, Meira Kumar, Shivraj Patil, K C Venugopal, played a major role in silencing the dissenters.
For Maharashtra, and states where by-election were being held, including Gujarat, Patel summoned Maharashtra in-charge Mallikarjuna Kharge and old warhorse Patil to get the real picture of the issues plaguing the party, which had witnessed desertions and rise in rebel voices against the leadership, after the Lok Sabha poll drubbing.
After talks with Kharge and Patil, Patel got into action. He replaced Ashok Chavan with Balasaheb Thorat and Milind Deora with Eknath Gaekwad as Maharashtra and Mumbai party chiefs, which helped in clinching an alliance deal with the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP).
In Gujarat, the land of Narendra Modi and Amit Shah, the Congress won three seats while the ruling BJP won three. In other by-elections, the party’s vote percentage has gone up.
Buoyed with the results, the Congress is gearing to move ahead.
Patel is known to be planning strategies to bring the party on the path of recovery.