Ahmed Patel has shown that like Sonia Gandhi he is Rahul Gandhi’s preferred choice too
By Asit Manohar
The more things change in India’s oldest political party, the more they remain the same. The reason we began this piece with a hoary old cliché is that every few weeks, Rahul Gandhi’s Congress strikes a nearer resemblance to the one his mother, Sonia Gandhi, led, with Generation Next not getting a look in — this when the “younger lot” averages about 50.
Recent appointments in the Congress Working Committee (CWC) signal yet another organizational shift in the grand old party. The most notable among them was the re-appointment of Ahmed Patel as the party treasurer, 18 years after he last held the post. The announcement that came on his birthday also comes ahead of a crucial election year with the party battling dwindling funds. Patel, who has been a longtime aide of UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi, replaces Motilal Vora, who has been appointed as general secretary administration, a new post.
The party also made a slew of other appointments on the same day; senior leader and close Gandhi family aide Anand Sharma replaced Dr Karan Singh as the party’s foreign affairs head. Party sources said that Dr Singh had indicated at retiring from active politics. Apart from that, the party replaced former Northeast in-charge CP Joshi with former Goa CM Luizinho Faleiro, who had held the post earlier in 2013 and 2015. Joshi’s replacement does not come as a surprise with the Congress losing several states to the BJP during his time as NE in-charge. The Congress also announced that former Lok Sabha speaker Meira Kumar will be a permanent appointee to the Central Working Committee, taking the number of permanent appointees to 20. Currently, the CWC has 51 members.
While the appointment puts to rest whispers of a rift between Patel and Congress president Rahul Gandhi, it will be a huge task for Patel with four states going to polls this year alone — Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Mizoram — and the Lok Sabha elections looming large in 2019.Patel’s appointment is a signal of two things: the Congress party has a mega crisis of funds while the BJP is Asia’s richest party as the country heads towards the elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh — states where the Congress fancies it has a serious chance in a bi-polar contest with the BJP ahead of the big finale in 2019. The other takeaway from Patel’s new position is that he is as indispensable to Rahul Gandhi as he was to Sonia.
A host of leaders were hoping to be “RG’s AP” but Rahul Gandhi issued the appointment letter on Patel’s birthday, and the markedly low-profile backroom aide of the Gandhi’s triumphed in the quiet but assiduous style characteristic of him.
In the durbari style similarly characteristic of the Congress, a host of whispers had been claiming that Rahul Gandhi did not get along with his mother’s closest aide and was fed up with the old guard. Gandhi Junior was initially wary of Patel but his re-election to the Rajya Sabha from Gujarat in August last year, which saw Patel defeating the ultimate election strategist, Amit Shah, established his credentials as one of the Congress’ top tacticians.
Other appointments made by Gandhi today also saw Team Sonia get all the prizes. 73-year-old Meira Kumar was made a permanent invitee to the powerful Congress Working Committee; 65-year-old Anand Sharma was made the chief of the Foreign Affairs Committee, replacing 87-year-old Karan Singh.
So what do these appointments mean? Clearly, neither Sonia nor Rahul Gandhi seems to be comfortable giving leaders of his own generation positions of political authority.
Even the “Young Turks” groomed as ministers in the Manmohan Singh government languish in a sort of limbo. While Sachin Pilot has been appointed the Congress chief in Rajasthan, he has not been made the Chief Ministerial candidate with his senior, Ashok Gehlot, now a close Gandhi aide, were much in the running.
The same situation prevails in Madhya Pradesh where Kamal Nath, 71, has been made state chief while Jyotiraditya Scindia, 47, remains in suspense over what his role will be. Digvijaya Singh, former Chief Minister, has loftily announced he doesn’t want to be considered, but his actions suggest he is determined to prove he is very much in the running. Scindia is chief whip of the party in the Lok Sabha and despite winning his Guna seat consecutively from 2002 to date and being the strongest Congress speaker was not made its leader in the Lok Sabha. That designation was held by Amarinder Singh and is now with the hard-working but ineffective Mallikarjun Kharge.
A young Congressman rues, “When will our turn come? We were earlier held back because Rahul Gandhi was not taking over. Now that he has, he seems to prefer Mrs Gandhi’s team. My son is 18 but I will always be considered a youth leader here. We are forever destined to be perceived as the silver-spoon baba log. At least test our skill, give us responsibilities before writing us off.”
Another articulate leader of Gen Next said, “We should have been allowed to manage the election for the Deputy Speaker in the Rajya Sabha. The party kept looking at Rahul Gandhi and he did not seem interested. The old guard went though the motions and predictably, we lost.”
Who is in and who is out with the Gandhi family has long been a parlour game of Congress leaders. Gandhi has signaled that Gehlot and Patel are extremely important members of his team. He consults former Finance Minister P Chidambaram on key economic issues and Abhishek Manu Singhvi on legal issues.
The younger lot seem destined to forever bide their time.