Battered Congress looks at hard road ahead

With the Bihar elections debacle, AICC treasurer Ahmed Patel battling for his life, discord with allies in J&K, and limited clarity on how the next president of the party will be elected, troubles are mounting for the Congress.

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File photo of Congress president Sonia Gandhi
File photo of Congress president Sonia Gandhi (Photo Credits: PTI)

It's fireworks time in the Congress. Coming shortly after Diwali and Bihar poll debacle, the disquiet and issues raised by Kapil Sibal, Karti Chidambaram and Vivek Tankha have, however, not gone down too well due to its timing. Just as G 23's missive was delivered at 10, Janpath, the day Sonia Gandhi had to be rushed to New Delhi's Sir Ganga Ram Hospital in early August 2020, the latest round of rumbling comes at a time when AICC treasurer Ahmed Patel is fighting a grim battle in a hospital. In August, 23 senior leaders of the Congress had sent a letter to Sonia calling for sweeping changes in the party.

For the outside world, Ahmed - fondly addressed as 'Bhai' in the Congress circles - maybe just another senior Congress leader or AICC treasurer but internally, the importance of Ahmed Patel is part of folklore. He was an architect of the Congress teaming up with Shiv Sena and becoming part of the Maha Vikas Aghadi government in Maharashtra and preventing Sachin Pilot from going a Jyotiraditya Scindia way in defecting to the BJP.

Ahmed worked behind the scene, through intermediaries, to persuade Pilot to stay on. There are too many stories like that. It would not be an exaggeration that in many ways, post-2014, Ahmed had more goodwill and influence on party colleagues than the Gandhis.

The Congress consultative group met on Tuesday to discuss and strategise the current political scenario. The panel, however, avoided taking up a strong position on Kapil Sibal and other dissenters. The meeting authorised Ambika Soni and KC Venugopal to brief the Gandhis about some measures that would be announced later. It was also decided to check the progress of the party’s polls preparations with the Central Election Authority. Venugopal, AICC general secretary in charge of organisation, is likely to hold parleys with Madhusudan Mistry. The Congress consultative group decided to advise J&K unit of the party not to support Gupkar Alliance. Sonia Gandhi is said to have spoken to J&K Congress chief Ghulam Ahmad Mir.

Key dissenter Kapil Sibal is an eminent lawyer whose understanding of the Constitution stands second to none.

However, the politician in him seems to be getting the better of the lawyer. The Congress party constitution offers ammunition to those unhappy with the leadership. The dissenters need to look at the article XVIII which has a rather simple condition to force a contest for the top party post. The article reads, "Any ten delegates may jointly propose the name of any delegate for election as President of the Congress."

Similarly, article XIII section B clause D states, "The AICC shall meet as often as required by the Working Committee, but at least once a year, or on a joint requisition addressed to the Working Committee by not less than 20% of the total number of AICC members having full voting rights. Such requisition shall specify the purpose for which the requisitionists desire a meeting of the AICC. A requisitioned meeting shall be held within 2 months of the receipt of the requisition"

An open declaration or intend to contest is likely to expedite the party poll schedule. But the dissenters seem to be waiting for Rahul Gandhi to make the first move. They are also looking at Madhusudan Mistry, chairman of AICC's Central Election Authority, to signal polls. However, closer scrutiny of a high sounding name of the Central Election Authority does not instill much confidence in the context of holding free and fair in-house polls.

Even in the pre-Covid days, Mistry, S Jothimani, Rajesh Mishra, Krishna Byre Gowda and Arvind Singh Lovely [all members of the Congress Central Election Authority] were seldom seen sitting together at room number 39, actually, a makeshift barrack, situated right at the entrance of 24, Akbar Road, claiming itself to be the office of the 'Central Election Authority.' A room that is not even 12X9 feet, boasts of conducting free and fair polls of an organisation claiming to have over 20 million members. This alone pictures a sorry state of affairs in the Congress.

The problems staring at the Congress are many. It is for the dissenters and Congress critics to ponder if appointment of a new party president other than Rahul would usher in electoral fortunes for the party. If they think that a Mukul Wasnik or front ranking leaders like Shashi Tharoor, Manish Tiwari or Kapil Sibal can lead to electoral successes in the ensuing Assembly polls of West Bengal, Kerala, Assam, Puducherry and later in Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Punjab can work well, a change should be experimented.

AIMIM's success in the Seemanchal region of Bihar too poses a major challenge to the Congress. In Bengal, the Congress has a pocket of support in Malda-Raigunj area where Asaduddin Owaisi-led AIMIM can act as a spoiler and make traditional Congress supporters lean towards radical politics. As a head of the political party, Owaisi has a right to further AIMIM cause but in the process, the Congress seems falling between the two stools of the Hindu majoritarianism and Muslim voters' preference for AIMIM. Assam and Tamil Nadu pose similar challenge in Muslim-dominated Assembly constituencies.

In this context, a change of guards at 24, Akbar Road sounds hollow and superficial.

(Journalist Rasheed Kidwai is the author of 24 Akbar Road and Sonia A Biography)