Opinion: Opinion: In Congress Revamp, Signs Of Priyanka Gandhi's 2024 Election Debut
Finally, a Congress team that will lead the party to the 2024 Lok Sabha election. Mallikarjun Kharge, elected Congress president in October 2022, may have waited months to put together this team.
Finally, a Congress team that will lead the party to the 2024 Lok Sabha election. Mallikarjun Kharge, elected Congress president in October 2022, may have waited months to put together this team. But is it a team that can inspire a spirited fight against a resurgent BJP in the Hindi heartland?
Soon after the list of new All India Congress Committee (AICC) office-bearers was out, some joked that the Congress had officially made known its no-go states by appointing or reappointing its pointspersons for the heartland states, where it does not fancy much of a prospect. In Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Punjab, Himachal, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh or Chhattisgarh, the Congress's fortunes are headed south. Unless the party stitches up an alliance with the AAP (Punjab) or Samajwadi Party(UP) to restrict its losses.
Against this backdrop, party general secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra being relieved of Uttar Pradesh has to be viewed more as a technical detail that suggests she could possibly contest from the state. Many of her supporters insist that she could debut in electoral politics from UP, no matter what the outcome. The Congress has suffered a declining vote-share in India's most politically vital state, dropping from seven assembly seats to two in the 2022 state polls. Party sources suggest Priyanka could also contest from Telangana, where the Congress recently ousted the BRS.
Will Priyanka contest from Telangana?
An indication hat Priyanka could make her electoral foray from Telangana also emerges from the fact that this Congress-ruled state has been assigned as additional charge to AICC general secretary Deepa Dasmunshi, a hard-nosed election manager is credited with the party's successful campaign in the state. Deepa Dasmunshi was elevated as AICC general secretary as a reward for her work in Telangana. "But for Deepa's energetic electioneering, it would have been difficult to secure Telangana," acknowledged a party manager. Apparently, both her groundwork and Ajoy Kumar's backroom management proved to be crucial in the party's win. Perhaps the reason why Deepa Dasmunshi has been also tasked with managing Kerala -- a state from where Rahul Gandhi is expected to contest. Ajoy Kumar (former Jamshedpur MP) has been given charge of Tamil Nadu amid talk of Rahul also contesting from Tamil Nadu, as a second option.
So if office-bearers have been cherry-picked to suit either Rahul or Priyanka, did the Congress president get much of a say or a free hand in this team selection? Probably not. A closer look at the changes reveal tell tale signs of a Rahul Gandhi imprimatur. The dead giveaways- Kerala veteran Ramesh Chennithala, a champion of Hindu rights in the Sabarimala Temple issue, being assigned Maharashtra, and his close aide from Goa, Girish Chodankar, being given charge of states in the north-east like such as Triupura, Nagaland, Sikkim and Manipur. It is another matter that even a day after his new assignment, Chodankar is still obsessing about his home turf.
Raw deal for Chennithala
More than Chodankar, is Chennithala's perceived comedown that has rankled many in the Congress. Old timers are surprised at Chennithala being deprived of a General Secretary tag and being labeled as an "in-charge," a post he had held decades ago. A prominent leader of the Congress in Kerala, Chennithala has held important positions in the state, including its Home Minister(2014-16). Leaders far junior to him, like Randeep Surjewala, who was the Indian Youth Congress chief in 2000, have been elevated as AICC general secretary. Such humiliation for Chennithala could be a political disaster for Rahul, if he wishes to contest again from Kerala. Chennithala was IYC president (1990-93); Mukul Wasnik, his immediate predecessor, is AICC general secretary in charge of Gujarat. Many in the party feel Chennithala did not get a designation behoving his stature due to the machinations of KC Venugopal, a Kerala leader close to Rahul. A kinder view is perhaps that Rahul too may have had his compulsions -- he could not have had two general secretaries from Kerala and both representing the same community (Nair).
If Chennithala has been treated unfairly, the idea of "banishing" Sachin Pilot to Chhattisgarh as AICC general secretary with the idea of keeping him away from Rajasthan seems more like a deal done with former Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Geholt than any move to effectively use a youthful leader. If Rahul Gandhi really cared for Sachin and the Congress's revival in the North, he could have used him either in Uttar Pradesh or in Jammu and Kashmir, where Gujjar votes matter.
Kharge goes along with Rahul
The Congress organisational changes seem like an end in itself or do not appear to be linked to winning the 2024 polls. That is why Kharge may not have resisted any suggestions made by Rahul Gandhi. Maybe he had little choice . It is said that the Congress chief was so helpless that he could not even get his trusted aide from Karnataka a general secretary position. He went along with Rahul Gandhi's decision to opt for a Kashmiri Muslim, Ghulam Ahmed Mir, with an eye on J&K polls, instead of a minority MP from Karnataka. .
The flipside to Kharge not resisting the changes is that many Congress leaders believe the new AICC team is not for keeps. Drawn up by Rahul Gandhi and his aide Venugopal, the team could probably last only till the May 2024 elections. Since the reshuffle came too close to the Lok Sabha polls, an attempt was made to ensure that the changes did not to rock the boat. If most of the non-performers have still managed to cling on by becoming in-charges of no-go states like Andhra Pradesh, it is a message the they may not last the next time a sweeping overhaul takes place.
(Lakshmi Iyer is a journalist who has been covering politics for four decades in Delhi & Mumbai.)
Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.