Jairam Ramesh says presidential poll sideshow; main focus is Bharat Jodo Yatra.
The past week has been eventful for the Grand Old Party. On Sunday, 25 September, Rahul Gandhi was seen toying with a football while his Bharat Jodo Yatra was traversing Palakkad in Kerala. Football is played with foot, as the name suggests, but the visuals showed Rahul catching a ball lobbed by boys donning the football attire who walked ahead of him. Meanwhile, party legislators in Rajasthan, one of the two residual states where Congress is still ruling, were enmeshed in another game—the outcome of which saw the writ of the “High Command” defied and defiled for the first time since the split of 1969. (Indira Gandhi had challenged the old guard then, in 2022 the old guard mocked the Rahul-Priyanka dispensation.) The drama of the absurd, which saw Ashok Gehlot refusing to budge from his perch in Jaipur; emergence of Digvijaya Singh as a probable “official” candidate for the party’s presidency for mere 36 hours; and the evolution of octogenarian Mallikarjun Kharge as the most probable elected Congress president, left no Congressperson happy—they accepted the inevitable. They would have preferred either Rahul or Priyanka to take up the mantle from Sonia Gandhi—direct rule was preferred to rule by proxy. Even as Kharge and Shashi Tharoor filed nominations, party’s chief spokesperson Jairam Ramesh tweeted that the presidential poll is a sideshow, the main focus is on Bharat Jodo Yatra. Jairam is honest—only the First Family can put up a pageant, the rest of the party members are to applaud from sidelines.
Tharoor had consulted Sonia prior to throwing in his hat. And Sonia assured him that the family will be neutral. Indeed no one from the family was seen at AICC office when nominations were filed. However phone calls went out from a key AICC functionary to ensure that 30 signatures, including all stalwarts, were appended to Kharge’s papers. Tharoor had Karti Chidambaram and Pradyut Bordoloi, fellow MPs, among his ten proposers. Kharge has been the family’s choice repeatedly since 2014—while sharp fighters like Kamal Nath and Amarinder Singh (who defeated Arun Jaitley in Amritsar) were available, Congress chose Kharge as the face against Narendra Modi in Lok Sabha. When Ghulam Nabi Azad, who had an acerbic presence as Leader of Opposition in Rajya Sabha, retired, he was succeeded by Kharge, who by then had been elected to the Upper House, having lost his Lok Sabha seat in 2019 to BJP. Kharge is credited with the choice of Charanjit Singh Channi as Chief Minister of Punjab. He was in Jaipur as observer for the CLP meeting when “desert storm” was initiated by Gehlot loyalists on 25 September. He remained in his hotel room between 7 pm and 9 pm, while MLAs assembled at the residence of Minister Shanti Dhariwal to plan mass resignation to protest the move to replace Gehlot with Sachin Pilot. This writer is witness to umpteen changes of CMs in Congress dispensations—the central observer always played a pivotal, domineering role. Instead of sitting in his hotel could not Kharge have driven down to Dhariwal’s residence to enquire what the legislators were up to? Contrary to media reports, the number of MLAs assembled was fewer than 50, though the group had the assent of around 90 (Rajasthan is a large geography, some MLAs were on their way, as summons had been sent early that morning—due to Navratras all MLAs were in their constituency homes). Had Kharge gone to Dhariwal home the details about numbers which trickled out later could have been known first hand by the central observer.
The absence of Pranab Mukherjee, R.K. Dhawan, Makhan Lal Fotedar—stalwarts of Congress management since Indira Gandhi days—is being sorely felt by the Gandhi family. Ambika Soni and Anand Sharma stepped in post 25 September to do damage control. It was their effort, especially Soni’s straight talk, which made Gehlot offer apology to Sonia Gandhi. Gehlot had gone to seek the blessings of Tanot Rai Mata, on the border with Pakistan, Sunday morning, accompanied by minister Pratap Khachariyawas and PCC chief Govind Dotsara. Being in the depth of Thar desert, there is no mobile connectivity in this part of Jaisalmer district (satellite phones work.) Thus, when Gehlot returned after 6 PM, barely an hour prior to the CLP meeting, he feigned ignorance about the developments. AICC observers Kharge and Ajay Maken had landed in Jaipur earlier—as both CM and PCC president were away, they were not received officially by anyone and had to find their way to the Marriot Hotel on their own. This by itself ought to have made Kharge-Maken smell a rat. They did not.
Pratap Khachariyawas was the most vocal spokesperson at the Dhariwal residence that night. His sound bites were most sought after by the media. A nephew of former BJP stalwart, Bhairon Singh Shekhawat (former Vice President of India), Khachariyawas is a former president of the Rajasthan University and his organisational skills are talked about. In 2018, he was close to Sachin Pilot, but gradually won the confidence of Gehlot. Surprisingly, while AICC issued notices to Mahesh Joshi, Dhariwal and Dharmendra Rathore, Khachariyawas was spared. It is whispered in AICC that Digvijaya Singh had cautioned against two Rajputs being served notices (Rathore is one). The sideshow of this was a campaign against Digvijaya by the Dalit and Brahmin lobbies, saying that Rajput lobbying was on, which saw the rug being pulled under Digvijaya’s feet overnight and the sudden appearance of Kharge as the heir apparent to Sonia Gandhi as the chief.
Bharat Jodo Yatra is drawing crowds. It has provided party workers in the areas it is traversing a reason to activate themselves. However, with Kharge as the face, will Congress be able to take on Narendra Modi in 2024? Or will Rahul be projected as the face—the allegation of proxy management will trail GOP while Modi and his BJP hit the ground running in the run up to the General Elections.
While the Rajasthan and Congress presidential poll “side shows” (to quote Jairam) were on, Ghulam Nabi Azad announced his Democratic Azad Party. After NCP, YSRCP, Trinamool, this is yet another regional party born from the Congress womb. Himanta Biswa Sarma, KCR, N. Biren Singh, Conrad Sangma, Mamata Banerjee and Jaganmohan Reddy are CMs with a Congress past. Like the last days of Mughal rule, satraps are setting up their own nests, away from the “Emperor’s” glare, in territory after territory. Congress footfall is diminishing.