G23 | The reformists within the Congress party

The self-proclaimed reformists within the Congress step up their demands and question the leadership as the grand old party is struggling with high-profile exits and crises in State units

Mr. Sibal, who is part of a group of 23 (G23) leaders that had written to Congress president Sonia Gandhi in August last year to press for inner party reforms, had challenged the Gandhis without naming them. “We are G-23, but definitely not Ji Huzoor [yes-men] 23,” he declared at a press conference on September 29.

The rebuttal was swift as a group of party workers from Chandni Chowk — a Lok Sabha constituency that Mr. Sibal had represented earlier — descended at the dissenting leader’s house with placards reading ‘Get Well Soon’ and rained tomatoes outside his private residence.

In this Congress versus Congress moment, however, the narrative that the Gandhis are the “glue” that can keep the party together in turbulent times seems to have been undone.

The emergence of G-23, or the reformists as they call themselves, exemplifies this. The lot included Ghulam Nabi Azad, Shashi Tharoor, Manish Tewari, Anand Sharma, Mukul Wasnik, Bhupendra Singh Hooda, M. Veerappa Moily, Prithviraj Chavan, P.J. Kurien, Renuka Choudhary, Milind Deora, Jitin Prasada, Rajinder Kaur Bhattal, Akhilesh Prasad Singh, Raj Babbar, Arvinder Singh Lovely, Kaul Singh Thakur, Kuldeep Sharma, Yoganand Shastri, Sandeep Dikshit and Vivek Tankha, besides Mr. Sibal.

While Mr. Prasada has quit the party, Mr. Moily has publicly distanced himself from the group.

But most of them, either long-standing Congress members or second generation leaders with unfailing loyalty to the Gandhi-Nehru family, are willing to put many of the decisions taken by the Gandhis, especially the siblings Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, under scrutiny.

Erosion of support

The Punjab experiment to elevate Navjot Singh Sidhu as the State party chief and unseat Captain Amarinder Singh as Chief Minister, and the decision to induct former president of the Jawaharlal Nehru University Students’ Union, Kanhaiaya Kumar, to the party and several other key decisions in which the Gandhi siblings are seen to be the driving force are being questioned.

“We don’t know who is taking these decisions. We know, yet we don’t know,” said Mr. Sibal, indicating that Mr. Gandhi is calling the shots despite stepping down as the party president two years ago. Be it appointing office bearers, choosing the party’s nominees for the Rajya Sabha or deciding the chief ministership, the former Congress chief is still the go-to person for the party.

The G-23 has questioned the high rate of attrition the party faces as well. In the past year and a half, exits of high-profile politicians like Jyotiraditya Scindia, Jitin Prasada, Sushmita Dev, Luizinho Faleiro and P.C. Chacko (all believed to be close to the Gandhi family) have only added to the sense that the ‘faith in the leadership of the Gandhis’ is eroding.

“The erosion of support base and, in particular, losing the confidence of the youth, is a matter of serious concern. In the last two national elections, India had added 18.7 crore first time voters — 10.15 crore in 2014 and 8.55 crore in 2019. The youth voted overwhelmingly for Modi and the BJP. The vote share of the BJP sharply increased from 7.84 crore in 2009 to 17.6 crore in 2014 and to 22.9 crore in 2019. In contrast, the Congress lost its share of 1.23 crore of the votes polled in 2009. We have marginally crossed the 2009 numbers in the last Lok Sabha elections,” the G-23 pointed out in their August 2020 letter to Ms. Gandhi.

The failure to win recent Assembly elections on their own own, even in former Congress strongholds of Assam and Kerala, has raised a sense of alarm among a section of party leaders. Many are worried about the ‘business-as-usual’ attitude of the leadership and the lack of a sense of urgency.

Collective leadership

Some of the reformists privately argue that the absence of ‘experienced’ political advisers in the team of the Gandhi siblings and running a political party like a ‘corporate entity’ are some of the reasons for their ‘ineptitude’. That’s why they have reiterated their demand for an elected party president, CWC and central election committee and the restoration of the Congress Parliamentary Board for collective decision-making.

“The Nehru-Gandhi family will always remain an integral part of the collective leadership of the Congress party,” the G-23 argued in their letter. While not everyone is rooting for a change in the leadership of the family, some like former Finance Minister P. Chidambaram, who is not a part of the G-23, have rued about the inability to start ‘meaningful conversations’ within party forums. “I feel helpless when we cannot start meaningful conversations within party forums. I also feel hurt and helpless when I see pictures of Congress workers raising slogans outside the residence of a colleague and MP. The safe harbour to which one can withdraw seems to be silence,” Mr. Chidambaram tweeted a day after Mr. Sibal’s house was targeted by party workers.

But the Congress’s internal strife is not only about the party’s free fall in elections or a tussle between the reformists and the loyalists, with loyalists alleging that the G23 is guided by motives like securing positions such as Rajya Sabha berths; it is also about Mr. Gandhi’s attempt to recast the party without the old guard.

Cut to December 2018 when the party won Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan under stewardship of Mr. Gandhi. Despite being the party president, he was unable to push people of his choice for chief ministership, something that led to the collapse of the government in Madhya Pradesh (M.P.) and has become sore points in Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan.

While he wanted his one time-friend, Mr. Scindia, to be at the helm of affairs in M.P., the old guard is said to have prevailed over his mother in favour of Kamal Nath. Ditto for Sachin Pilot and Ashok Gehlot in Rajasthan when the old guard ensured Mr. Gehlot becomes the CM.

In 2019, Mr. Gandhi owned up to the Lok Sabha poll debacle but not before pointing out that he fought a ‘lonely’ battle. “I personally fought the Prime Minister, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the institutions they have captured with all my being. I fought because I love India. And I fought to defend the ideals India was built upon. At times, I stood completely alone and am extremely proud of it,” Mr. Gandhi had said in his resignation letter in May 2019.

As the Congress’s internal divide becomes a matter of public debate, some of the Gandhi family loyalists have questioned the ‘agenda’ of the reformists while others have urged to place faith in time-tested leadership.

“We know that personal agendas are pursued mostly in the name of high principle,” said former Union Minister Ashwani Kumar, adding: “Those who claim that their actions are inspired by a reformist zeal should know that a point of principle can be invoked only by those who have not been the beneficiaries of the system that they now conveniently question”.

Salman Khurshid, another former Minister, wrote in a Facebook post on October 1: “Our leaders have led us from the front and for decades together ensured that we have the comfort of being in power.” With the Congress seeming to be in the grip of an ‘existential crisis’ now, it is, perhaps, incumbent upon the leadership to restore this faith in every ordinary Congress worker, not just the loyalists.

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