What the G-23 seeks is 24x7 leadership

Smita Gupta | Updated on September 04, 2020 Published on September 04, 2020

Diverse group: Long-serving leaders such as Ghulam Nabi Azad (right) grew into their present positions in the Congress, while some such as Kapil Sibal (left) were accepted into the fold for their talent   -  PTI/MANVENDER VASHIST

The 23 Congress leaders who wrote to the interim president seeking reform belong to different generations and disparate backgrounds

* Initially, they thought a small group would meet Sonia Gandhi and put the ideas that have appeared in the letter to her

* The conversation on the subject began at least three months ago

It’s difficult to docket the 23 Congress leaders seeking reform. They are neither dissidents nor young Turks planning a coup. The party’s spokespersons have sought to portray them as an untalented and ungrateful lot. But the fact is that the 23 party leaders who wrote last month to interim president Sonia Gandhi seeking sweeping changes in the Congress defy categorisation.

They belong not just to different generations and parts of the country, but come from disparate backgrounds. There are those such as Ghulam Nabi Azad, Anand Sharma, Mukul Wasnik and Manish Tewari who grew into their present positions, starting out in the Youth Congress. There are others such as Kapil Sibal and Shashi Tharoor who were accepted into the party fold for their talent.

Former chief ministers Bhupinder Singh Hooda, Prithviraj Chavan, Veerappa Moily and Rajinder Kaur Bhattal are on the list, too. Hooda and Chavan belong to political families, Moily is a village boy who made good and Bhattal has had a long stint in regional politics. The group includes second-generation leaders such as Milind Deora and Jitin Prasada, once considered to be part of the inner circle of Rahul Gandhi, who has been indirectly criticised in the letter for not providing full-time, active leadership to the party.

The conversation on the subject began at least three months ago, sources in the group say. Much of the subsequent consultation was conducted virtually, because of the pandemic as well as to maintain secrecy. The signatories met in small groups over lunch or dinner to discuss the idea. Those in Delhi — Sharma, Sibal, Tharoor and Tewari — were among the prime movers. Together, they drafted the letter, which was later tweaked by the other signatories. The Delhi group roped in Azad to give heft to the exercise.

Initially, they thought a small group would meet Sonia Gandhi and put the ideas that have appeared in the letter to her. But when her office did not get back to Azad on this — possibly because she was unwell, or perhaps, as some say, because her office is no longer controlled by her — the group decided to write the letter.

So how did the group come together? The sources point out that they had different reasons, but all felt the party needed to be steered.

Azad, Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha and the longest-serving member of the Congress Working Committee, was said to have been deeply hurt that the Congress did not take on — frontally — the abrogation of Article 370 and the bifurcation of Jammu and Kashmir by the Narendra Modi government last year.

His deputy in the Upper House, Anand Sharma, has always been a Gandhi-Nehru loyalist. But the scant respect shown to him by Rahul Gandhi, combined with the rapid decline of the party, pushed him into the fold of the letter writers.

What about Wasnik, who also stood out for his loyalty to the family? When there was talk in 2019 of appointing a working president after Rahul Gandhi had stepped down from the top post, the 60-year-old second-generation Congress leader was apparently considered for the role, but nothing came of it. Likewise, Lok Sabha members Tewari and Tharoor were contenders for the position of Congress leader in the House after the 2019 elections, a post that eventually went to Adhir Choudhury of West Bengal.

Chavan, after serving in Manmohan Singh’s Cabinet, was handpicked by Sonia Gandhi and made the chief minister of Maharashtra and is therefore a surprise inclusion in the list. No one is quite sure why Moily, seen as a quintessential party man, is among the signatories — his critics say it is because Mallikarjuna Kharge, also from Karnataka, has been promoted by the family instead of him.

Hooda, on the other hand, has been chafing at the bit for some years. Unhappy with the party leadership, he had earlier ensured the defeat of a Congress nominee in a Rajya Sabha poll.

Deora had spoken out on the need for direction in the party after the general elections in 2014. Till then, he had been close to Rahul Gandhi, who stayed at Deora’s residence in Mumbai whenever he was in the city. But while Deora’s name on the letter is not a surprise, Prasada’s is. The latter has always been conscious that his father, the late Jitendra Prasada, had contested in a party presidential election against Sonia Gandhi — and this had been held against him. Clearly, he too was growing restless at the lack of movement in the party.

The Congress’s current leadership may believe that they can squash the “dissidence” — their word for talking truth to power — but it may not be easy. Over time, the group may gather ground. The sources say that close to 300 people had already been contacted. The group is now working on translating the letter into the various languages for party workers across the country.

What is it that the G-23 wants? The Congress is not heading for a split as there is no challenger yet behind whom the others could rally. Neither are they heading for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). What the letter writers seek is a functioning party with a visible and accessible leadership.

Even senior leaders outside the group have taken the move seriously. Former finance minister P Chidambaram, who always chooses his words carefully, told a news agency shortly after the CWC: “Those who wrote the letter certainly are as fiercely opposed to the BJP as I am or Mr Rahul Gandhi is... Unless there is discontent, change won’t happen.”

To a question posed on opposition to the party’s leadership, he responded, “I never say all is well. Have waves of the sea ever fallen silent? There will always be waves in the sea. There will always be some discontent. Today we have addressed some issues. I think going forward the party will become stronger and more active.” The import of his words was quite clear.

Smita Gupta is a Delhi-based political journalist

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Published on September 04, 2020
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