After a series of electoral setbacks, with the honourable exception in Punjab, the Congress has at last set about bringing back its house in order to prepare for future challenges. The churning process has incidentally started after the glimmer of hope in the Delhi municipal elections where the party finished third but substantially increased its vote share.
As it prepares to save its government in Karnataka next year, the only big state ruled by it besides Punjab, it has sent out strong signals that the party leaders who had been guiding the party strategy but have failed, would face the axe. Thus the powerful general secretary of the party, Digvijay Singh, who was considered close to the Gandhi family, has been shown the door for failing to install a Congress government in Goa despite it emerging as the single largest party in the state during the recent elections.
He has not only been removed from the charge of the party in Goa but, more importantly, as general secretary in charge of Karnataka as well. The elections to the Karnataka Assembly next year would be the final test before the general elections due in 2019 and Congress can’t afford to lose the state if it is serious about a fight in the general elections.
Digvijay Singh, at one time considered invincible in the party due to his proximity to Congress chief Sonia Gandhi and her son Rahul Gandhi, is known to have taken the formation of government in Goa lightly and was outplayed by former defence minister Manohar Parrikar who is now heading a BJP led government in the state.
The Congress had won 17 seats in the 40-member Assembly in the February 4 state assembly elections and had emerged as the single largest party, while the BJP had won only 13 seats. The BJP, however, managed to form a coalition government with support from Independent legislators and regional parties even as the Congress continued to dither even on announcing its chief ministerial candidate. It did not even approach other smaller parties to gain support of just four legislators to form the government.
Digvijay Singh, facing flak for his handling of the Goa polls, later claimed that his proposal for a pre-poll alliance with Goa Forward was “sabotaged” by his own party leaders. In a series of tweets he claimed that he had also proposed a pre-poll alliance with another smaller party but ‘other’ party leaders did not favour it. “Still Digvijaya guilty? I leave it to you to judge,” he said in his tweets.
As the Congress faced the ignominy of letting the BJP pull the carpet from beneath its feet, Digvijay continued to shift the blame. Subsequently Parrikar ‘thanked’ him in Rajya Sabha for providing the BJP a government on a platter. “My special thanks to honourable member Digvijay Singh, who happened to be in Goa but did nothing so that I could form the government,” he said.
The senior Congress leader again took to the Twitter to react to his removal as the in charge of Goa and Karnataka. Stating that he was “happy” that Rahul Gandhi had picked up a new team, he reiterated his loyalty to the Gandhi family. “I am loyal to the party and Nehru-Gandhi family and owe my position to the party and to them”.
While Digvijay Singh’s removal is a decisive move by Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi after a long time, they appear to be now open to make more changes in the party’s structure. In another significant move, former Rajasthan chief minister, Ashok Gehlot, considered a sharp strategist, has been appointed general secretary in charge of Gujarat where Assembly elections are due later this year. Former Maharashtra Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh’s son, Amit Deshmukh has been appointed secretary for Goa.
In yet another significant development, a former Rahul Gandhi favourite, Madhusudan Mistry, was dropped as general secretary and made a Member of the Central Election Authority for the organisational elections that are to be completed by October.
These changes were long overdue and are still not good enough. Even though the party could form the government only in Punjab after the recent elections in five states, the fact is that it had emerged as the single largest party in three of the five states. It also lost the initiative in Manipur and let the BJP walk all over it.
But perhaps the biggest boost it has got, and which has helped it regain some confidence, is due to the poor show by the Aam Aadmi Party which was projecting itself as the main challenger to the BJP in the next general elections. The setback it faced in Punjab, which it had considered an ‘easy’ catch, and the humiliation in Goa where all but one of its candidates lost security deposits, has grounded the party. The poor performance even in its backyard, where it trailed far behind the BJP in the Delhi Municipal elections, is a body blow from which it would be difficult for it to recover.
The Congress, evidently, is sensing an opportunity to at least lead the challenge, with the help of regional and left parties, and it is high time it started a self-cleansing process. Some of the changes made in the organisational structure are part of its strategy to empower a new team but the party needs a major shakeup starting from the very top. It is unlikely that the party is capable of making drastic changes and, therefore, it shall have to remain content with minor consolation prizes till that is done.