Of the six vacancies in the Rajya Sabha, to which by-polls were announced by the Election Commission, on Thursday, the Congress party can wrest only two.
Yet, as has always been the case within the crisis-ridden Grand Old Party, there are multiple aspirants for the two Rajya Sabha berths — one each from Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra. The intra-party contest to bag the nomination for these two berths could bring the focus back on what message the Congress high command wishes to convey to its sulking Old Guard and restive whippersnappers amid the continuing challenge of rebellion from the former and attrition by the latter.
There are, in all, six by-polls that the EC will conduct across five states on October 4. Of these, the Congress lacks the numerical strength of legislators to wrest the Rajya Sabha vacancies in West Bengal, Assam and Madhya Pradesh. The Congress, thus, is pinning its hopes for victory on one of the two vacant Rajya Sabha seats in Tamil Nadu and on the lone vacancy from Maharashtra.
Congress insiders say that the party’s senior ally in Tamil Nadu’s ruling DMK, headed by MK Stalin, had promised support of his legislators to the Grand Old Party for winning one of the two vacant Rajya Sabha seats when the two parties were negotiating seat-sharing formula for the state’s Assembly polls earlier this year. In Maharashtra, the vacancy was caused by the demise of Congress’s young leader and Rahul Gandhi confidante, Rajeev Satav, who succumbed to post-Covid complications on May 16.
Rajya Sabha elections are fought and won on the basis of the legislative strength of each of the parties fielding candidates. As such, barring last-minute surprise defections and glitches in the casting of ballots, their outcome drives to a foregone conclusion. For the Congress, it is the machinations that precede the actual election that are indicative of the course the party plans to chart.
Speculations are rife at 24 Akbar Road, the Congress headquarters in New Delhi, that the fight to bag the nomination from the lone seat the party can hope to win in Tamil Nadu is between 72-year-old veteran Ghulam Nabi Azad and 48-year-old Praveen Chakravarty.
Azad, who was the Leader of Opposition in the Rajya Sabha until February, when his term ended, has been an old party loyalist. He was Congress chief Sonia Gandhi’s emissary in tricky negotiations with the Tamil Nadu chief minister’s father, the late M Karunanidhi, during the turbulent years of the UPA government. However, for the past year, Azad has come to be recognised within the Congress, particularly among confidantes of the Gandhi family, as the chief dissenter who was instrumental in getting 22 other party colleagues to write that controversial letter to Sonia Gandhi last August demanding sweeping organisational reforms and a “visible, full-time, effective leadership”.
Chakravarty, on the other hand, heads the party’s data analytics cell and is an aide of Rahul Gandhi. However, beyond Rahul’s hallowed circle of confidantes, Chakravarty is seen by many Congress members, seniors and juniors alike, with a mixed sense of envy and suspicion.
Many seniors within the party continue to blame him for “misguiding” Rahul during the 2019 Lok Sabha election campaign with “exaggerated claims” of the party’s victory prospects.
Soon after Rahul resigned as the Congress chief taking responsibility for the 2019 rout, Chakravarty was among the first targets of a whisper campaign within the Congress. Several senior party leaders anonymously alluded to a “lack of transparency” in the functioning and expenses of his data analytics department. As a result, Chakravarty’s wings were clipped soon after Sonia Gandhi returned as interim party chief and his data analytics department was downgraded to a ‘cell’. However, Chakravarty continued to have easy access to Rahul and, over a period of time, has emerged as a prolific writer who regularly authors or co-authors columns for various news platforms taking on the Narendra Modi government and its policies.
It is believed that Azad has been having backchannel talks with Stalin and the DMK brass on pushing the Congress high command to endorse his candidature.
The former Union minister shares a warm rapport with Stalin and other members of the Karunanidhi clan, besides being known for his personal camaraderie with politicians of all hues but his proximity to the Congress parivar has been on a gradual decline.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s tearful adieu to Azad when the latter retired from the Rajya Sabha earlier this year, in fact, presented a stark contrast when many of Azad’s decades-old Congress colleagues refused to go beyond the perfunctory ‘best wishes’. Weeks after the end of his Rajya Sabha tenure, Azad visited Jammu along with other Congress ‘rebels’ like Kapil Sibal, Bhupinder Hooda, Manish Tewari and Raj Babbar and reiterated the need to reform their party while asserting that he will never quit the Congress.
Curiously though, on Friday, Azad made a rare appearance alongside Rahul Gandhi at the latter’s public meeting in Jammu. Congress sources, who were present at the function, told The Federal that though Azad and Rahul “exchanged pleasantries and were very civil, the discomfiture of the two sharing the stage as also of other Congress leaders at being seen with Azad, was evident.”
Congress insiders say that though Azad is very keen on returning to the Rajya Sabha and may get some support from Stalin, chances of the party actually awarding him with the ticket are very slim.
“He was the LoP in Rajya Sabha but that post is now with Mallikarjun Kharge. Though he has not been as vocal against the party as Kapil Sibal, it is clear that Azad has lost the confidence of the Gandhi family. Sonia may accommodate him in internal committees and panels of the Congress (Azad was recently roped in by Sonia in the 11-member panel constituted by her to plan the year-long celebrations of the 75th anniversary of India’s independence); getting him back to the Rajya Sabha looks very unlikely,” says a senior party leader.
Congress insiders say the greater hurdle to Azad’s return to the Rajya Sabha is Chakravarty. “From what we know, Praveen Chakravarty is Rahul Gandhi’s choice… any scope for discussion within the Congress on who the party should field as the Rajya Sabha candidate from Tamil Nadu ends there. The only spoiler for Chakravarty can come from the DMK. Stalin has a good rapport with Azad but that doesn’t compare to the respect he accords to Sonia and Rahul. Why should Stalin strain his ties with the Gandhis for Azad… anyway, the tenure of the berth the Congress hopes to get in Tamil Nadu is only till June 2022 so why should this be a prestige issue,” says a Congress functionary.
The Congress’s other challenge is in finding a candidate for the vacant berth in Maharashtra. Sources say several leaders are eying the seat lying vacant since Satav’s demise. Among these are party veteran Mukul Wasnik (another member of Azad’s G-23 who has now mended his terms with the Gandhi family) and former Mumbai Congress chiefs and arch-rivals Sanjay Nirupam and Milind Deora.
While Wasnik, Nirupam and Deora are all from Maharashtra, sources say the party’s former UP unit chief Pramod Tiwari is also lobbying to be nominated to Parliament’s Upper House. Deora has been sulking for a long time at being regularly embarrassed by Nirupam without the party leadership coming to his defence. Sources say Deora recently met Rahul Gandhi and pleaded fealty afresh but not without expressing his discomfort at Nirupam’s repeated barbs.
Congress sources say in deciding the candidates for the two by-polls, the Gandhis will have to weigh their options carefully.
“If they wish to project a conjoined path of rapprochement, continuity and change, then Sonia will give at least one of the two seats to a veteran (Azad, Wasnik or someone else) while Rahul will get his choice for the other but if the high command decides that it can brazen out another possible rebellion from the Old Guard, Rahul may have a free hand in choosing candidates for both seats,” says a Congress leader.