Karnataka Congress
Kharge’s new appointees may indicate that he prefers a mix of status quo and reform but the scales are tilted definitively towards the former. Representational pic

Fresh Congress appointments hint to no radical changes in upcoming AICC reshuffle

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Ahead of the long-due reshuffle of the All India Congress Committee (AICC), Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge, on Friday (June 9), appointed new chiefs for the party’s Gujarat, Pondicherry and Mumbai units while also changing the Congress’ in-charge for Haryana.

While Rajya Sabha MP Shaktisinh Gohil has been chosen as the new Gujarat Congress chief, Lok Sabha MP and former two-term chief minister V. Vaithilingam will now helm the party’s Pondicherry unit. Varsha Gaikwad, a four-term MLA from Bombay’s Dharavi constituency and daughter of party stalwart late Eknath Gaikwad, will replace Bhai Jagtap as the new and first-ever woman president of the Mumbai Regional Congress Committee (MRCC).

Ordinarily, such appointments seldom pique curiosity and are often dismissed at the party’s central level either as a routine act of filling up vacancies or as an organisational shake-up intended for course-correction to address district or state level exigencies.

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Precursor to new team 

While the appointments cleared by Kharge on Friday evening do seek to address issues of the Congress in the respective organisational jurisdictions of Gujarat, Pondicherry, Haryana and Bombay, they also carry a wider import given that the new appointees are expected to hold their respective stations until the 2024 Lok Sabha polls. Since Kharge is also in the process of rejigging the AICC, sources say the roles assigned to Babaria, Gohil, Gaikwad and Vaithilingam are also an indicator of what the Congress president’s new team at 24, Akbar Road may look like.

Ever since Kharge’s election as the Congress president was ratified at the party’s Raipur Plenary Session in February, there has been a growing buzz about a radical AICC reshuffle being in the works to address the many organisational, political and electoral challenges that the Grand Old Party needs to confront ahead of next year’s general elections.

The AICC reshuffle had, however, been delayed, thus far, as the party was busy with its Karnataka poll campaign and in dealing with the aftermath of former Congress chief Rahul Gandhi’s conviction by a Gujarat court in a defamation case that cost him his membership of the Lok Sabha.

Sources close to the Congress president told The Federal that the blueprint of the AICC reshuffle has been broadly prepared by Kharge, in consultation with his predecessors Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi. The new AICC team would be announced by June-end, say sources, after Kharge and Rahul have tended to the other key engagement on their packed calendar – the June 23 Opposition Unity meet scheduled in Patna.

If the state-level appointments approved by Kharge on Friday are indeed an indicator of the contours that the imminent AICC reshuffle is likely to follow, the changes at the party’s central level are unlikely to be as radical as most political observers and the younger, restless whippersnappers of the GOP would like them to be.

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Rewarding loyalty

Kharge’s new appointees may indicate that he prefers a mix of status quo and reform but the scales are tilted definitively towards the former, as much on account of electoral considerations for the tough Lok Sabha battle that lies ahead as on the Congress chief’s onerous compulsions of keeping the Gandhis in good humour.

Nothing else explains better the tug of war between status quo and reform than the appointments of Gohil as the Gujarat Congress chief or of his fellow Gujarati, Babaria, as the new party in-charge for Haryana, on the one hand and, on the other, that of Gaikwad as MRCC chief.

Both Gohil and Babaria are known to enjoy Rahul’s confidence. Though their initial growth within the Congress was on account of the late Ahmed Patel, the mighty political advisor to Sonia Gandhi during her long stint as Congress president, their stature in the AICC grew further largely on account of Rahul’s patronage despite their failing miserably in almost every organisational task they were assigned.

Gohil, a former four-term MLA and once a promising grassroots leader from Gujarat’s Bhavnagar, had served as Leader of Opposition in the Gujarat assembly between 2007 and 2012 when Narendra Modi was the state’s chief minister. However, since 2017, owing to his turf war with then Gujarat Congress chief Bharatsinh Solanki, Gohil had largely been kept away by the Congress high command from state politics and was subsequently assigned key roles in the AICC.

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Poor track record

Gohil was made the party’s in-charge for Bihar in 2018 and carried out the seat-sharing negotiations with Lalu Yadav’s RJD for the Lok Sabha polls that were held a year later. Though the Congress managed to bag nine of the 40 Lok Sabha seats from the RJD in the seat-sharing talks, it won only a single seat (Kishanganj). In the 2020 Bihar assembly elections, Gohil again succeeded in getting 70 of the state’s 243 seats for the Congress in the pre-poll alliance but the party’s appalling performance – it won only 19 seats – ensured that Tejashwi Yadav’s RJD-led alliance could not form the government.

Many in the Bihar Congress as well as the RJD blame Gohil, till this day, for doing nothing to strengthen the Congress organisationally in the state during his stint as party in-charge, backing weak candidates in the Lok Sabha and assembly polls and for fomenting factional feuds.

Yet, when Gohil was relieved of his charge of Bihar, then Congress chief Sonia Gandhi decided to assign him as in-charge of the party’s already moribund Delhi unit. Gohil’s handling of the Delhi Congress was, arguably, even more lacklustre than his stint in Bihar. The party, which has not been able to win a single assembly seat in the Delhi elections since 2015, ended up recording its worst ever municipal poll rout in the national capital under Gohil’s watch last year as its organisational rot continued to worsen. However, Gohil’s stock kept rising within the party. He had already been rewarded with a Rajya Sabha berth in 2020 and last December, when the Congress leadership relieved Vivek Bansal as the party’s Haryana in-charge, the job went to Gohil.

With Gohil now returning to state politics as the Gujarat Congress chief, his charge of Haryana has been passed by Kharge to Babaria. While the Congress’ continuing largesse to Gohil may still be explained away as reward for his vocal criticism of Narendra Modi both inside and outside Parliament as well as his loyalty to the party, the generosity that the party leadership shows towards Babaria is most perplexing.

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No political base

A leader with neither a political base nor the credentials of a strong organisation man, Babaria, along with Congress leaders Avinash Pande and Mohan Prakash, belongs to a select lot of office bearers who have presided over, and often aggravated, chaos and resentment wherever they have been deputed by the high command as party in-charge. Babaria’s stint as in-charge of the Congress’ Madhya Pradesh unit was wrought with crippling factional feuds and he was often accused by state party leaders of incompetence.

Matters came to a head when ahead of the 2018 MP Assembly polls, Babaria was mobbed by angry Congress workers outside the party office in Bhopal and nearly roughed up for poor handling of party affairs and playing one camp against another in the faction-ridden state unit.

His new assignment in Haryana shows Kharge’s inability to stamp out the party’s status quo-ist tendency of repeatedly rewarding inept party leaders purely because they flaunt the tag of Congress loyalists. How Babaria handles the party’s affairs in Haryana, a unit already torn between the camps of former CM Bhupinder Hooda and his rivals, will be interesting to watch, particularly since the state, which will go to polls months after the 2024 Lok Sabha election, is expected to vote out the BJP that has been at the receiving end of brickbats from the Haryana’s most formidable caste group – the Jats – in wake of the protests by wrestlers and farmers.

Kharge’s decision to choose the 72-year-old Vaithilingam as Pondicherry Congress chief signals a unique mix of status quo and reform. The former nine-term legislator’s new role marks his return to Pondicherry at a time when the Congress is still struggling to shrug off the unpopularity it had gained during the disastrous chief ministerial tenure of V. Narayansamy, who led the party to a crippling defeat in the 2021 assembly polls. Unlike Narayansamy, another jewel in the galaxy of Congress’ rootless and unpopular leaders who have thrived by flaunting proximity to the high command, Vaithilingam is an experienced grassroots politician with an enviable following among the electorate of the union territory.

‘Reform’ in Mumbai

The one appointment made by Kharge on Friday that unequivocally screamed ‘reform’ was his decision to name Varsha Gaikwad as the MRCC chief, replacing Bhai Jagtap. Though a dynast, Gaikwad managed to duck the BJP wave in Bombay in the 2014 and 2019 Maharashtra assembly polls. The first woman (and a Dalit) to be appointed MRCC chief, she assumes the role at a time when the Congress is still navigating the testing traps of its alliance with Uddhav Thackeray’s Shiv Sena faction and the NCP as well as the factional wars between party leaders such as Ashok Chavan, Prithviraj Chavan, Sanjay Nirupam and Nana Patole.

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A four-time undefeated MLA and former minister of school education in the Thackeray-led MVA government, Gaikwad may not enjoy the political stature and clout that Ashok Chavan or Nana Patole can boast. However, the mild-mannered professor of mathematics has the reputation of strong grassroots leader who can be a consensus builder with as much ease as she can be a feisty street politician unafraid of the BJP’s strong arm tactics and a vociferous voice for the rights of Dalits and marginalised communities.

Gaikwad’s appointment as MRCC chief also ticks all the right boxes of ‘organisational reform’ – increased representation of youth, women and Dalits in party positions – that Kharge had promised at the Raipur Plenary but has largely been unable to deliver on since.

The task ahead for Gaikwad won’t be easy. Her appointment comes as a reprimand for her predecessor, Bhai Jagtap, who had irked the Congress high command and a section of Mumbai Congress leaders by sabotaging the election of party candidate Chandrakant Handore in last year’s Maharashtra MLC polls to wrest the seat for himself. As such, she will need to build bridges with Jagtap, who is no pushover in Bombay’s politics, while also ensuring that she has the support of other local leaders, including bitter rivals Sanjay Nirupam and Milind Deora.

Electorally, she will be tested for her capabilities of rebuilding the Congress in Bombay ahead of the long-delayed Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation elections, which will also test her skills of political negotiations if her party wants to contest the polls as part of the MVA coalition.

With the Congress wiped out of Bombay’s six Lok Sabha seats in the last two Lok Sabha polls and also reduced to a tally just four MLAs, including herself, across the 36 assembly seats in the metropolitan city, Gaikwad’s task of reviving the party as MRCC chief is cut out.

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