Even as prime minister Narendra Modi and BJP president Amit Shah continue with their Congress Mukt Bharat drive, the grand old party seems to be putting its act together in states, which are going for elections in the next two years.
In a clear sign that he has taken control of the party from his mother, Congress president Sonia Gandhi, vice president Rahul Gandhi has made decisive moves on the leadership of the party in Karnataka and also the team, which would run the party in the largest state ruled by the grand old faction.
The appointment of K.C. Venugopal as general secretary in charge of Karnataka with a four-member team of young leaders to assist the former union minister was a demonstrator. In that process, Rahul showed the door to party veteran and Sonia-favorite Digvijay Singh, depriving him of the charges of Karnataka and Goa.
Once a master strategist of Madhya Pradesh, winning two assembly elections in a row, Singh is now a pale shadow of himself. Singh has also been held responsible for Congress not forming the government in Goa, despite emerging as the single largest party.
The most visible sign of Rahul's control on the Karnataka decisions was when he invited 18 leaders led by Karnataka chief minister Siddaramaiah and Pradesh Congress Committee president G. Parameshwar for discussions. While Venugopal and his team assisted him, the absence of Sonia Gandhi's political secretary Ahmed Patel was conspicuous in the discussions, until the final round where Rahul pronounced the final formula.
Patel was the most important man to be consulted during the two decades of Sonia Gandhi's presidentship. By the time Patel was called for the final round, Rahul had said Siddaramaiah would be the chief minsterial candidate, Parameshwar would head PCC after giving up home ministership, former ministers Dinesh Gundu Rao and S.S. Patil would be working presidents, and veteran MP K.H. Muniyappa would be an invitee to the congress working committee.
Rahul also told Venugopal and team that they should avoid the five-star culture accused on the earlier general secretaries. The team now stays in government guest houses, and the four secretaries, including congress MLA Vishunath, have already toured the districts assigned to them. Venugopal has also told his team they would not get involved in government decisions, contracts and bureaucratic transfers.
Interestingly, A.K Antony was in charge of Karnataka when the party won the 2013 elections, projecting Siddaramaiah as the chief ministerial candidate. Siddaramaiah had been wooed to join the Congress party by Patel under direct orders of Sonia Gandhi. Antony, who was busy as the defence minister and key party adviser to Sonia, visited Karnataka only once – for the release of the party manifesto. He monitored the situation through his extensive contacts, and made assessment of men and matters, without getting involved in the groupism.
Now, Venugopal has to emulate the success of Antony. Apparently, in Venugopal's official bungalow in New Delhi, the most prominent photograph is of him taking oath from president Pratibha Patil as union minister. The second-most important photograph is a black-and-white one in which Venugopal is closely huddled together with Antony and Ramesh Chennithala – a photo taken when he was elected as president of Kerala students’ union, despite the boycott by the A group across the state. Antony, as PCC president, had then supported the election and welcomed Venugopal with open arms, marking his ascent in politics.
Though veteran MP K.V. Thomas was trying to become a national general secretary after he was relieved of the chairmanship of public accounts committee, Rahul preferred to go for the next generation.
After sealing the central and state teams for the Karnataka elections, Rahul has now decided to concentrate on Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Maharashtra, which go to polls between 2017 and 2019.
It would be an interesting exercise as the team of general secretaries and state in-charges are strong Sonia favorites such as B.K. Hariprasad, Digvijay Singh, Mohan Prakash and Mukul Wasnik. But it seems Rahul is in a mood to shake the Congress tree.