It was baptism by fire for Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi who had a first hand experience of life with partymen, in what is being called close encounters of the fiery kind during party’s day-long deliberations on Friday, reports Renu Mittal.
In his first face-to-face meeting with Congress Legislative Party leaders and Pradesh Congress Committee presidents called by the new vice president to understand the state of the party in each state and how many seats the party can win in the coming Lok Sabha elections, Rahul Gandhi was caught in the bitter word-slanging and crossfire between arch rivals Delhi chief minister Sheila Dikshit and Delhi PCC President Jayprakash Aggarwal.
The trading of charges between the two reached a crescendo and not even Rahul Gandhi’s intervention could cool the temperature. Aggarwal accused the chief minister of running the Congress in Delhi as her personal fiefdom, adding in any of her public meetings and speeches she never mentioned the PCC president, and in most decision-making regarding the state, the PCC president was not consulted at all.
The chief minister on her part, known to be a favourite “aunty” of Rahul Gandhi, accused Aggarwal of sabotage and of not working in the interest of the party. She alleged Aggarwal worked overtime to defeat the Congress in the municipal elections and other local bodies and said his only aim was to show the chief minister down.
Dikshit added that the party leaders neither tour the state nor build up the party, and went as further to say that with elections approaching the biggest threat is not from the Bharatiya Janata Party but from within the Congress.
The two continued to hurl allegations at each other as the shocked leaders looked on, and when Rahul Gandhi tried to intervene and stop the public show of anger and hostility, neither took much notice of him. It was almost 10 minutes before order was restored.
Sources said that Rahul Gandhi lost his cool at Punjab CLP leader Sunil Jhakhar when he was speaking. Jhakhar spoke about the defeat of the Congress in the last assembly elections in the state and said that the party could have won the election but the Centre did not help, the state leaders did not co-operate with each other and put up an effective fight.
At this Rahul got up and said that he should speak about what the state unit can do. He said the state units will have to take responsibility and wanted to know how many seats the Congress can win from Punjab in the coming elections.
Rahul added that there was no point in blaming the Centre or the AICC, since the AICC was there to give a helping hand. But the actual effort should have been made by the state unit, he added.
Rahul said if they work unitedly, they can form the government in the next Lok Sabha elections and even come to power on their own in 2014. He said the state units will have to take responsibility and be accountable for every seat.
While 49 leaders were invited, 4 were absent in Friday’s marathon meeting where 32 leaders spoke. The meeting will continue on Saturday when Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot and PCC president are expected to have their say.
Going alphabetically the meeting ended at Punjab and the rest will be taken up Saturday.
Party spokesperson Janardhan Dwivedi later said talks about likely alliances in poll-bound states were discussed in the meeting; however, it was not clear what he meant, since in many of the election-going states like Rajasthan, Delhi, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh Congress is in a direct fight with the BJP and there is no scope of any alliance.
Basically the gist of the discussions centered around the PCC presidents blaming the government (wherever the Congress is in power) for not keeping the party in the loop while the chief ministers blamed the PCC chiefs for not helping the state governments.
Rahul Gandhi was interested in knowing what were the party programmes run by the state units, what was the fate and status of UPA government’s flagship Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, how many seats the party can win in the upcoming elections and what were the problems they were facing.
Bihar PCC president Mehboob Ali Kaisar, who himself resigned after the last assembly election defeat in the state, had later complained that he had not got an executive committee which can work on the ground. When Rahul wanted to know “why not”, Kaisar said, “Ask the general secretary in-charge. How can I say?”
Rahul wanted to know the reason for the Bihar result and why the Congress won only 4 seats? Kaisar said ticket distribution was faulty, the AICC decided everything without taking the state leaders into confidence, and alleged that AICC leaders “did not listen to us”. The attack was on Mukul Wasnik who was in-charge of Bihar and against whom there were charges of "selling" tickets.
Bihar CLP leader Sadanand Singh blamed the alliance with Lalu Yadav-led Rashtriya Janata Dal for the abysmal results for the party in the state, sources informed.
In Andhra Pradesh both Chief Minister Kiran Kumar Reddy and PCC president raised the issue of Jaganmohan Reddy, saying the second rank of the party was moving towards Jagan’s YSR Congress, and the party had to find a way to stop this.
Some of the points on which unanimity emerged were the need for discipline in the party, the fact that outsiders should not be given too much importance as this harmed the original Congress workers who were very often ignored by the leaders.
There were complaints that there was less help from the Centre, that AICC leaders and in-charges simply come to tour the state and don’t bother interacting with the state leaders, that when ministers come calling the Congress leaders are neither invited nor kept in the loop.
For Rahul Gandhi who wants a free and frank discussion in the party, he probably got more than he bargained as Congress leaders spoke their heart and mind out in the day-long deliberations.