|CURRENT ISSUE NOVEMBER 22, 2004|
|Palace Intrigues |
At Sonia's 10 Janpath durbar, courtiers fight for control over Congress party positions and posts in the Government
|By Bhavdeep Kang|
The court of Congress President Sonia Gandhi and nerve centre of the UPA Government, 10 Janpath, has become a hotbed of intrigue ahead of the party elections, with courtiers competing for royal munificence and share of power. With a cabinet reshuffle and key party appointments expected soon, each is trying to corner as many posts as possible. But Sonia, no longer the gormless prisoner of coteries that she used to be, seems to enjoy setting one courtier against the other and making unexpected moves, say insiders.
The dramatis personae in the tussle for control of the party organisation are chief durbaris Ahmed Patel, Sonia's political secretary; Ambika Soni, head of the Congress president's office; her secretary Vincent George; and the old guard (Arjun Singh, Ghulam Nabi Azad, K. Natwar Singh and Motilal Vora) and Janardhan Dwivedi. The supporting cast is vast and varied, including ministers, chief ministers, party leaders and office-bearers.
Patel, the master of palace intrigue, is the reigning wazir and has got his way in two big appointments. Arjun Modhwadia, first-time MLA and big-time contractor, beat many "experienced" contenders to the post of the Gujarat CLP leader, reportedly with help from the Gujarati neta. Another Patel loyalist, Ram Babu Sharma, has been appointed Delhi PCC chief, to the dismay of Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit and general secretary in charge of Delhi, Ashok Gehlot. Curiously, New Delhi MP Ajay Maken, who had been picked by the duo, had received the endorsement of the Congress president herself. Patel reportedly got wind of it and advised Sonia to appoint Sharma instead. The sweet-shop proprietor and MLA was a strong contender for the East Delhi Lok Sabha seat which eventually went to Dikshit's son. Piqued with the chief minister, he has aligned with Patel.
Soni, who is regarded as having gone into eclipse in the past three months, has rallied somewhat with friend and loyalist Salman Khursheed being appointed Uttar Pradesh PCC chief. Patel was reportedly taken by surprise. When he had left for West Asia, he was under the impression that the change of PCC chief was still under discussion. Even Satyavrat Chaturvedi, who was handpicked as Uttar Pradesh general secretary by Sonia, but lost points with her thereafter, was not part of the consultation process. Instead Sonia chose to take Dwivedi into confidence. Insiders say Khursheed had Rahul Gandhi's endorsement. The appointment could prove to be a setback for both the old guard and Patel. Former upcc chief Jagdambika Pal is an Arjun Singh man, while the office-bearers who are likely to be sacked under the new regime owe allegiance to Patel. The key point is that Uttar Pradesh controls the maximum number of AICC electoral votes.
And therein lies the nub. The durbar wars have acquired a new intensity because of the party elections due early next year. An insecure Sonia had avoided elections three years ago. In her confident new avatar, she is expected to go in for full-fledged elections, which is why the PCC chiefs, who control the votes, are the "most wanted" among Congressmen.
The old guard staged a surprise coup in Maharashtra when Vilasrao Deshmukh walked away with the laurels in the teeth of Patel's candidate, Sushil Kumar Shinde. While Patel took Shinde's reappointment for granted, Sonia opted for Deshmukh. Apart from Vora, Deshmukh had Azad batting for him. Sonia's penchant for playing her advisers against each other was demonstrated when she allowed Patel to have his way in the selection of Rajya Sabha members but let Soni prevail in the appointment of the AICC general secretaries.
Patel and Soni had formed a common front against the old guard before the general elections but fell out immediately afterwards. Soni, says an "unaffiliated" CWC member (he does not belong to any camp), is being excluded from meetings and negotiations with allies and shut out of the decision-making process by Patel. She is also not privy to the weekly party-government interactions.
The party's rising star is Dwivedi and the buzz is that he has nixed the candidature of Patel loyalist and Urban Employment and Poverty Alleviation Minister Kumari Selja as Haryana PCC chief. Likewise, the imminent appointments of the PCC chiefs of Maharashtra, Jharkhand and Himachal Pradesh are being closely watched. So is the cabinet reshuffle. Among the Patelites already in the council of ministers are S.S. Vaghela, Suresh Pachauri, Kapil Sibal, Jagdish Tytler and Selja. Intense lobbying for the post of Uttaranchal chief minister is also under way, with N.D. Tiwari likely to step down.
All relationships in politics are marriages of convenience. So no matter how much Soni and Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh fall out, they will come together to take on their common rival Patel. As durbaris struggle for space, Sonia plays her game of checks and balances.