Debating India

CONGRESS

Is there a No. 2?

Sunday 5 February 2006, by VOHRA*Pankaj

The Union Cabinet reshuffle has sparked off speculation regarding two of Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s closest aides - her political secretary Ahmed Patel and general secretary, but now also a minister, Ambika Soni. Ever since the ministry expansion took place, Congress activists in particular and political analysts in general have been wondering who out of the two has emerged as more powerful. The friendly sparring between the two leaders has always been a matter of interest, with each party move being seen as having the stamp of either Patel or Soni. What is often forgotten is that it is Sonia herself who gives her final consent to any decision and so, to portray it as the victory of one or the other is out of place.

Still, the reshuffle was regarded by some as Patel’s victory over his rivals in the party. They saw it as a master stroke by the Gujarat politician, who was chosen by Rajiv Gandhi to assist him, along with Oscar Fernandes, after he decided to enter active politics in the early Eighties. It is being said that by ensuring that Soni no longer stayed in the party, Patel has managed to gain unfettered access to Sonia. This is crucial in determining who is most powerful in the Congress.

Several senior party leaders feel there is an unmistakable Patel stamp in the reshuffle, as there was on the reconstituted AICC. If the inclusion of several persons in crucial positions in the party as well as the government has raised eyebrows, this is because they were placed there on his account. He had managed to convince Sonia and the prime minister that these individuals would help strengthen the party and the government and, therefore, even if their inclusion seemed politically insignificant, this would send the correct message.

Patel is known to be a political survivor and has managed to keep his influence alive at 10, Janpath despite having been close to the powers that be during the period between Rajiv’s assassination and Sonia’s entry into active politics. His appointments have often shown that he is more comfortable placing people who have joined the Congress from other organisations into important positions than picking old Congress leaders.

Obviously, his aim, like that of other leaders in the party, is to strengthen the Congress at all levels, notwithstanding the contrary view held by his opponents who find his proximity to certain allies and business houses as nothing short of mysterious.

Such criticisms are inevitable since the position he holds is of great importance and in his role as the chief political advisor, he occupies a position once held by the likes of P.N. Haksar, D.P. Dhar, Makhan Lal Fotedar and Jitender Prasada.

On the other hand, many in the Congress feel that Soni has emerged more powerful after the reshuffle, since she has been included in the cabinet after a successful tenure in the party. In fact, her inclusion and Patel’s exclusion demonstrates that she enjoys the confidence of both Sonia and the PM. And if she has been given the low profile portfolio of tourism and culture, it is because she may continue assisting Sonia in party affairs. Her role could be similar to that of Oscar Fernandes, who, despite being in government, was always a key player in the organisation. And while the spotlight has mostly been on Patel and Soni, he in reality may be closer to Sonia than the other two. But that is how politics works.

Soni’s importance is not because of any of her colleagues but because Sonia perhaps recognises that she is among the few whose loyalty to her is unquestionable and whose politics is based on what her leader wants. She may have made mistakes but then which Congress leader has not. But it is to her credit that she always provides an honest assessment, even if her advice does not necessarily get accepted.

Soni is also a former Youth Congress president and was invited to join the party by Indira Gandhi in the early Seventies. She has a fair idea of all the politicians who have served the Congress since her entry. Her critics believe she’d left the Congress at a crucial time but they seem to forget that because of her wrong calculations, she remained in political oblivion for nearly 15 years.

But since then she has tried to make up by displaying her loyalty to Sonia, which was in full evidence when, in the crucial working committee meeting where Sharad Pawar and others raised the matter of Sonia’s foreign origin, she was the first to speak out in her defence. Since she has dealt with several senior politicians among the Congress allies from close quarters, she is also familiar with their method of working. And unlike others, she has never promoted the interests of any group if it meant hurting Sonia’s interests. It is no wonder that for a brief period, she, too, shared the responsibility of being Sonia’s political secretary and, thereafter, held some of the most important AICC portfolios.

But then politics is a game where the stocks and shares of players keep shifting. It is a phenomenon in every party and organisation. And in the Congress, many leaders try to pit one leader against the other to improve their own prospects. Soni and Patel, like many others, are soldiers of the party and if their roles come under scrutiny, it is because of the positions they hold. In Congress politics, it is the party president alone who is most important and everyone else comes much later. Between us.

See online : The Hindustan Times

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