Days after Kapil Sibal’s comments about the decline of the Congress sparked another bout of infighting and division between senior leaders, party chief Sonia Gandhi has included members of the dissenting camp in each of three committees set up to keep her informed on matters relating to national security, foreign affairs and the economy.
Announced Friday afternoon, just before Ms Gandhi leaves for Goa to escape the Delhi pollution, the appointments are being viewed as a move to quieten critics (both within and outside the party) and ward off any further public embarrassment – such as that caused by Mr Sibal’s interview to the Indian Express or the letter signed by 23 leaders challenging the Gandhi family’s control.
The committee on economic affairs includes former Finance Minister P Chidambaram. The second committee (on foreign affairs) has both Anand Sharma and Shashi Tharoor, and Ghulam Nabi Azad and Veerappa Moily have been named to the third.
Mr Chidambaram, a Rajya Sabha MP from Maharashtra, was not initially placed in the dissenting camp, but appears to have been moved there after his support of Mr Sibal. The former Union Minister yesterday criticised the party’s on-ground organisational presence in the light of its performance in the Bihar election and bypolls in Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh.
Former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is a member of all three committees.
The very public breaking-of-ranks over a perceived lack of leadership and dismal electoral results extended Tuesday to questions over economic policies.
Anand Sharma, a former Union Minister for Commerce, criticised the decision to stay away from the RCEP (regional comprehensive economic partnership) – a free trade deal promoted by China.
The Congress had been the first to red-flag India’s potential membership. The Narendra Modi government subsequently skipped the deal citing concerns over its impact on small manufacturers.
Mr Sharma appeared to make a political point – of moving away from the party’s official position.
Disagreement over the RCEP was after Mr Sibal’s brutally honest interview, in which he cited the Bihar results to call for “experienced minds… hands and those who understand political realities”.
Both Anand Sharma and Kapil Sibal were among the 23 Congress leaders behind August’s “dissent letter”, which caused an all-out clash within the party but yielded little by way of actual changes, besides the downgrading of key letter writers.
The letter called for sweeping reforms, introspection and “full-time, visible leadership” of a party that has had Ms Gandhi as “interim” chief since Rahul Gandhi resigned following the Congress’ woeful return in last year’s Lok Sabha polls.
A heated meeting of the Congress Working Committee – the party’s highest decision-making body – followed, in which Ms Gandhi offered to resign before being persuaded to remain as interim chief, with an AICC meeting to be called in six months.
A committee was set up to examine the dissenting leaders’ grievances, but Mr Sibal, in his comments on Monday, suggested little progress had been made on resolving issues.
“Since there has been no dialogue and there seems to be no effort for a dialogue by the leadership and since there is no forum to express my views, I am constrained to express them publicly,” Mr Sibal told the Indian Express on Monday.