Congress sacks Digvijaya Singh for Goa fiasco but Gandhi clan still immune to accountability

Senior Congress leader Digvijaya Singh was on Saturday held “accountable” for the party’s failure to form a government in Goa even after winning more seats than the BJP in the recent assembly election.

Singh, a former Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister, was sacked as the All-India Congress Committee (AICC) general secretary in charge of Karnataka and Goa. Singh was punished for his Goa failure, though he continues to be in charge of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. While KC Venugopal, a Lok Sabha member from Kerala, will take Singh’s place in Karnataka, the Goa responsibility has gone to A Chellakumar, a former Tamil Nadu MLA.

All this should come as a no surprise to Singh. This is not the first time that the word ‘accountability’ is being bandied about in whispers in the Congress. Singh knows that. The action against him must have reminded him of the fate of a leader no less than Pranab Mukherjee, current President of India, who was sacked as the party’s general secretary for his alleged bungling in Haryana in 1999, which later led to the party’s defeat in that state.

File image of Congress leader Digvijaya Singh. PTI

File image of Congress leader Digvijaya Singh. PTI

The axing of Mukherjee was touted as one of the first “tough” actions taken by Sonia Gandhi after she took over as the Congress president in 1998. Her minions and admirers in the party had said that she would straighten up the Congress. Since then, the word “accountability” has been, on and off, hanging like a sword of Damocles over the necks of Congress general secretaries in charge of states, the party’s state unit presidents and Chief Ministers. The warning: perform or perish.

The 'accountability' sword has dropped a few more times since Mukherjee's sacking but often too late and sometime on the wrong necks. One such wrong neck belonged to Ghulam Nabi Azad. As the AICC general secretary and the High Command’s trouble-shooter, Azad ensured the party’s victories in Karnataka and Maharashtra in 1999, in Kerala and Puducherry in 2001 and in Uttaranchal and Jammu and Kashmir in 2002. But, after the party lost Uttar Pradesh in 2002, he was shown the door.

In the past, I watched Azad in close quarters as he managed and manipulated Congress affairs in Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Kerala. His integrity is not of the kind that would set the Dal lake on fire, and he has been accused of wrongdoing, but he knows better than most Congress leaders what oils the party machine right from the High Command to the grassroots workers. Though he failed to bring out a truce between warring Kerala leaders AK Antony and his sworn enemy K Karunakaran, his success rate in dousing faction flames elsewhere in the party has been high.

Yet, Azad was punished, partly because he boasted of his abilities too often and too loudly and partly because some Congress leaders, fearing he was growing too big, carried tales that were both real and fictional to the coteries that surrounded Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi.

Why Digvijaya Singh was axed

In the case of Digvijaya Singh, he asked for trouble, though it has been slow in coming. After the party’s disastrous performance in the last year’s assembly polls, Singh recommended a “Major Surgery.” (don’t miss the capital M and S)

And after the party’s poor show once again in March this year, Singh went on record to say: “Time for (mere) introspection is over, it is time for action...” He even said it was time to build a “new leadership”. In other words he wanted the Damocles sword of accountability to come crashing on a wide range of necks. Instead, it has now fallen on his own.

Though Singh made sense when he called for a surgery on the Congress, his own doings in Karnataka after he was put in charge of the party in the state in June 2013 left a lot to be desired. Having replaced Madhusudan Mistri, who had held the Karnataka responsibility since 2011, Singh made the mistake of siding with Chief Minister Siddaramaiah.

The enemies of the Chief Minister — and he has plenty within his own party — identified Singh with him. A central leader, whose main job was to bring together factions, could only invite trouble by siding with — or even appearing to side with — one of them.

Besides being ridden by scam after scam, Siddaramaiah executed an ill-planned reshuffle last year when he dropped as many as 14 ministers and inducted 13 others. Even if the choices were right, the exercise was carried out with what can only be called arrogance, and it brought bickerings in the party into the open.

The Congress has never defined the role of general secretaries in charge of states, leaving them to function according to their whims and fads. In theory, a general secretary in charge of a state is the bridge between the party’s state unit and the central president

Worse, the anti-Siddaramaiah elements were convinced that the reshuffle was the handiwork of Singh. They lost faith in his ability to function as a fair referee. It’s not surprising that some leaders like Janardhana Poojary and Jaffer Sharief were openly critical of Singh.

An uncaring God and corrupt poojaris

The Congress has never defined the role of general secretaries in charge of states, leaving them to function according to their whims and fads. In theory, a general secretary in charge of a state is the bridge between the party’s state unit and the central president ( = high command). In effect, it boils down to much more than connecting two dots. With the state unit invariably divided into factions and, in states where the party is in power, the Chief Minister promoting his own fiefs, the general secretary is subjected to multiple pulls and pressures.

But some general secretaries do no more than make flying visits to state capitals and summon senior leaders to their plush rooms in five-star hotels for undisclosed discussions.

Worse, a general secretary sometimes either sides with one faction or even creates and nurtures his own. Some central leaders have even been known to develop their own vested interests in the states they are in charge of, raking in the moolah with help of one or the other faction. Allegations of general secretaries, or the secretaries that the party appoints to assist them, pocketing money in return for election seats or other favours are not uncommon in Congress. In such cases, the general secretary merely becomes a corrupt poojari between an uncaring God (High Command) and the devotee (a state leader).

Merely shuffling office-bearers won’t do

Of course, the grand old party needs much more than reshuffling of general secretaries to stop India from turning Congress-mukt. As for Karnataka, the Congress has a tough job on its hands if it wants to win the 2018 assembly election. Though Siddaramaiah’s stocks in the party went up after recent victories in the Gundlupet and Nanjangud assembly by-elections, the public perception of the government being uncaring and corrupt is difficult to erase in the one year before the election.

Enough has been said about what Congress must do in the rest of India to save itself from extinction. We are, of course, presuming that the Congress is indeed serious about reinventing itself, about turning itself into a credible party with a credible leadership and a credible programme, about offering itself to people as a dependable alternative to the BJP under Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

If that’s what the Congress really wants, its Damocles sword of accountability should spare nobody, not even its vice-president Rahul Gandhi if he is the one who is thought to be responsible for the party’s electoral shame.


Updated Date: May 01, 2017 19:09 PM

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