The appointment of two young Congress leaders – Sachin Pilot and Arun Yadav – as state chiefs may have marked the beginning of a generational shift in the 128-year-old party but it has also put the old guard on a razor’s edge.
The veterans are visibly nervous about their role and their worries have been compounded due to growing voices within the party for the youth to take the lead.
There is a growing realisation in the Congress that the youth played a big role in the party’s crushing defeat in the recent assembly elections.
At the day-long All India Congress Committee (AICC) session on Friday, Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi, at one point in his speech, looked around the hall and remarked it was full of young Congress workers and leaders. As the crowd erupted in cheers, Gandhi, after a brief pause, added that he could also see people who were not so young. The young leaders and workers see Gandhi as their figurehead.
At the session, finance minister P Chidambaram also put forth a “radical idea”that the Congress should nominate candidates below 35 years for half the seats in the Lok Sabha in the upcoming elections (272 of the 543).
Lok Sabha MP Priya Dutt went a step ahead and suggested that the party should limit the number of times a candidate contests an election to three to give chance to young aspirants.
These fresh suggestions have apparently ruffled many feathers in the Congress, with seniors promptly pointing to the performance of the party’s young MPs in Parliament in the present Lok Sabha.
“Go through parliament records and you will get the answer about their participation and performance. Seniors have to be around to teach the younger lot,” said a three-time MP who refused to be identified.
The unrest had set in soon after the anointment of Rahul Gandhi as vice-president in January last year. The nervousness among seniors had become so palpable that Gandhi in his first meeting with party functionaries after assuming the post assured the veterans that he would take them along.
But Gandhi has decided to bring about structural changes in the party. The first organisational reshuffle under him saw the appointment of many young leaders as secretaries who were given key assignments. Though they report to their respective general secretaries, these young office-bearers have direct access to Gandhi, which has become a cause for serious concern for the seniors.
And by appointing Pilot Rajasthan Congress president and Yadav as the party chief in Madhya Pradesh at a time when the Congress fortunes are on the downslide, Gandhi has made it clear he has immense trust in young leaders to revive the organisation.
The move is a reminder of the developments in the Congress in the mid-eighties when Rajiv Gandhi took over as party president and appointed Ahmed Patel (Gujarat), Ashok Gehlot (Rajasthan), Digvijaya Singh (Madhya Pradesh), Tariq Anwar (Bihar), Chaudhary Birender Singh (Haryana) and Oscar Fernandes (Karnataka) as state unit chiefs.
All of them were young – in their late 30s or early 40s – and emerged powerful in the party.
At the Burari plenary in December 2010, Digvijaya Singh had remarked it was time for Gandhi to form his own team. That time seems to have come now.