The internal differences in the Congress spilled out into the open on Saturday, with the dissenting group, or the ‘G-23’ , in a show of strength held a rally in Jammu ostensibly to felicitate Ghulam Nabi Azad on his retirement from Rajya Sabha but clearly challenging the party leadership.
The party leadership has reacted cautiously and not commented about the possibility of disciplinary action against the participants.
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The meeting was attended by senior Congress leaders including former Haryana Chief Minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda, Anand Sharma, Kapil Sibal, Manish Tewari, Raj Babbar and Vivek Tankha in addition to Mr. Azad.
This is the first collective, public appearance of the group that in August last year, had written to the interim president Sonia Gandhi urging her to ensure “full time” and “visible” leadership.
Congress leadership has remained mum about renominating Mr. Azad and the G-23 members find themselves sidelined within the party. Mr. Azad speaking at the rally said he may have retired from Rajya Sabha but he has not retired from politics.
One of the sharpest speeches came from senior Congress leader Anand Sharma, who said: “A party can give a designation and rank, but not every person occupying the designation, necessarily becomes a people’s leader.”
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Mr. Sharma said all the leaders at the meeting had come a long distance starting from their days in the Youth Congress.
“I have not given anyone the right to tell me if we are Congress members or not. We built this party and we will strengthen it. We believe in the unity of Congress,” he said.
Mr. Sibal, opening another flank said, “The truth is that the Congress party is getting weak. That is why we have gathered here. We had gathered together earlier too and we have to strengthen the party together.”
Mr. Sibal, in a metaphor, said to fly an aircraft one needs an experienced pilot, but for the aircraft to function well, it needs an engineer for its upkeep, adding that Mr. Azad can play both the roles with ease.
Stating that Mr. Azad was a leader who knows the ground reality of the Congress in every district of every State, Mr. Sibal said, “We were saddened when we realised that he is being freed from Parliament. We didn't want to let him go from Parliament... I can't understand why is Congress not utilising his experience.”
On the presence of senior Congress leaders in Jammu, Mr. Azad said, “All these friends did not speak any less than me in the Parliament over issues of J&K, its unemployment, stripping off of statehood, finishing off industries and education.”
In Delhi, the party reacted cautiously, with spokesperson Abhishek Manu Singhvi saying that all the participants of the Jammu rally were part of the “Congress family”.
“All of the persons who are in Jammu and have spoken, are senior, highly respected, and well regarded members of our party. We are proud of having them in the party and I believe they are equally proud to be members of the Congress. They are part of the Congress family,” he said.
However, he countered Mr Sibal’s comments about the party not “utilising” Mr. Azad’s experience. Without naming Mr. Sibal, he said that such comments betray a lack of knowledge about the contemporary history of the Congress.
“We are proud and he (Mr. Azad) is proud that he has held the Congress flag afloat for more than seven terms — two LS and four in RS for nearly 40 years in Parliament. We are proud and he is proud that party president Sonia Gandhi nominated him as Jammu and Kashmir CM. From Indira Gandhi’s time onwards, he has been a respected central minister for over 30 decades,” Mr. Singhvi said. He said, it would be amiss if he doesn’t recall Mr. Azad’s role in the party over the years.
As a parting shot, Mr. Singhvi said, “Gently and respectfully, the best contribution to the Congress would be, to get active in the various campaigns ongoing in the five States which are going for elections.”
He refused to comment about plans to take disciplinary action against the dissenting group.