Manish Tewari interview: ‘Party could be looking at Congress-mukt Bharat’

Congress MP Manish Tewari is a part of the G-23 group of dissidents pushing for an organisational revamp of the party and greater accountability. He was one of the 18 signatories to a letter, released on Wednesday, that called for a “model of collective and inclusive leadership and decision-making at all levels”. He spoke to Manoj CG about his party’s “existential crisis” and why it “cannot be business as usual”.

Some of the G-23 leaders met on Wednesday and suggested that the Congress adopt a model of collective and inclusive leadership. Are decisions now being taken unilaterally?

Eighteen senior leaders of the party met at Ghulam Nabi Azad’s residence, including five former chief ministers, seven former Union ministers, and other sitting and former MPs. Many other colleagues from around the country could not come because of Holi. There was a deep sense of concern at the continuing electoral reverses, especially after we wrote a letter flagging certain critical reforms that were essential for rejuvenating the party. The Congress has lost 11 states since then. There obviously is a problem — a disconnect between the ground reality and decision-making. Interestingly, while we were deliberating the news came that five colleagues had been appointed to assess the post-poll situation in the states we lost. There was a collective sense of disbelief at the names. As an eminent lawyer in the group remarked, there is an elementary principle of natural justice — you can never be a judge in your own cause. Most of these eminences were chairpersons of the ticket distribution screening committees of states where we suffered a drubbing. In fact, Punjab MPs, when they met Mrs (Sonia) Gandhi on March 16, they flagged the issue of very serious malfeasance in ticket distribution as one of the major reasons for the debacle in Punjab. That is a manifestation of the problem.

What is your take on the Congress’s repeated electoral defeats?

It cannot be overemphasised that the Congress faces an existential crisis. It perhaps could be looking at the spectre of a Congress-mukt Bharat. We lost in 2014 and 2019…Since 2014, out of 49 Assembly elections, we have lost 39 polls. We have only won four elections…So, therefore we are really looking at an extremely grim situation. And under those circumstances, the situation does not call for introspection alone. It calls for a very deep and immediate surgery to arrest this portentous drift into oblivion.

What do you mean by surgery?

Every political party or every political movement is ultimately an idea. And the idea of the Congress, which is as old as 1885, seems to be dissipating. Any political organisation consists of five essential elements — idea, leadership, narrative, organisation and access to resources. On each of these aspects, not only at the national level but even at the state and district levels, the Congress is seriously wanting. The leadership that has led us from 1998 till 2017 in the form of Mrs Sonia Gandhi is perhaps still the most acceptable leadership to a substantial bulk of Congress people. But then Mrs Gandhi should get back into her old mode and start enforcing the principle of accountability across the board that unfortunately has been lacking since 2017.

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If Mrs Gandhi is the most acceptable leader to the vast majority of Congressmen, is Rahul Gandhi not acceptable?

It is not a question of binaries. We have had these series of defeats post-2019. We did relatively well in Haryana, got into a coalition government in Maharashtra and Jharkhand. In fact, immediately after the 2019 elections, there was a ray of hope in three Assembly elections that were held. But subsequently, we lost all the elections. So, eventually, somebody is responsible for these defeats.

Unfortunately, post-2014, you do not see the enforcement of the principle of accountability. Earlier, following defeats, the general secretary in charge of a particular state, the PCC president, the CLP leader used to be taken to task, they used to be immediately replaced, and those responsible for bringing the party to such a pass, their responsibility was fixed. That is why we seem to be in a terminal drift.

The defeat in Punjab was perhaps more alarming because a new party has emerged.

Punjab is a classical case of chopping your neck and cutting your legs at the same time. In May 2021, there was nobody who was not saying that the Congress is coming back. Between May 2021 and February 2022, we committed such harakiri that we have completely destroyed the party. It all started with the spectre of appointment of the Mallikarjun Kharge Committee…The person who is responsible for killing the Congress in Punjab is Harish Rawat. He completely and absolutely misguided the leadership with regard to what the ground situation in Punjab was. Somebody dangled a lollipop in front of him that if he would get Navjot Sidhu accommodated he would become the Congress face in Uttarakhand. As a consequence of that completely blinded ambition, he embarked upon such a destructive path…and what was left of it was finished off by Harish Chaudhary. These two gentlemen need to be made accountable. The decision to change Captain Amarinder Singh was absolutely a wrong decision. I heard that in the Working Committee some people said 68 MLAs wanted him out and his popularity was only 2 per cent. Well, somebody should have seriously investigated that those 68 MLAs had so much anti-incumbency against them that in order to try and protect their own skin they shifted the responsibility to Captain Singh and it was lapped up as if that was the gospel. And whosoever was telling the leadership that Singh had 2 per cent popularity…he was absolutely telling lies. And Navjot Singh Sidhu, he was the quintessential loose cannon on the deck of the Punjab Congress. Those who were responsible for his appointment should also be held accountable.

But didn’t the leadership appoint him?

Ultimately, if he was the choice of the leadership, then the leadership should hold itself accountable for those decisions.

But Amarinder Singh could not do any wonders either. He himself lost.

When you are a part of an established political system, your ability to be able to deliver is very different from when you are outside the system and you then decide to go on your own. In three months, nobody can perform miracles. But the short point that I am trying to make is that first of all where was the entire organisational setup for four long years allowed? Shouldn’t the PCC president of that time, Sunil Jakhar, be held responsible? In the middle of the election, Mr Jakhar says that I was not appointed as chief minister because I was a Hindu…it was absolutely outrageous that just because your political aspirations were unfulfilled you decided to hit at the syncretic root of what is the fundamental social compact of Punjab.

It is said that Sidhu is close to Priyanka Gandhi Vadra. She played a role in his appointment.

Those people who were actually responsible for suggesting such names to the leadership should also be made accountable. After all, his conduct the moment he became PCC president was so obnoxious that the PCC president became the biggest enemy of the Congress party in Punjab. Between him and Mr Jakhar, they effectively destroyed the Congress party in a span of four months.

But the defeat was not just in Punjab. What about the bigger picture?

That is why I said there is a need for a very deep surgery. Identify all the causes and personnel who brought the situation to such a pass and take immediate action against them so that it sends out a message to the rank and file, to the leadership that those people who are responsible for these losses will be made accountable. The choices of people that the leadership makes — there are these couple of people only who are trusted and everybody else is distrusted. When my colleagues and I collectively wrote that letter to the Congress president, we were made out to be enemies of the state, treated as pariahs primarily because of sycophants around the leadership who are insecure that their positions will be threatened. They conspired to create such an atmosphere that anybody who makes a constructive suggestion is made out to be an enemy.

What is your view on the debate that the Gandhis should step aside and give somebody else a chance?

It is my view that the situation is so alarming that it cannot be business as usual. It is imperative that an AICC meeting should be called and if nothing else, a new elected working committee needs to be put into place. A parliamentary board needs to be put into place. There has to be a more collective and collegial style of functioning that we have been demanding all along. And, as I said, nobody has difficulty with Mrs Sonia Gandhi’s leadership. I have said this publicly and I have no hesitation in repeating it — I respect Mrs Sonia Gandhi as much as I respect my late mother.

What about the organisational elections that are underway?

You cannot have a situation where you select an electoral college and the electoral college, in turn, elects a leader. I think if we go down that path, it will be completely suicidal. So, elections at every level have to take place in a completely transparent manner.


Mr Modi often attacks the Congress over dynasty politics. So is dynasty baggage or is it beneficial?

Mr Modi is on a high and has been winning consistently since 2002. So, he feels that it gives him the licence to say what he wants. But ultimately, in my estimation, it is not Mr Modi or the BJP that has weakened the Congress. It is we who have weakened ourselves by not getting our act together. So, if the Congress is honest with itself, if it recognises the fact that ‘yes, we are in an existential crisis where the spectre of Congress-mukt Bharat may end up becoming a reality’, where sycophants and people who do Ganesh parikrama all the time are not the ones who should be in leadership positions…Those who have failed to deliver need to be made accountable and they need to be axed ASAP…you will find that the party will start resurrecting. But if we want to make it business as usual, then I am afraid we are heading towards extinction.

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