Do not be surprised if another veteran Congressman, Lal Thanhawla from Mizoram , also steps aside like Capt Amarinder Singh in Punjab. The Congress high command is already making moves to replace the 83-year-old Congress veteran, who also holds the distinction of being Congress chief of his state since 1973.
Lal Thanhawla holds the record for being the longest-serving Chief Minister of Mizoram, occupying the position for five terms — 1984 to 1986, 1989 to 1993, 1993 to 1998, 2008 to 2013, and 2013 to 2018. In 1986, he stepped aside facilitating the takeover by former rebel leader Laldenga of Mizo National Front (MNF) as part of the famous Mizoram Accord inked by the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. Well, there is no permanence in politics. Even Capt Amarinder Singh has been a friend of the Rajiv-Sonia parivar, but that did not prevent his ouster.
Politics is an unfinished journey. The traverse in time and space involves trial and error. This is what India’s grand old party, the Congress, has done in changing its Chief Minister in Punjab. This is a province in north India where the Congress remains immensely strong at the grassroots despite electoral reverses it suffered in different parts of the country. Of course, it has lost elections to the Akalis, but could also make comeback. In states like UP, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal it is not taking any strides towards its revival.
The Congress strategy rides on the hope that it will return to power in Punjab and also re-start its journey to reclaim past glory and take the fight into the ‘enemy’ camp. The ‘enemy camp’ is the saffron party and its two leaders Narendra Modi and Amit Shah. But will it succeed in achieving this milestone challenging India’s Prime Minister as undisputed mass leader? With some of these innocuous but vital questions, the party has also played the ‘Dalit card’ and banked on Charanjjit Singh Channi. However, there are skirmishes as party’s ‘Hindu MP’, courtesy Ambika Soni, has questioned the very motive arguing whether the ‘Dalit face’ should be only a stopgap arrangement.
This is not unusual when Jakhar has presumably missed the top post on the issue of Sikh-Hindu identity. For some time around 2018 Punjab was alone among Indian states where Congress had a Chief Minister. But now the 79-year-old veteran has been replaced. By that logic, Lal Thanhawla must quit as he is four-years older than Amarinder Singh. In 2023, when Mizoram Congress gets ready to take on MNF regime, Lal Thanhawla would be 85.
Had the year 2021 been circa 2018, they could have survived. That year, Rahul decided to bank on Ashok Gehlot and Kamal Nath and pushed the young generation into playing second fiddle. The Rajasthan fort still remains ‘guarded’ but the central Indian state has been lost. The Congress also lost Jyotiraditya Scindia, who is now comfortable ‘flying’ as India’s Civil Aviation Minister.
The big picture scenario from Punjab points to something significant. In making a Dalit the Chief Minister of India’s agri-rich food bowl province, the Congress leadership has given a bigger message to the vast Dalit community across the nation. An estimated 17 per cent of Indians are Dalits and these include Sikhs. There is sizeable Christian population, who also want social and community recognition as ‘Dalit Christians’. There is something known as the ‘soul of the Congress party’. That ‘soul’ is yearning for the uplift of Dalits and other deprived sections.
The Congress is working to a plan towards that and has been making nationwide attempts to win back Dalits which for multiple reasons deserted the party over the last two-or-three decades. Earlier this year, Rahul Gandhi personally took the initiative to make a Dalit — Mallikarjun Kharge — the new Leader of Opposition in the Rajya Sabha. Importantly, Kharge was given the post replacing former Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir, Ghulam Nabi Azad, who again has been a longtime family loyalist. In 1998 when Sonia Gandhi took over as party president staging a coup against ‘harmless’ Sitaram Kesri, Azad was her points person.
Dalits make up at least 20 per cent of the population in Uttar Pradesh. The challenge before the Congress is to stay relevant to fight Modi and the BJP in 2024. Besides fighting the BJP, the Congress has to get back its ‘national rhythm and appetite’ to fight Modi in 2024. Otherwise, regional leaders such as Mamata Banerjee, who won majorly against BJP in Bengal in May 2021, will come forward to take on Modi pushing Congress down the ladder. Once state elections are over in Uttar Pradesh and Karnataka, there could be more regional contestants.
The Congress faces a major challenge in the form of factionalism. However, ‘factionalism’ is in the ‘inherent’ culture of the party. In northeastern states too such as Nagaland and Meghalaya, factionalism is prevalent in a big way. It was sheer factionalism that led to Congress debacle in Assam polls early this year. In poll-bound Manipur, the Congress-like menace of factionalism is reflected even in the BJP. However, there are chances of Congress success there. The buzz in Imphal is that many BJP and NDA MLAs are in touch with the Congress. The formal anointment of Vincent Pala as new state unit chief in Meghalaya has been opposed by a powerful faction led by former Chief Minister Mukul Sangma. To counter these trends and forge ahead on its journey of revival, the Congress will have to bank on its old virtues.
(Nirendra Dev is a New Delhi-based journalist. He is author of books ‘The Talking Guns: North East India’ and ‘Modi to Moditva: An Uncensored Truth’)