Setting in motion the restructuring of the All India Congress Committee (AICC), the Congress Sunday replaced the general secretaries of the key election-bound states of Uttar Pradesh and Punjab. Party president Sonia Gandhi appointed veteran Ghulam Nabi Azad in charge of Uttar Pradesh and old warhorse Kamal Nath in charge of Haryana and Punjab. Uttar Pradesh and Punjab will go to polls next year.
Nath replaced Shakeel Ahmad, who had left for Canada earlier this month on a two-month leave. Madhusudan Mistry, who was in charge of Uttar Pradesh, will, however, continue to remain as the party’s Central Election Committee in-charge.
While Azad’s appointment was on the cards, Nath’s appointment came as a surprise given the allegations against him in connection with the anti-Sikh riots of 1984.
A Punjab Congress leader, on condition of anonymity, said: “I’m unable to recover from the shock. I wish the party high command had consulted or at least discussed the appointment with some senior leaders in Punjab.”
However, Punjab Congress chief Amarinder Singh defended Nath’s appointment.
“Kamal Nath had no role in the riots. I didn’t hear his name when I visited Delhi just after the riots. His name surfaced in 2010 when he was visiting the US and the same Sikhs for Justice representative Gurpatwant Singh Pannun filed a petition against him in a US court,” he said.
Hailing his appointment, Amarinder said: “It was time for a change. I needed an experienced leader in Punjab.”
Both AAP and the ruling Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) used the opportunity to attack the Congress.
Delhi Chief Minister and AAP convenor Arvind Kejriwal attacked the Congress, tweeting: “Capt Amarinder shud state his stand on Kamal Nath. Does Capt absolve Kamal Nath?” AAP Punjab convenor Sucha Singh Chottepur termed Nath’s appointment as an “act of the Congress to rub salt on the wounds of Sikhs.”
SAD spokesman Daljit Singh Cheema said: “Punjabis want to know why the Gandhi family continues to honour the perpetrators of the 1984 riots with plum party posts. What is the Gandhi family afraid of?”
Nath’s first challenge, however, would be to deal with the Congress’s loss in the Rajya Sabha elections in Haryana where the party-backed Independent candidate R K Anand lost. There are allegations of internal sabotage at the behest of former Haryana chief minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda.
In Uttar Pradesh, by appointing Azad, one of the senior most Muslim faces in the party, the Congress aims to reach out to the community in the run-up to the elections.
Azad, who has been in charge of the state in the past also, is a known face among party workers and has been campaigning in the state.
Sources in the party said that the change of guard came following suggestions made by poll strategist Prashant Kishor who wanted a known face — Muslim or Brahmin — to lead the party in the state.
The decision to appoint Azad was taken few days ago, but the party was waiting for the Rajya Sabha elections to get over.
Azad was AICC observer for Rajya Sabha polls in Uttar Pradesh where six party MLAs cross voted.
Regarding Mistry’s exit from Uttar Pradesh, sources said that Kishor was not very comfortable with Mistry’s working style and therefore had to go.
“The charge of Uttar Pradesh has been taken away from Madhusudan Mistry, but he still remains to be AICC general secretary. Apparently, he did not fit into the scheme of things planned by Prashant Kishor. This was communicated to the party high command, who also took Mistry into confidence before taking the decision,” said a senior party leader.
Congress sources said that more faces will change in the coming days as party vice-president Rahul Gandhi is said to be working on an elaborate reshuffle of the AICC.
For Azad and Nath, it is their return to organisational responsibilities after a long break. Both had been AICC general secretaries in the past. Azad was earlier twice general secretary in charge of UP. Nath was a general secretary some 15 years ago in charge of key states like Gujarat and West Bengal.