Updated: June 10, 2021 1:30:15 am
JITIN PRASADA on Wednesday became the first among the Group of 23 Congress leaders who had written to Sonia Gandhi last year seeking radical changes in the organisation to leave the party. The Congress leader from Uttar Pradesh joined the BJP ahead of the crucial Assembly elections in the state early next year.
Prasada’s exit marks yet another setback to the party which has seen a steady erosion of leaders since 2014. He is the second young face considered close to Rahul Gandhi to leave, after Jyotiraditya Scindia’s shift to the BJP last year. Meanwhile, in Rajasthan, there are fresh murmurs of dissent from the camp of Sachin Pilot, a third leader of that brigade.
“If you do not address the issues, more people will leave,” was the first reaction of one of the letter writers to Prasada’s move Wednesday.
While Prasada may not be as substantive to Uttar Pradesh as Scindia is to Madhya Pradesh —Prasada’s last charge was as AICC in-charge of West Bengal, where the Congress drew a blank — it is another signal of the problems the Congress is facing. The party has been unable to reinvent polls, blow for Congress; Prasada heads to BJP itself despite repeated electoral setbacks, and has failed to energise its rank and file, or to set the larger Opposition narrative.
The Congress said Prasada’s defection to the BJP raised questions regarding his ideological commitment and principles. It also reminded him that his father Jitendra Prasada, despite contesting against Sonia Gandhi for party presidentship, had been accommodated as vice-president and was a valued leader till his demise.
Congress spokesperson Supriya Shrinate said Jitin Prasada had been given a Lok Sabha ticket at a young age and key portfolios in the UPA government by the party. “At a time when the country is going through a huge crisis… are you, Mr Prasada, comfortable being in the company of people who presided over deaths that could have been avoided? Who have consistently clamped down on democratic institutions and the freedom of speech and expression?… He (Prasada) has chosen to go to an ideology which he vehemently opposed,” Shrinate said.
However, in private, Congress leaders admitted that the message might be just the opposite. “Look at the timing. It is happening when the mood of the country is slowly turning against the BJP and the Prime Minister. Even at such a time, if Congressmen are seeing no hope in the party… what can we say? I can’t even say it is a wakeup call because how can you wake up the dead?” a senior leader said. “Mr Gandhi (Rahul) acting as the president without holding the post… Madam Gandhi holding the post but not acting as one… there are many issues,” a leader said.
Prasada, incidentally, had backpedalled on the issues raised in the G-23 letter after having signed it. It was then that the West Bengal responsibility came. “The perception was that he was back in the good books, that Rahul and Priyanka had won him over,” a senior leader said.
Not a pan-Uttar Pradesh leader, or even a significant leader in western UP from where he hails, Prasada lost the last two Lok Sabha elections that he contested as well as the 2017 UP Assembly elections. However, in terms of optics and perception, it is the Congress’s loss and the BJP’s gain.
His entry to the BJP comes at a time when there are reports that all is not well in its state unit. It helps shift the narrative to the dwindling Congress while sending a message to the politically significant Brahmin community, to which Prasada belongs, given that Thakurs are seen to dominate the power corridors under Yogi Adityanath (a Thakur himself).
Prasada has been trying to position himself as a Brahmin face in the state for some time, and had launched a Brahmin Chetna Parishad front.
Cong’s leaky cauldron
Jitin Prasada’s move further enforces the impression of Congress being a party in disarray. It also helps the BJP at a time when there are reports that all is not well in its UP unit, while sending a message to the politically significant Brahmin community, to which Prasada belongs.
On Wednesday, Prasada lavished praise on PM Narendra Modi and said he had decided to leave the Congress as he was unable to serve the people while in the party.
Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, who as the West Bengal Congress chief worked closely with Prasada during the elections, said, “Actually, he was very much reluctant to conduct day to day political activities… he was afraid of Covid.”
However, Chowdhury added that he had affable relations with Prasada and had no inkling that he was unhappy. He warned that while Prasada might be headed for the BJP “thinking it El Dorado”, “it is just a dry land”.
But Congress leaders fear there might be more on the way out. A G-23 member noted that Pilot had attended the dinner hosted by Shashi Tharoor that preceded the letter to Gandhi. A senior leader added, “Wait for Sachin’s next move… he is massively upset.”
Scindia, Prasada, Pilot and Milind Deora, all Rahul’s confidants, were once seen as the future of the party. On Wednesday, Deora tweeted, “I believe in @INCIndia as a party that can & must reclaim its position as India’s big tent party. We still have a strong bench that if empowered & optimally utilised, can deliver… I only wish that several of my friends, peers & valued colleagues hadn’t left us.”
After Pilot revolted last year against Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot, the party leadership had set up a three-member committee to address the issues raised by him. Those close to him point out that the panel has not met even once. Sources say his anger has been further fuelled by the recent Congress move to set up a panel over Punjab that held a marathon meeting for five days, even summoning Chief Minister Amarinder Singh to Delhi.
Asked about Pilot Wednesday, Shrinate said his “unhappiness” was all speculation and rumour-mongering. “I am sure that the leadership will take care of his aspirations like it has. He has been suitably rewarded… He was one of the youngest members to be elected, one of the youngest ministers, youngest deputy ministers… Pilot is young, energetic, committed… he perhaps needs to be patient.”
The long list of leaders to have left the Congress since 2014 includes those who served the party variously as state unit chiefs, chief ministers and Union ministers: Himanta Biswa Sarma (Assam); Vijay Bahuguna (Uttarakhand); the late Ajit Jogi (Chhattisgarh); S M Krishna (Karnataka); Narayan Rane (Maharashtra); Giridhar Gamang (Odisha); the late Beni Prasad Verma (UP); Shankersinh Vaghela (Gujarat); Ashok Tanwar (Haryana); Rita Bahuguna Joshi (UP); Pema Khandu (Arunachal Pradesh); N Biren Singh (Manipur); Chaudhary Birender Singh (Haryana); Manas Bhunia (West Bengal); and Vishwajit Rane (Goa).
Sarma, Khandu and Biren Singh are now BJP Chief Ministers. Others like Rita Joshi, Bhunia, Rane, Arya and Chaudhary are ministers.
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