Kapil Sibal perhaps always had a rebellious streak in him. While his exit from the Congress, two months after he openly asked the Gandhis to step aside from leadership roles and give some other leader a chance, was swift and the circumstances leading to it eventful, it was not the first time the lawyer-politician had gunned for the leadership.
In fact, he had hit out at the leadership as early as 2000, nine years after he joined the Congress. He had then hit out at the advisors of Congress president Sonia Gandhi for the party’s downslide and had called for introspection and free and frank discussions. Those were his initial years in the grand old party, but he has always spoken his mind.
During his over three-decade association with the Congress, starting 1991, Sibal has been as close to some of the regional satraps – such as Lalu Prasad, Mulayam Singh Yadav and later his son Akhilesh Yadav – as with the power centres in the Congress. In the Congress, he worked closely with the late Ahmed Patel, which ensured his proximity to Sonia. He, however, could never establish a good working relationship with Rahul Gandhi.
Having emerged as one of the most trenchant critics of the Gandhis in the last two years, his exit may not really ruffle them. In fact, some in the leadership are heaving a sigh of relief, at being spared of his frequent acerbic attacks. His exit will also cripple the G23. In fact, one G23 leader said it was time to write the obituary of the ginger group. Of the original G-23 leaders, Jitin Prasada and Yoganand Shastri quit the Congress earlier.
The opinion in the group, however, remains divided. Sibal was the core of the group, the central pillar which rallied many of the dissident leaders. The other senior leaders include Ghulam Nabi Azad, Anand Sharma, Bhupinder Singh Hooda, Shashi Tharoor and Manish Tewari.
Of them, Hooda has been placated by the leadership. With a close confidant of Hooda appointed president of the Haryana Congress even as he remains the CLP leader, the control of the party in the state, for all practical purposes, has been given to him.
Sharma and Azad are hopeful of Rajya Sabha berths. Although they remain unhappy, Tharoor and Tewari are both Lok Sabha MPs and cannot afford to quit the party as they will lose their seats if they do so. Interestingly, there is a talk in Punjab Congress circles that Tewari may switch to the Aam Aadmi Party closer to the Lok Sabha elections of 2024.
“If Azad and Sharma don’t get the Rajya Sabha seats, there will be some problems. In that case, they may also take a call about their future in the party in the months ahead. But I don’t know the fate of the group. I think it is over. It is time to write the political obituary of the group. The G23 is in disarray. Some of the members seem to be inclined to work within the Congress, some seem to be inclined to find their own solution,” a G23 leader said.
“Sibal had no option left. He had taken an extreme position by arguing that the Gandhis should step aside. Since then Azad, Sharma and Tharoor have been accommodated in one committee or the other. He probably thought that everyone is going to find their future inside or outside the Congress, that he should also chart out his own course. His timing was also influenced by the Rajya Sabha election,” another leader said.
Tharoor, in an interview to The Indian Express after the Chintan Shivir, had said that the shivir was the beginning of an important process and that he would prefer to wait and see how it unfolds over the next few months. The others have remained silent so far.
Another leader said Sibal’s exit was part of a well-planned strategy, and that he left the Congress with the consent of other G23 leaders. “Sibal’s departure is not surprising. In fact, it is a part of a well-thought-out and calibrated strategy in order to create a larger and a viable option for 2024. The genesis of that strategy lies in the dinner which Sibal had organised during the Budget Session of 2021. The broadest spectrum of Opposition leaders had assembled on his personal invitation and that represents the convening power of Sibal to be able to create his alternative,” a senior G23 leader on condition of anonymity said.
Talking to The Indian Express, Sibal said he has not joined the Samajwadi Party, which is supporting him for a Rajya Sabha ticket, as he wants to be an Independent and unite the Opposition against the BJP.
His association with the SP is not new. The party had supported his candidature to the Rajya Sabha in 2016 too. Sibal represented Akhilesh at the Election Commission during the tussle between him and Mulayam over the party symbol in 2017. Sibal was also Lalu’s lawyer in the fodder case.
Sibal made his electoral debut in the 1996 Lok Sabha elections from the South Delhi constituency against Sushma Swaraj. He lost but the party found value in him. In July of 1998, the Congress nominated him to the Rajya Sabha. It was then said that it was Lalu who prodded the Congress to send him to the Upper House.
A year later, he was appointed a national spokesman. His rise since then had been meteoric, with Sibal managing to gain the confidence of the leadership despite his outbursts. The party needed his oratorical skills and legal acumen. In 2004, the Congress fielded him from the Chandni Chowk Lok Sabha seat against Smriti Irani. He won and was inducted into the Manmohan Singh government as a Minister of State with Independent Charge. He was given the portfolio of Science & Technology; Ocean Development.
It was in the UPA government’s second term that he rose to greater heights. He was elevated as a Cabinet minister and given the heavyweight HRD Ministry. In November 2010, he was given additional charge of the Communications and Information Technology after A Raja quit in the wake of the 2G spectrum scandal. While he lost HRD in 2012, he was given additional charge of the Law Ministry in 2013.
He defended the UPA government in the spectrum scam and emerged as one of the key crisis managers in UPA II.