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INSIDE THE PATCH-UP

Showing a ‘united front’, the two are gearing up to take on AAP in Delhi

2018 has not been a good start for AAP — considering that it is again circled by controversy — but things are looking up for another party, the Congress.

While the national capital’s AAP government grappled with Delhi chief secretary Anshu Prakash, the Delhi Pradesh Congress Committee (DPCC) on Sunday protested against the policies of chief minister and AAP leader Arvind Kejriwal, and the BJP-led central government. More than 200 block-level committees of the DPCC were part of the stir.

Ostensibly targeting inflation, rising fuel rates and governance misadventures in Delhi, one could sense that the Congress — decimated after the debacle of the 2015 Assembly polls ­– was actually trying to realign its rank and file in the capital.

The question that comes to mind is, what or who is behind the sudden surge of energy in the DPCC cadre?

It seems that with the disqualification of 20 AAP MLAs in “the office of profit” case, the Congress has smelt an opportunity to make a return to Delhi’s political scene.

The Delhi High Court has put an embargo on bypolls in Delhi, but if and when the decision goes against the MLAs, elections for the seats are bound to take place.

The Grand Old Party is in tatters, thanks to the many electoral defeats which started with the dethroning of Sheila Dikshit from Delhi in 2013. When Ajay Maken took over leadership of the DPCC, things took a turn for the worse.

With apparent factionalism between the Dikshit and Maken lobby, the Congress drew a blank in the 2015 state polls. The 2017 Delhi civic body results too were not something the party could take hope from.

However, the recent galvanisation of cadre in Delhi has been triggered by the coming together of Maken and Dikshit.

On February 14, Valentine’s Day, the duo surprised journalists and supporters by holding a joint press conference. Senior leaders from the Dikshit lobby were by their side, and the new generation of leaders from Maken’s side shared the stage. The message was clear – the DPCC was working towards stitching the differences.

“Obviously, the rift between the two leaders had left the cadre confused – whom to approach and what could be the ramifications of it,” said a DPCC leader on the condition of anonymity. “If you approached Sheila Dikshitji, there were fears Makenji might take offence. If you approached Makenjithe workers thought (senior leader) Haroon Yusufji might get irked.”

The leader added that with the coming together of the duo, there is clarity in the line of leadership and the party’s agenda.

The feud between the two lobbies was so ugly that ever since Maken took over the reins of the party, he and Dikshit avoided sharing any stage.

So what brought them together?

Well, leaders such as Delhi Pradesh Mahila Congress president Sharmistha Mukherjee — who is close to both the leaders — maintain that peace is the result of months-long deliberations. Others indicate that efforts were made by AICC president Rahul Gandhi.

“Like in any other state, the Congress president and national leadership are making efforts to bring all leaders on one platform,” said former Delhi minister and senior Congress leader Kiran Walia.

However, a highly placed source in the party said: “Makenji used to say she (Dikshit) will not agree to a meeting.” Leaders such as PC Chacko too had tried to broker peace between the duo, with no success.

The source added that in February, Dikshit suddenly agreed to a meeting.

Maken visited the former Delhi chief minister’s residence and soon tweeted: “Met Mrs Sheila Dikshit and requested her for a more active role in Delhi Congress. Delhi now remembers her for a sane and development-oriented governance.”

Surprisingly, during the joint presser on February 14, Maken accepted his mistake when questioned by journalists about the delay in efforts to reconcile differences between the two leaders. He said: “As DPCC president, I admit it was my fault.”

He added that had the duo been together like this in the past, they “would have won the MCD (civic body) elections. I didn’t make this attempt before, and that, I admit, was my mistake.”

Later in the month, Dikshit also attended the state executive meeting held by Maken. When asked whether the party leaders also tried to discuss and set aside grievances, Maken smiled and declined to respond to this correspondent’s question.

Importantly, there were talks that Dikshit wanted her old band of leaders — who were sidelined by Maken — rehabilitated in the DPCC. The leaders maintain in public that no such conditions were put forward.

A senior party leader, declining to be named, said while indicating towards the rehabilitation plan: “There is no denial of it. There were grievances on each side and conditions on which the leaders have mutually agreed.”

The return of Congress veteran Arvinder Singh Lovely has also boosted the party’s morale, though sources said it had nothing to do with the new arrangements.

Speaking to Newslaundry, Lovely said: “I was a misfit in the BJP and as I have said, it was an emotionally difficult moment for me to join the BJP.”

He added that “ideological differences with the BJP” made him feel alienated. Lovely had joined the party right before the Delhi civic polls in May. BJP chief Amit Shah himself had handed over the membership slip to Lovely.

His return in the Congress too was well managed. Rahul Gandhi himself welcomed back Lovely into “the Congress family.” In politics, optics are important. For Lovely’s detractors within the DPCC, it meant a strong political message.

With the house in order, the Congress plans to up the ante against the AAP in the capital. What works in its favour is that AAP itself has ensured it remains at the helm of controversies.

“We are confident of electoral return due to our own strategy and also because the other party is committing blunders. AAP is on the path of damaging its own prospects,” Mukherjee said“Our efforts and their blunders have given hope to our cadre and leadership.”

But can Maken-Dikshit bring back the good old days for the Congress?

The only sigh of relief for the party has been the two by-polls which took place in 2017. While in Rajouri Garden the Congress stood second, in Bawana the party garnered double vote-share compared to 2015.

The Congress can only be hopeful of improving its tally from here. Considering, the controversies and infighting within the AAP, its constant tiff with the BJP-led central government and the LG’s office, its image keeps taking a beating. The AAP is not seen as undefeatable anymore.

Leaders including Maken believe that Dikshit’s active participation in politics will reap benefits for the party. “Nobody can deny that Delhi witnessed transformation under the leadership of Sheila Dikshit. She is the face of development in Delhi,” Mukherjee said.

First in 2013 and finally in 2015, the AAP had eroded the Congress’s vote-bank in the slums, among the lower middle classes and even eaten into the minority community votes. If the Congress can win back the confidence of these groups, it may leave a mark in the by-polls – if and when they are announced.

This article was first published in Newslaundry.