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Pranab puzzle in Congress 125-yr panel

New Delhi, Nov. 13: A high-powered panel Sonia Gandhi has formed to plan and organise year-long celebrations of the Congress’s completion of 125 years has surprised some in the party by its composition.

While Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s absence is noticeable in the Sonia-headed panel, for some the more puzzling feature has been the appointment of A.K. Antony as vice-chairman ahead of Pranab Mukherjee.

Rahul Gandhi is on the 19-member committee too, making it the first party panel apart from the highest policy-making body, the Congress Working Committee, to include both Sonia and her son.

Nobody denies that Pranab would have been the most qualified person in the party to guide the committee since the theme of the celebrations will centre on Congress history and its relevance. The Congress, formed in 1885, intends to remind the new generation about the party’s legacies in the contexts of the freedom struggle and nation-building.

Pranab has headed key party committees, including the panel for one of the most important events in the party: the Shimla brainstorming session. The only possible reason that a handful of senior leaders could cite for Pranab’s inclusion as an ordinary member is his pre-occupation with matters of governance.

Pranab, apart from looking after the finance ministry, has the job of handling a host of groups of ministers (GoMs) on a wide range of subjects. Even the Prime Minister’s absence was explained in terms of his busy schedule.

The other senior leader suited for the job would have been Arjun Singh, but he has been left out altogether. Some said Arjun was omitted because he was unwell while others said only All India Congress Committee office-bearers had been included.

The “office-bearer only” theory is mistaken, for many of the panel’s members are not AICC officials.

The committee includes most general secretaries, such as Rahul, Digvijay Singh, Mohsina Kidwai, Janardan Dwivedi, Mukul Wasnik, Ghulam Nabi Azad and B.K. Hariprasad, but leaves out Prithviraj Chavan and V. Narayansamy.

Antony is not even a general secretary. While Ahmed Patel has been picked because he is crucial to the decision-making process, information and broadcasting minister Ambika Soni is in to ensure good publicity for the nationwide programmes, which begin on December 28 and end on the same date next year.

Party leaders aren’t willing to comment on the unexpected inclusion of petroleum minister Murli Deora, not known for intellectual prowess, an attribute that brought Mani Shankar Aiyar and Jairam Ramesh in.

Sheila Dikshit is there too since most of the major programmes will take place in Delhi. The inclusion of Anand Sharma and Jayanti Natrajan has left many baffled — if communication is the job they have been picked for, Abhishek Singhvi’s absence is difficult to explain. Motilal Vora is in too.

The committee’s job is to invoke the party’s legacy and convince the new generation that, unlike other parties, the Congress is not merely a vote-catching machine.

“The whole year will be dedicated to… rekindling the glorious years of the past and connecting the legacy with our present leadership,” a senior AICC functionary said.

What he left unsaid was that the party would make a huge projection of Rahul’s leadership against the shining historical backdrop.

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