Enter Team Kharge — the 4 men who will be a ‘bridge’ between Congress & its new chief

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New Delhi: The office of the Congress president has always been a powerful one. Only over the past few years, much of that power was wielded away from the office of the Congress president.

That is why Mallikarjun Kharge taking charge as the head of the Congress party last month came with immediate and visible changes. The room earmarked for the Congress president at 24, Akbar Road, the headquarters of the Congress party for many years, now has a full time occupant. “Mallikarjun Kharge President” says the new board.

80-year-old Kharge comes in at a time when many feel that the Congress party is at a nadir. The Karnataka leader, who has held several posts in the party and government, would have his hands full sorting out pending prickly issues in the party.

Among them those in Rajasthan — the state which forced his last-minute entry as a Congress president aspirant — and Kerala, where his challenger Shashi Tharoor is facing non-cooperation in his own home state.

That is why when a brief press note from the Congress announced the appointment of four All India Congress Committee Coordinators — Nasir Hussain, Pranav Jha, Gurdeep Sappal and Gaurav Pandhi — attached to the office of the Congress president, it was clear that the process of putting together a new team for a new Congress president was under way.

As a senior Congress leader told ThePrint: “They are coordinators who will deal with his appointments, brief him, look at speech writing and also generally coordinate with the rest of the organisation. All matters and all states have designated people looking after them. Their job is to merely be the bridge between them and the CP.


Also read: Veteran leader Mallikarjun Kharge is Congress president, the 3rd Dalit in party’s 138 years


Who are these ‘coordinators’?

Nasir Hussain: A Rajya Sabha member since 2018, Hussain was the campaign manager for Kharge when he was touring the country ahead of the Congress President election.

The two go back a long way. Originally from Ballari, Hussain who has a PhD in international politics, first came in touch with Kharge when he was a minister in Karnataka and has since worked together with him including during the UPA government when Kharge was labour minister and Hussain was vice-chairman of the Child Labour Board.

For much of his 22 years in the Congress party though, Hussain, who spent long years in student and youth politics, was groomed by the late veteran Oscar Fernandes, who, too, belonged to Karnataka. It was Fernandes who had made him a part of the team tasked with rebuilding the Andaman and Nicobar islands after the Tsunami that hit in 2004.

Coordination, though, is something in which he has significant experience. When Kharge became Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha last year, Hussain became one of the Whips responsible for coordination with party MPs and also floor coordination with other political parties. He was also among the troubleshooters for the Congress party during the anti-reservation stir in AIIMS in 2006 coordinating between the UPA government and the agitating students.

Pranav Jha: An AICC secretary associated with the Communications Department, Jha is a known face accompanying speakers at the daily AICC briefings and on television defending the party.

A Filmmaker, advertising professional and columnist from Jharkhand, Jha took the dive into politics 16 years ago. Bhanwar Jitendra Singh, then in charge of Youth Congress, used Jha for preparing ground reports and political analysis and made him state election observer for the Jharkhand Assembly elections in 2019. Later, he entrusted him with training Youth Congress office bearers.

Jha has a long association with Kharge. Congress insiders talk about him as the man who would routinely brief Kharge as the LoP (leader of opposition) every morning during Parliament sessions.

Replacing Priya Dutt as secretary, AICC, in-charge communication, under whom he worked as National Media Coordinator, much of his ascent in the organisation happened when Randeep Surjewala was the man in-charge of the communications department.

Articulate and bilingual, Jha’s has been a largely low-profile presence in the organisation, patiently fielding calls from journalists, campaigning with Yashwant Sinha and Margaret Alva for the presidential and VP elections, respectively.

He was later attached to the Central Election Authority of the party. He has campaigned for the party in Jharkhand but party leaders say his electoral ambitions in his home state were never realised because of his equations with R.P.N Singh, once AICC in-charge for the state, and now a BJP leader.

Gurdeep Sappal: A former OSD to Hamid Ansari, when he was the Vice-President of India, a former CEO and Editor in Chief of Rajya Sabha TV, Gurdeep Sappal formally joined the Congress in 2020.

In fact, of the four AICC coordinators attached to the office of the Congress President, he is the newest entrant into the party.

Even when he was in RSTV, reports often emerged of him taking up assignments with senior Congress leaders, including the then Punjab Chief Minister Capt Amarinder Singh.

In fact, after he quit RSTV in 2017, he went on to launch Swaraj Express, a television channel whose Managing Editor was Amrita Rai, former RSTV anchor and wife of senior Congress leader Digvijaya Singh. Soon after officially joining the Congress, Sappal was appointed as a national spokesman, appearing for the party on television channels and debate platforms.

Sappal’s change of profession from a bureaucrat/journalist to a politician was preceded by a controversy, when in 2019 he was served a notice by the Rajya Sabha Secretariat over the production of the movie ‘Raag Desh’ for RSTV. Sappal had denied any culpability.

Sources close to Sappal say that the matter was referred to the Attorney General of India by the office of the Rajya Sabha chairman who in 2020 took the view that no offence had been committed and therefore there was no need to refer the matter for investigation.

“He has long experience in television, has been the editor in chief of RSTV. He will be looking at speech writing and such other things for the Congress president,” said a party source about his appointment as a All India Congress Committee Coordinator.

Gaurav Pandhi: Pandhi is a known social media mobiliser for the Congress. Though he formally joined the party only in 2013, his days as a Congress activist (initially informal) began when he and a group of others started posting pro-Congress posts on the social media around 2011-12 during the Lokpal agitation in Delhi and other parts of the country.

A banker-turned-communications professional, Pandhi joined the Congress after quitting his job in a private non-banking financial company and was part of the team that set up the Congress social media team in 2013. He took a break from the party in 2017 and rejoined in 2020 when he was made a National Coordinator for the social media department.

Prior to the assembly elections in Punjab in February this year, he was given charge of social media for the campaign, though the results were a disappointment. Earlier this year he joined the media department under Pawan Khera and was given charge of the social media for the Bharat Jodo Yatra. He has since been walking with the group though his job profile does not require him to. He has not worked with Kharge directly in the past.

(This copy has been updated.)

(Edited by V.S. Chandrasekar)


Also read: Congress without a Gandhi gives party a chance to recreate the ‘double engine’ model


 

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