Two months after taking over as the Congress president, Rahul Gandhi on Friday disbanded the party’s working committee, setting the stage for putting his own team in place.

In the interim, the Congress Working Committee, the party’s highest decision-making body, has been converted into a steering committee. It will meet on Saturday to decide the date and venue for the next plenary session, where Rahul Gandhi’s election as the party chief will be formally ratified.

The steering committee will also oversee preparations for and draft the resolutions to be discussed and adopted at the session. It is expected the plenary session will be held in the third week of March in Delhi or Mohali, Punjab.

Since the plenary session will kick-start the process for reconstituting the 25-member working committee, it will witness hectic lobbying by leaders seeking its membership. Although the party’s rules provide for electing 10 of the committee’s members, the Congress chief is invariably authorised to nominate the entire team.

Consequently, the focus has now shifted to who will find a place in the working committee and who will be left out. Even before Rahul Gandhi took over as the president, his predecessor Sonia Gandhi’s loyalists, often referred to as the old guard, had been fearing their marginalisation in the new dispensation. Though Rahul Gandhi has periodically declared that his team will include experienced leaders as well as younger faces, there is no doubt that a few among the old guard will have to make way for younger leaders. As always, factors such as gender, caste and regional representation will play a role in determining the final choices.

It is a big challenge for Rahul Gandhi. His choices will not only reflect his assessment of people but also indicate how he plans to deploy the talent pool at his disposal. At the same time, he has to ensure that the exercise does not ruffle too many feathers, which is inevitable in such situations. He has been under attack from his own party members for surrounding himself with apolitical advisors who, they believe, are disconnected from the grassroots. Senior Congress leaders are hoping Rahul Gandhi will take heed of these complaints and put together a team that can deliver on the ground.

Most likely, Rahul Gandhi will retain AK Antony, Ahmed Patel, Ghulam Nabi Azad and Mallikarjun Kharge and move out Ambika Soni, Janardan Dwivedi, Mohan Prakash and CP Joshi. Azad and Kharge lead the party in the Rajya Sabha and the Lok Sabha, respectively. K Raju, chairman of the party’s scheduled caste department, is likely to retain his position as Rahul Gandhi’s ideologue. Mullapally Ramachandran, who headed the party’s central election authority that supervised Rahul Gandhi’s election last year, could replace PC Chacko in the new working committee.

In the balance

There is speculation about veteran leader Digvijaya Singh’s fate. Singh is no longer considered a member of Rahul Gandhi’s inner circle after being stripped of the charge of Goa and poll-bound Karnataka last year. But the big question is whether the new Congress chief will let Singh go, considering he could create trouble for the leadership.

Sushmita Deb, Jyotiraditya Scindia, Shashi Tharoor, Jitender Singh, Milind Deora and Deepender Hooda, who are known for their proximity to Rahul Gandhi, will likely be given a larger role in the party. Deb, who has acquitted herself as a parliamentarian, was recently appointed to lead the Mahila Congress while Deora had accompanied the Congress chief on his tour to the United States last year. Tharoor has been given the responsibility of the party’s newly set-up Professionals Group. In the Congress, these are all taken as signs of a leader’s standing in the hierarchy.

Prithviraj Chavan, Kumari Selja and Amarinder Singh are tipped to get a place at the high table as well. While both Chavan and Selja have earlier served as office-bearers, Amarinder Singh’s experience will come in handy in drawing up the party’s political strategies. Sachin Pilot, a Rahul Gandhi nominee, has secured his position as head of the Rajasthan Congress after the party’s resounding victory in the recent bye-polls but the Congress president’s protégé Ashok Tanwar, who is the Haryana Congress chief, could be given a new role as he has failed to rebuild the state unit and energise the cadre.

Although large-scale organisational changes were expected to happen even before his elevation, Rahul Gandhi adopted a calibrated approach after taking the reins of the party. Instead of making a splash with a slew of fresh appointments, he proceeded in a phased manner, giving several leaders such as KC Venugopal, Deepak Babaria, Asha Kumari, Avinash Pande and RPN Singh responsibilities in the organisation over the past few months. At the same time, Rahul Gandhi took care to accommodate senior leaders such as Sushil Kumar Shinde and Ashok Gehlot as party general secretaries to reassure the old guard that he had no plans to pension them off. He also inducted a battery of younger leaders as party secretaries, giving them an opportunity to learn on the job under the supervision of general secretaries. Many of them will be hoping for a promotion in the impending organisational reshuffle. Among those who are likely to be promoted include Manickam Tagore, Rajiv Satav, Ranjeeta Ranjan and Harish Choudhary as they are said to have impressed Rahul Gandhi.