It may well be the political bridge between Anna Hazare and the Congress, the party he brought to its knees over the Lokpal Bill recently. Vinayak Deshmukh, Hazare’s nephew, who was taking personal care of the septuagenarian social activist during his fast-unto-death at Jantar Mantar early this month, has now joined the Congress, claiming that the grand old party had never opposed Hazare’s movement.
Deshmukh, who left the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and joined the Congress on 23 April, tells Open that he did take the blessings of Hazare before arriving at this decision. “Before joining the Congress, I called up Anna for his permission. He was in Delhi at that time. Anna gave his blessings, and said ‘You are competent to take decisions for yourself’,” says Deshmukh.
Many see in this a typical Congress attempt to co-opt the movement of Anna Hazare. Deshmukh, however, asserts that there is nothing more to his decision than finding a “suitable culture” for his political work. “You tend to be in a party where you find a suitable culture to carry out your work. I am not commenting on the culture of the NCP or Congress. It is just that after spending almost two years in the NCP, I have realised that it is the Congress that offers me a culture more suitable for my work,” he says.
Nor does Deshmukh feel that his decision is antithetical to Hazare’s movement. To drive home his point, he refers to Congress President Sonia Gandhi’s attitude towards the entire agitation as well as its aftermath. “The Congress has never opposed Anna’s movement. This has been made clear on several occasions by Sonia Gandhi herself. When Anna was on his fast, she expressed concern for his health. Again, when Anna complained to her about the reported remarks of some Congress leaders, she made it clear that the Congress was with Anna.”
He, however, treads his new path carefully and refuses to comment on what has been dubbed by Hazare’s lieutenants as a smear campaign launched against them by Congress leader Digvijay Singh. “That is for Anna to reply [to],” he says, on being asked how justified the remarks of the Congress general secretary are.
He calls his entry to the Congress “merely a homecoming” that has “nothing to do” with Anna Hazare’s movement. “It is merely a kind of homecoming for me. Before joining the NCP in 2009, I had been associated with the Congress for long, earlier with the Youth Congress and later with the party itself. Between 2004 and 2009, I was Ahmednagar district general secretary of the party. In those years I organised five big rallies for the party, and in all of them Sonia Gandhi came and addressed people. It was only in 2009 that I left the Congress for the NCP because of some local reasons,” he says. “For the past three months, I had been in touch with Congress leaders. There is nothing political behind my move.”
An engineering graduate, Deshmukh got actively associated with the social activism of Anna Hazare in 1986. Even when he got politically active around the mid-1990s, he never entirely cut himself off from the developmental work of his uncle. “In the initial years, I used to assist Anna in his documentation work, like translating documents from English to Marathi and Marathi to English. I also assisted him in organising workshops for NGOs, and later forming a network of nearly 700 civil society organisations working for the weaker sections. Even after joining politics, I have continued to work for the backward sections of society.”
Although Deshmukh is aware of the crucial role he may be playing in the Congress’ silent effort to regain its lost face, he remains, like a true Congressman, completely opaque, hiding his ambitions to allow him manoeuvring space. On the position and responsibility that he expects in the party, he has only this to say: “At the moment, I am just a primary member of the Congress party. I will be fine with whatever responsibility the High Command gives me, and I have expressed similar views to the party leadership.”