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At an iftaar reception hosted by President Pranab Mukherjee, Congress president Sonia Gandhi was relaxed, smiling and willing to listen to suggestions and complaints from guests. That was the very day bushfires had broken out in two Congress-ruled states. But the party chief didn’t have the demeanour of someone who, after a catastrophic election result, was alarmed about new storms building on the horizon.
The next morning, she told Congress MPs they have to be more aggressive and articulate in Parliament. A party leader who believes the leadership is grappling with a real problem says, “Of the 44 MPs who are in the Lok Sabha, most are not experienced speakers or parliamentarians. The good speakers have all lost or didn’t contest at all.” The Congress contingent in the Rajya Sabha is more impressive, but at the iftaar reception, it was Sitaram Yechury of the CPI(M) who was complimented for his speech on the Gaza crisis during a Rajya Sabha debate. The Yechury admirer even told Sonia that the Communists had done a better job of raising the Gaza issue than the Congress. A smiling Sonia responded that she always likes to hear the criticism first!
“Hooda has focused only on one section. If a party is headed for disaster, the CM must go.”
There will be a lot of that in the coming months. Rebellions at various levels confront the Congress—to the extent that even the high command’s authority and wisdom are being challenged. First, sensing that time is running out, leaders with ambitions of chief ministership have shown their hand. In Assam, chief minister Tarun Gogoi faces an open challenge to his leadership from education minister Himanta Biswa Sarma. More pressing perhaps are the rebellions in two big Congress-ruled states—Maharashtra and Haryana—where assembly polls are to be held in October. Maharashtra chief minister Prithviraj Chavan suffered a setback after industries minister Narayan Rane put in his papers. Rane, a former Shiv Sena man, has always maintained the Congress had promised him the chief minister’s post but it never materialised.
In Maharashtra, the Congress tally had gone down from 17 in 2009 to just two in the recent Lok Sabha elections. In Haryana, the tally fell from seven to one. Chaudhary Birendra Singh, a senior Jat leader and CM-hopeful, has openly declared the “party will lose under Bhupinder Singh Hooda because he has only done development for one section of society”. BJP leader Rajnath Singh has been sounding out Birendra Singh for some time now, since the BJP too is in search of a Jat leader, but Congress managers believe he has been in the party too long to jump ship now. Sources say Birendra Singh was bitter because he had expected a ministerial post in UPA-II, but the orchestration of a minor internal scandal involving the circulation of CDs did him in. But, says the source, “He’s still a veteran and was at one time very close to Hooda, so let’s see.” He has met Sonia twice in the past month to argue his case, but party sources say there will be no change of leadership. Birendra Singh doesn’t buy that. “When a party is headed for disaster, you must change the chief minister,” Singh argues.
“Old-timers like me have been forced to leave the party. I have been backstabbed by Azad.”
Jammu and Kashmir is another state that will have elections by the end of this year. That is why it does matter that another veteran Congressman, Chaudhary Lal Singh, quit the party last week. He was a two-term MP from Udhampur, but this time, he was not given the party ticket. Instead, Ghulam Nabi Azad contested the seat and lost to the BJP. Azad is now Leader of the Opposition (LoP) in the Upper House. Lal Singh is furious and says, “The way these leaders who surround the high command act, there will only be more defeats for the Congress. Old-timers like me have been forced to leave because I was backstabbed by Ghulam Nabi Azad.” Is he planning to join the BJP? “I have no plans but will contest the assembly elections, either as an independent or from another party.”
The Congress is in power in 11 states, so there is still something left to lose. The rumble in the states is a natural consequence of defeat, panic, and competing ambitions for a shrinking space. But there is the next level of problems confronting the Congress: Rahul Gandhi and his coterie. After the complete rejection by the electorate, the old guard has been leveraging that to get rid of the Rahul gang, which includes Madhusudan Mistry, Mohan Prakash, Mohan Gopal and Kanishka Singh. So far, Sonia has not ceded any space on that front, and the decision to project Mallikarjun Kharge as the Lok Sabha LoP is seen as a sign of that. But Congressmen say there will have to be changes after the assembly polls and the expected defeats in the states take place. This is what they seem to want: Rahul will have to play a restricted role and cannot be projected as the face of the party; Priyanka is not a real option. The answer, say old-timers, lies in Sonia not retreating but taking charge yet again.