After ramming through with the appointment of Navjot Singh Sidhu as the Punjab Congress chief despite strident resistance from chief minister Amarinder Singh, interim Congress president Sonia Gandhi has revamped her party’s Uttarakhand unit. Both Punjab and Uttarakhand are scheduled for assembly polls early next year along with three other states – Uttar Pradesh, Goa, and Manipur.
Former chief minister Harish Rawat, who as the party’s general secretary in-charge of Punjab had the unenviable task of dousing the factional fires between Amarinder Singh and Sidhu, has now been made chairman of the party’s poll campaign committee for Uttarakhand. Rawat’s main in-house rival, Pritam Singh, has been relieved of his charge as state Congress chief and been appointed leader of Opposition in the Uttarakhand assembly. Singh, who had been lobbying to either stay on in the post or have one of his loyalists succeed him, has been replaced by former MLA Ganesh Godiyal, a key aide of Rawat. Godiyal’s appointment also addresses the caste and regional equations in Uttarakhand – he is a Brahmin leader from the Garhwal region while Rawat is a Thakur from the Kumaon region. Rajya Sabha MP Pradeep Tamta, another Rawat-loyalist, will be vice chairman of the poll campaign committee.
Like in Punjab, Sonia has also appointed four new working presidents – Jeet Ram, Bhuvan Kapri, Tilak Raj Behad, and Ranjeet Rawat – in Uttarakhand as a balancing act to accommodate loyalists of the anti-Rawat camp and also those who belong to electorally important caste and regions of the state. Among other major appointments made during the revamp are those of former PCC president Kishore Upadhyaya (coordination committee chief), former minister Nav Prabhat (manifesto committee chief), Prakash Joshi (head of the election management committee), and Sumit Hridayesh (head, publicity committee).
The reshuffle comes after the Congress high command and party’s leaders from Uttarakhand had a series of meetings over the past month to resolve infighting in the state unit. Factional feuds in the party’s Uttarakhand unit had been a routine affair for over four years with Singh and a substantial section of other senior leaders adamant that Rawat be kept away from the hill state. The move for an extensive overhaul of the party was, however, expedited by the central leadership in wake of the recent demise of Congress veteran and Leader of Opposition in the Uttarakhand assembly, Indira Hridayesh – a staunch Rawat critic – and the fact that elections to the state assembly were less than eight months away.
The party’s in-charge of Uttarakhand affairs, Devendra Yadav, had been meeting Congress leaders from the state to put an end to the factional wars but with little success. Yadav’s meeting last month with the party’s 10 Uttarakhand MLAs to decide Hridayesh’s successor in the state assembly remained inconclusive with the legislators leaving the final decision to Sonia. Rahul was forced to step in to resolve the crisis while Sonia too had multiple discussions with Rawat and other colleagues on the issue.
Since it was carved out of Uttar Pradesh two decades ago, Uttarakhand has followed the tradition of voting out an incumbent government every five years. The Congress party has been hoping that this poll tradition coupled with problems within the BJP in the state, could help it in curing its continuing struggle with electoral atrophy. However, given the vicious internal squabbles in Uttarakhand Congress, the Gandhis felt their party was wasting a perfect opportunity for electoral revival at a time when the ruling BJP’s state organisation was in disarray and the government was facing heavy anti-incumbency owing to issues such as rising unemployment and public anger over the mismanagement of Covid and the Kumbh Mela in Haridwar. Earlier this month, BJP’s Pushkar Dhami was sworn in as Uttarakhand’s third CM in four years and the second in less than four months after the sudden resignations of Tirath Singh Rawat on July 2 and that of Trivendra Rawat in March.
That the Congress high command had too many problems to deal with simultaneously in Uttarakhand had been evident for some years now. The party had lost half a dozen of its seniormost leaders to the BJP ahead of the last assembly polls held in 2017. The Congress was reduced to just 11 MLAs in the 70-member assembly against the BJP’s 57. Subsequently, in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, Congress lost all five seats in the state to the BJP.
To make matters worse, Rawat, the Congress’s most prominent face in the state’s politics, was seen as someone extremely unpopular within the party despite enjoying huge public support across both Garhwal and Kumaon (his home turf) regions of Uttarakhand even after leading his party to defeat in 2017. The Congress high command had appointed Rawat AICC general secretary and brought him to Delhi in the hope that his intra-party rivals in the state like Pritam Singh and the late Indira Hridayesh will be able to build a better organisation.
Rawat carefully maintained his grassroots connect in Uttarakhand while insisting all the time that he isn’t keen on any post in state politics. His regular broadsides against Pritam Singh and other factional heads had kept the party in a constant tizzy. In verbose Facebook posts, Rawat would candidly lament being constantly sidelined and humiliated by his colleagues in Uttarakhand. For several months now, Rawat had been insisting that Congress declare a CM face in Uttarakhand ahead of the polls. His aides and rivals were unanimous in claiming that Rawat’s demand, always accompanied with the qualifier that he wasn’t interested in the role, was his way of staking a claim for the job.
In the meanwhile, the 73-year-old Thakur leader from Almora also worked as the party leadership’s pointsman in Punjab to keep Amarinder Singh and his detractors in the Congress, like Sidhu, from undermining each other – something that had become common scene when the party’s veteran Himachal legislator and Singh’s confidante Asha Kumari was in-charge of Punjab. It was only in recent months that tensions between Singh and Sidhu, always present but somewhat dormant for nearly two years, erupted and threatened to decimate the party even before it faced next year’s assembly polls.
Rawat’s handling of the Punjab crisis in the past two months was unsatisfactory. With Sidhu breathing fire against the Captain daily, Sonia was forced to set up a three-member panel to diffuse the tensions and when that too failed, she, Rahul, and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra had to all jump in to manage the situation. Rawat’s premature indication of Sidhu’s elevation as the Punjab Congress chief triggered Singh to shoot off an angry letter to Sonia and he had to take an emergency chopper flight to Chandigarh to speak to the Captain.
Of course, the so-called resolution rolled out by the Gandhis in Punjab by making Sidhu the PCC chief and denying Singh his pick of the four working presidents that were appointed to assist the former cricketer, has seemingly made matters worse for the party. However, Congress insiders say that Sidhu’s elevation and the Captain’s isolation had been decided by the Gandhis much before Rawat made his gaffes.
With his task in Punjab over, Rawat can now get back to his home state where he has the difficult task of making his party battle-ready before the assembly polls due in February-March 2021. Whether his stint in Punjab has taught Rawat any crucial lessons on the perils of infighting remains to be seen. By handing him charge of the party’s poll campaign and stacking the newly constituted jumbo panels of the Uttarakhand Congress with his loyalists, the Gandhis have reposed their trust in the former CM. Can he deliver the party a victory in its seemingly unending season of poll routs?