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Hanging On Tenterhooks - S P Singh - The Sunday Indian
 
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Hanging On Tenterhooks

 

In the states where Congress Party is in power, the saga is a mixture of lingering problems and lessons learnt; reports S P Singh
S P SINGH | Issue Dated: August 5, 2016, New Delhi
Tags : Congress Mukt Bharat | BJP | V Narayansami | Nabam Tuki |
 

If BJP is to be believed, the rhetoric of “Congress Mukt Bharat” is no more a plain taunt now. By the time the Congress woke up from its decade long slumber and assumptions of always staying in power, BJP had uprooted the grand old party from many of the states it was previously ruling. In those states where Congress still is in power, it falls short of BJP on almost all fronts, and especially when compared on the fronts of commitment of cadres, robust social media plan, long term political strategy and able leadership. Anti-incumbency and factionalism have marred the prospect of Congress in these states. The absence of synergy between the leadership and cadres also means that many of the latter have quietly bid adieu to the Party.

Says ex-minister Ashlam Sher Khan, “Ad-hocism, non-focused approach, distrust between cadres and leadership, tension between central and regional leadership etc have dragged the party down. Assam is an example. If we don’t wake up and counter BJP effectively, we will lose other states where we are ruling.”

Khan is not alone in his lament. There seems to be a sort of a consensus amongst many Congress sympathisers that their current dismal state needs a radical solution. The Congress headquarter's inability to listen to them is a serious issue. Take for example Assam. Party workers wanted the election to be fought behind a new, young leader, and with a new strategy. But this suggestion was rejected, resulting in a straightforward defeat of the Congress in the recent state elections. The Congress leader V Narayansami, then in-charge of Arunachal Pradesh, failed to convey to Delhi that the then Chief Minister Nabam Tuki had lost the confidence of MLAs; and hence, the leadership didn’t remove him. MLAs wanted Pema Khandu as their new leader but the message was never conveyed by Narayansami, who continued providing erroneous feedback. This allowed the BJP to play its part, ensuring the governor got the state under President's rule. It was only after the Supreme Court's intervention that the Congress was reinstated as the party in power in the state.

82-year old Chief Minister of Himachal Pradesh, Virbhadra Singh, is finding himself all alone fighting a case of disproportionate assets, filed against him by CBI. Leaders like Anand Sharma and others have no time to stand with him or to support him. Virbhadra Singh has expressed his disappointment to the Party High Command, but in vain. Singh is a “Raja” so he might actually reap the benefit of this political hounding, but the cadres want next elections to be fought under another leader. If that is not assured, Himachal may well go the Assam way.

BJP has a youth face in the form of Anurag Thakur. Congress has no one to match him in his age bracket. Sonia Gandhi personally likes Vidya Stokes. But Singh is not sitting idle. He has rolled out a new electricity policy, reduced VAT on CNG by 50 percent, is actually focused on creating jobs, etc to keep the electorate happy. Nevertheless, he wants to use the victimisation card as well. The party is not unanimous on his candidature as of now. People like Anand Sharma do not give two hoots to who rules the state as long as his role in the Centre is not compromised. Therefore, the Party believes that if Singh is exonerated by the courts, then the election will be fought under his leadership, otherwise, someone else’s.

In Uttarakhand, Harish Rawat is under the firm belief that he has been saved by his deity, and that the same deity will make him win the next election as well. The onus of whatever happened in between, according to him, lies on someone who is rebel and former Uttarakhand CM Bahuguna’s eyes and ears at 24 Akbar Road. Whatever little energy was left between the organisation and the leadership has been ripped open. State President Kishore Upadhyay wanted to avail of the Rajya Sabha seat from the state but Rawat had promised the same seat to about 200 persons. In the end, he sent Pradeep Tamta to Delhi. Last year, the slot was given to Mahendra Singh Mahra. Tamta and Mahra are both from the Kumaon region, leading to the undercurrent rumour that the Chief Minister is partial towards that region. While Kumaon sends 28 representatives to Vidhan Sabha, Garhwal sends 32 in comparison. Rawat wants his kin, including his wife, his son who is also leading the Youth Congress in the state, as well as his daughter to fight from Kumaon. All of his close aides, Govind Singh Kunjwal, Ranjit Singh and Yashpal Arya, are from Kumaon. On the other hand, as many as nine of those who revolted are from the Garhwal region, a region which Rawat now considers pretty much a lost cause.

Rawat personally is a likeable leader. It is said that he prefers to run the state from that State Guest House rather than the Chief Minister's residence. He has a clean image. He mixes readily with common people. His efforts after the Kedarnath debacle were also commendable. Leave the recent Chinese incursion insinuation aside, Rawat's name props up almost every day in domestic newspapers, on some positive note or the other – whether it be demanding Rs. 500 crore aid from the Centre to fight the floods, or it be increasing the coverage under the Chief Minister's insurance scheme. His aides also have a clean image. However, this has not stopped detractors from levelling charges that he has his blessings on the mine, liquor and pine lobbies.

Says Harak Singh Rawat, the next powerful leader in the state after the Chief Minister, “Our difference originated because of the liquor lobby. Rawat wanted a change in the liquor policy. But the lobby was guiding his hands. Now that we are out of government, the Chief Minister is free to do whatever he wants to do.”

But MLA Madan Singh Bhist pooh-poohs Harak Singh Rawat’s claims, saying, “There is not a shred of truth in his allegation. I was in charge of the department and I never saw the Chief Minister ever softening up in front of the lobby.”

Another thing in favour of Rawat is that BJP has no one to match Rawat either in person or in substance. The previous Chief Ministers from the party have their own records of underperformance, all except Bhuwan Chandra Khanduri. The new BJP president has some traction, and Amit Shah also has taken the state leadership to task to reinvigorate efforts. But BJP is very cautious in the state after the recent rebuke from the Supreme Court, which reinstated Rawat as CM recently post a dramatic governor effected quasi political coup earlier in the year.

Karnataka is another state where the Congress Party has made several changes, both in government as well as in the organisation. BJP has brought Yedurappa back to its fold. Yedurappa belongs to the Lingayat community, and Congress has taken this issue seriously. State president G Parmeshwar says, “We recognise Yedurappa’s influence. But we are not sitting idle either. We have prepared our groundwork as well. The organisation is in synergy with the government. We don’t formulate plans for specific castes. We are rolling out developmental programs by rising above caste and religious lines. The organisation is keeping a tab on the functioning of the government and will step in to fulfil and gap.“

It is one of the rare states where the party is honestly doing away with its organisational problems. The weak points have been taken care of. The Party leaders are quick in removing a weak functionary. The CM is kept in the loop for all these changes. It is not for nothing that Oscar Fernandes is confident of Congress’ comeback as and when state elections take place.

There is noticeable change in the North-East as well. In Arunachal Pradesh, where the Party bungled up earlier, it quickly recovered and made amends. Pema Khandu was appointed as the Chief Minister. The party High Command went as far as to apologise for its earlier slights. The rebel MLAs in Arunachal never wanted to jump ship. They just wanted their voice to be heard. The miscommunication caused by Narayansami was corrected as soon as the apex court offered an opportunity.

Says journalist and analyst from Assam Tribune, Kalyan Barua, “The demography in the North East is different. Christian and tribal belief still consider BJP and its Hindutva as taboo. While I cannot predict the future, but I can say with some confidence that this was one of the reasons behind BJP’s defeat in the Arunachal fiasco.” 

Congress has started taking Manipur seriously too. The elections are due next year and Congress wants to retain the state. Although there’s factionalism in the state as well, but the reigning Chief Minister Okram Ibobi Singh is out of danger. Senior MP Bhuwneshwar Kalita says, “There is no threat to Congress here. Singh has been an unopposed leader for over a decade now. And he will continue to be so as he is an able leader and administrator.”

While Singh is safe as of now, BJP will try and wean away iron lady of Manipur Irom Sharmila Devi. Irom Sharmila Devi was on hunger strike for over 16 years demanding the lifting of AFSPA, which she broke in July 2016.  She has also made up her mind to contest the upcoming elections. It is not clear which party will she go with, but both BJP and Congress leaders have been meeting with her of late.

Pushpesh pant, noted political scientist, says, “BJP is trying its best to break Congress’ influence in the North East. However, the demography and lifestyle of the region is not in sync with BJP’s agenda. BJP considered it a grey area earlier. But the defeat it faced in the Arunachal fiasco will be an eye-opener. The roots of Congress are strong in the North East. It will be difficult for BJP to uproot the party.”

All in all, while the Congress seems to have just hung on by the skin of its teeth in multiple states, with some good luck and visible gumption, and some more committed involvement of senior leaders, the Congress might just be able to pull itself through till the next set of elections.                                                

With inputs from P K Singh, Shobhna
and P Dabral

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017