Congress refuses to learn from last year's Himachal drubbing
It has been six months that the Congress got a drubbing at the hands of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the hill state of Himachal Pradesh. Just when the things have started warming up for the Lok Sabha elections due next year, Congress leaders in the state seem to have taken no lesson from their humiliating defeat as they continue bickering instead of making efforts to put their act together.
This phenomenon was on a grand display when the newly appointed All-India Congress Committee (AICC) in-charge Rajni Patil came calling for her first visit to the state. Former chief minister Virbhadra Singh and his loyalists decided to stay away from the first meeting addressed by Patil on 11 June.
The writing was clear on the wall for Patil: Managing the state Congress is not going to be an easy task, particularly when there are just a few months left for the Lok Sabha polls and the stakes are very high. She called on former state party chief Vidya Stokes at her residence. This was followed by a meeting with Himachal Pradesh Congress Committee (HPCC) office bearers, inclusing current state chief Sukhvinder Singh Sukhu and former chief Kaul Singh Thakur.
Those absent included Virbhadra, Congress Legislature Party (CLP) leader Mukesh Agnihotri, AICC secretary Asha Kumari, Rajinder Rana and Vinay Kumar. Even Virbhadra’s son Vikramaditya did not attend the meeting: He was reportedly away in Sikkim along another first-time legislator Ashish Butail.
On Tuesday Patil was compelled to admit before the media that factionalism is rife in the Grand Old Party and the party leaders need to put their egos aside and come together for a good performance in the Lok Sabha polls.
She expressed hope that the differences between the leaders would be sorted out and they would come on a common platform to come up with a winning performance in 2019 polls.
Virbhadra reportedly continues to be miffed over Sukhu continuing as the state president of the party and wants the reins to be handed over to one of his loyalists. Observers feel that he is back to his blackmailing ways.
Sources within the party say that although a change of guard in the organisation is imminent but it remains to be seen when the party high command decides to appoint a new president for the state.
The high command is busy preparing for the electoral battles in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan besides trying to stitch an alliance for the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. But a party insider said: “The sooner Congress president appoints a new organisational leadership in the state, the better. The bickering is sending out a bad message to the electorate.”
Sources said there are many contenders for the party president's post. Prominent among them are Asha Kumari, Rohit Thakur and Ram Lal, all winners in the recent Assembly polls, along with heavyweight Kaul Singh who lost.
According to party members, Asha Kumari was the first choice for the Congress Legislative Party (CLP) leader but she had to pay the price for her fracas with a woman police constable on the day Rahul Gandhi was reviewing the poll results in Shimla.
She remains a top contender for the state president's post, given her stature in the party and her contribution towards the party winning the Assembly elections in Punjab, where she was the party in-charge.
Observers however feel that the party high command would be reluctant to appoint a Virbhadra loyalist to the post as it has already appointed Mukesh Agnihotri as CLP leader. He is seen to be close to the former CM and now the high command would want to do a balancing act.
There is a view that the party needs to appoint someone from the Mandi-Kullu region, a Congress bastion lost in the 2017 polls. The party scored a big zero in Mandi district which sends 10 MLAs in the house of 68 members. It had lost its most powerful leader in this district in Sukh Ram just ahead of the polls as he moved to the BJP camp.
With Jai Ram Thakur becoming the BJP chief minister, the power centre has moved to Mandi district as he represents the Seraj seat. Earlier the power centres were in Shimla, Kangra and Hamirpur districts. Many believe that the Congress should appoint a president from the new power centre.
Party insiders also point out that this is the right time to develop a second-rung leadership among the youth in the party. Many believe that the young leaders have to be brought to the forefront. This has happened in the BJP, albeit accidentally, with Jai Ram becoming the chief minister.
“Virbhadra did not allow a second rung leadership to develop. Since 2012 he was heard saying that this would be his last political battle but he is nursing his political ambitions even today. On one side he wants to lead the party in yet another battle and on the other Sukhu wants his tenure to extend as much as it can while banking on the support from the central leadership,” said Congress functionary.
Meanwhile, continuing with his pressure tactics to get Sukhu removed, Virbhadra is reportedly planning a show of strength in Kangra on June 16. He has called a meeting of the Congress leaders including present and former MLAs that will be attended by the CLP leader Agnihotri.
Kangra is the district that sends maximum number of 15 MLAs to the state assembly. The party could win just three seats of Palampur, Kangra and Fatehpur in the recent polls. Virbhadra intends to tour the district before the meeting. The move is seen as a major attempt to isolate Sukhu.
“The party high command needs to streamline the Congress functioning as soon as possible if it wants a good result in the Lok Sabha polls. Till now the party cadres and supporters were demoralised as the BJP was getting walk overs in most of the state polls but the recent wins in by-polls and Karnataka have rejuvenated the worker who now needs proper leadership,” said a Congress functionary.
Will the high command intervene to set the house in order or will it allow the 'Congress culture' prevail ? Only time will tell.