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Congress battling renewed infighting in state units

May 24, 2014 02:24 IST

Yet to come to terms with the poll drubbing, knives are out in the Congress state units against Prithviraj Chavan, Bhupinder Singh Hooda, Tarun Gogoi and Partap Singh Bajwa as there’s a gradual crescendo seeking their resignations. Anita Katyal reports.

Even as the Congress leadership is grappling with the growing voices of dissent over the party’s humiliating performance in the Lok Sabha election, its immediate concern is to contain the factionalism in its state units, particularly in Maharashtra and Haryana where assembly elections are due later this year.

The grand old party’s rout has predictably intensified the infighting in state units while a blame-game has begun with several leaders pointing fingers at Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi and his coterie of advisors for the poll debacle.

The knives are out against Haryana Chief Minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda, Maharashtra Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan, Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi and Punjab Congress president Partap Singh Bajwa. There is a growing demand in the party that these leaders ought to be held accountable for the poll results in their respective states and should be asked to step down.

Although the Congress numbers were expected to come down in Maharashtra, the scale of its defeat has shocked the party. The party won only two of the 48 Lok Sabha seats in Maharashtra while its alliance partner, the Nationalist Congress Party, bagged four.

Chavan has come in for renewed attack after the results both from the Congress and the NCP -- who have pointed out that the chief minister failed to inspire and enthuse the rank and file while his style of functioning -- had proved to be a major drawback.

Although his personal integrity has not been questioned, Chavan -- often described as the Manmohan Singh of Mumbai -- has been facing flak for several months now for not taking quick decisions.

NCP chief Sharad Pawar, who was never happy with the Congress decision to appoint Chavan as Maharashtra chief minister, targeted the state government’s policies for the erosion in the coalition’s support base. “The polls have showed that some sections have gone away from us. For example traders were annoyed with the local body tax. The other was issue of Maratha reservations. Efforts should be made to implement this without affecting quota for others,” he said at a party meeting on Friday.

Maharashtra Congress leaders have reason to worry as assembly polls are less than six months away and given the present condition of the party, it will not just be difficult but impossible to recover the lost ground in such a short time.

What has added to their worries is the disinclination of Congress president Sonia Gandhi to replace Prithviraj Chavan even though they see merit in the argument that a change in leadership at this late stage will not have any impact on the ground.

The example of Uttarakhand is cited in this context. The Congress had given in to the demands of the dissidents and replaced Vijay Bahuguna with Harish Rawat but the party was routed in the hill state in the recently-concluded Lok Sabha polls.

A belated attempt at course correction has been made with the Maharashtra government setting up a special committee to speed up stalled infrastructure projects. State leaders, however, believe it may be a proverbial case of too little, too late. The specter of a wash-out looms large as they fear that the national mood in favour of the BJP is likely to prevail in the state polls.

Since a change of leadership is ruled out, state leaders are instead demanding that All India Congress Committee general secretary incharge of Maharashtra Mohan Prakash should be replaced at the earliest. Looked upon as an outsider (he was with the Janata Dal), questions are being raised about Prakash’s understanding of the party’s style of functioning and his grasp of the affairs of the state.

“Mohan Prakash has made a mess of the party in Maharashtra,” is the common refrain of state leaders.

Even before the Congress can start taking corrective measures, it has come under pressure from the NCP which has upped the ante against the grand old party and set the ball rolling for tough seat-sharing talks ahead. Sharad Pawar said on Friday that the NCP should get more seats in the assembly elections in the Maharashtra assembly polls as the Lok Sabha election results showed that the Congress has weakened as compared to their party.

Although not on the same scale as Maharashtra, dissidence has also raised its head in poll-bound Haryana where its Bhupinder Singh Hooda was able to notch up only one victory (his son Deepender Hooda) while the BJP won seven seats.

While Hooda has been quick to attribute the saffron party’s remarkable performance to the Modi wave, his detractors in the Congress maintain that the chief minister was to blame as he had been pandering to the interests of the Jat community to which he belongs, which resulted in a lot resentment among the others.

Besides battling anti-incumbency, Hooda has also been accused of appropriating all development funds for his stronghold Rohtak while other constituencies have been deprived of resources.

Hooda has convinced the Congress president that the party will put up a better show in the assembly election as Modi will not be a factor in these polls. While the dissidents are not convinced with this argument, the party leadership believes that like in the case of Maharashtra, the chief minister’s removal on election-eve will not make any material difference.

Moreover, Hooda is the only prominent Jat leader in the party and the Congress can ill-afford to alienate this powerful community.

With dissident legislators in Assam threatening to send in their resignations to the governor if their demand for the removal of chief minister Tarun Gogoi is not met, Sonia Gandhi appointed AICC treasurer Moitlal Vora as observer on Friday to take stock of the ground situation and recommend remedial measures.

With his detractors snapping on his heels, Gogoi rushed to Delhi on Thursday to submit his resignation after taking full responsibility for the party’s poor performance in his home state. The Congress could win only three of the 14 Lok Sabha seats in Assam but it is the BJP’s success which has sent alarm bells ringing. The BJP won seven seats in Assam which has, so far, been considered a Congress stronghold.

Unlike Maharashtra and Haryana where elections are due in a few months, the Congress has time on its hands in Assam. Not known to take quick decisions at the best of times, the Congress president will wait to get Vora’s report before taking a decision on Gogoi’s resignation. Nevertheless, the party cannot afford to dither endlessly as it could face an exodus from its ranks.

The Congress unit in Punjab is also in a state of turmoil after the party’s humiliating defeat in the Lok Sabha elections. Punjab PCC president Partap Singh Bajwa is in the line of fire as legislators loyal to newly-elected Amritsar MP Amarinder Singh have held him responsible for the poor result and have demanded his removal.

Bajwa had replaced Amarinder Singh as Punjab Congress chief after he failed to deliver a victory for the party in the last assembly election.

Amarinder Singh had been lying low since his removal. However, his victory in Amritsar has brought him back to the political centrestage. Clearly buoyed by his win against BJP’s high-profile leader Arun Jaitley, Amarinder Singh has openly demanded Bajwa’s dismissal.

Matters have come to a head as Bajwa has issued disciplinary notices to legislators who demanded his resignation. In fact, this move has lead to further bickering with Amarinder Singh publicly condemning Bajwa, describing his decision as a “desperate” attempt to “silence” popular sentiment in the party.

Image: A combination photo showing Prithviraj Chavan, Bhupinder Singh Hooda, Tarun Gogoi and Partap Singh Bajwa

Anita Katyal in New Delhi