Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi’s plan to revive the state units after the string of electoral debacles over the past 17 months has hit several hurdles because of internecine feuds. From Punjab in the north to Tamil Nadu in the south and from Assam in the east to Rajasthan in the west, the Congress remains a divided house.
In the next round of assembly elections in March-April next year, the Congress has big stakes in Assam and Kerala, where it’s the ruling party. But the feedback from these two states is not very encouraging. In Assam, the exit of senior leader Himanta Biswa Sarma, whom chief minister Tarun Gogoi once described as “one of the assets”, has hurt the party’s prospects, according to sources. Sarma, who quit the Congress over differences with Gogoi, has joined the BJP which has made significant inroads in the state post the 2014 Lok Sabha polls.
In Kerala, state Congress chief VM Sudheeran is not having it easy with chief minister Oommen Chandy and home minister Ramesh Chennithala. Sudheeran is perceived to be a CM aspirant. “The only hope we have in the elections is the fact that the BJP is likely to eat into opposition votes,” said a senior Congress leader.
In neighbouring Tamil Nadu, which will also go to polls along with these two states, the Congress has already split, with former union minister GK Vasan reviving the Tamil Maanila Congress once led by his father, the late GK Moopanar. Incumbent Congress chief EVKS Elangovan has been unable to carry everyone along, said sources.
The Congress party’s biggest hope is in Punjab, which will go to polls in 2017. The Shiromani Akali Dal-BJP government will be facing 10 years of anti-incumbency, but the Congress’ prospects could be spoiled by infighting. In their recent meetings with Gandhi, Punjab leaders including legislators, district presidents and councillors expressed serious concerns about the bitter power struggle between state unit chief Partap Singh Bajwa and former CM Capt Amarinder Singh. A divided Congress could be Advantage Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) which is fast emerging a key player in the state’s political landscape, according to these leaders.
Singh wants his name to be projected as the CM candidate and also wants to control the reins of the organisation, directly or by proxy. His detractors argue that the Congress had lost twice – in 2007 and 2012 – under his leadership and that if the leadership succumbed to his pressure tactics, it will have a ripple effect in other states. The party leadership is, however, not inclined to “antagonise” Singh at a time “when the chips are down” and an electoral victory in Punjab could put the party back on revival track ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha polls.
Neighbouring Haryana is witnessing a bitter tussle between state Congress president Ashok Tanwar and former CM Bhupinder Singh Hooda. The Congress sees a good chance in Rajasthan, given the spate of scandals that have hit the Vasundhara Raje government. But state Congress chief Sachin Pilot is confronted with a bigger challenge within the party as former CM Ashok Gehlot is yet to be reconciled with the loss of leadership. In Karnataka, chief minister Siddaramaiah is facing a challenge from party veterans like SM Krishna and Mallikarjun Kharge, among others. Krishna was said to have come to Delhi recently to meet senior leaders, sparking off speculations in Karnataka.
Reviving the party in key states such as Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha and West Bengal is a daunting task ahead for Gandhi as he attempts to put the house in order.
At a party workshop in 2013, the Congress vice-president said, “If India is a computer, the Congress is the default programme.” A senior party functionary said some in the party seemed to have taken it in a different sense. “Some party colleagues have concluded that the Congress will return to power in 2019 by default as the BJP is losing its sheen. This notion has to be changed,” he said.