Ecostani | Himachal imbroglio is a commentary on the Congress high command - Hindustan Times

Ecostani | Himachal imbroglio is a commentary on the Congress high command

Mar 05, 2024 06:33 PM IST

Today’s BJP is a party that makes quick decisions and does not miss an opportunity to show up the Congress. Party leaders cannot afford to make wrong decisions

Sometime in January, rebel Congress legislator Rajinder Rana complained to the Congress high command about the “high handedness” of Himachal chief minister Sukhwinder Singh Sukhu, in the latter’s presence and before other senior party leaders, in New Delhi. Congress national president Mallikarjun Kharge and Rahul Gandhi assured the dissenters that their issues would be resolved. Congress leaders said that Gandhi then spoke to the party state in-charge, Rajeev Shukla, who blamed the CM for the mess. Gandhi spoke to Sukhu, who assured him that he would take care of the situation. And, the Congress high command thought its job was done.

Himachal CM Sukhiwnder Sukhu and Congress MLA Rajinder Rana, who rebelled and was disqualified(HT Photo ) PREMIUM
Himachal CM Sukhiwnder Sukhu and Congress MLA Rajinder Rana, who rebelled and was disqualified(HT Photo )

In February, with the Rajya Sabha poll around the corner, the party overruled Sukhu’s advice against fielding an outsider and nominated Abhishek Manu Singhvi, a Delhi-based senior Supreme Court lawyer and long-time Congress leader.

Once again, Rana and Sudhir Sharma, another rebel MLA, openly spoke out against the CM. Some Congress leaders took up the issue with party high command. “The only response was that all issues will be addressed,” said Rana. He said that this was a common refrain of the Congress for the past six months.

On the other hand, Sukhu assured the high command that there were only two dissenters among the 43 MLAs of the party. So much so that Singhvi landed in Shimla just two days before the voting and there was no move to shift the MLAs outside the state. Even on February 27, the RS voting day, a senior Congress leader said that Sukhu was confident of getting at least 40 votes. It was only when six Congress MLAs cross-voted and three independents voted for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) candidate Harsh Mahajan, that the party realised the magnitude of dissent that not only led to Singhvi’s loss but also put the Congress’ only government in north India in danger. The BJP claimed that Sukhu had lost the majority in the state assembly, and tried to woo some other Congress MLAs.

Two observers, Karnakata deputy chief minister D K Shivakumar, and former Haryana chief minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda, were rushed to Shimla even as six rebel MLAs reached a hotel in Panchkula in Haryana (where the government is BJP-led). Himachal assembly speaker, Kuldeep Singh Pathania, got the budget passed after suspending 15 BJP MLAs, through a voice vote, saving the government for the time being. The observers tried to broker a peace between Sukhu and state Congress chief Pratibha Singh by setting up a coordination committee between the party and the government. Despite these efforts of the party high command, trouble is still brewing and it may impact the party’s prospects in the Lok Sabha polls.

The Himachal episode shows that the Congress is still riddled with inefficiency in decision-making promoted by the party high command’s seeming belief that no decision is the best decision. It was because of this indecision that Sachin Pilot had rebelled against Ashok Gehlot in July 2020, bringing the government to the brink. Such a policy may have worked in the past when the rival party was weak and had nothing to offer to the Congress rebels. Today’s BJP is a party that makes quick decisions, and does not miss an opportunity to show the Congress in a bad light. In Himachal also, the BJP sensed an opportunity and apparently provided all the help the Congress rebels needed.

The BJP is not averse to inducting Congress leaders; some media reports suggest that over 100 senior Congress leaders have joined the saffron party in the past five years alone. The BJP has given prime positions including Rajya Sabha or legislative council nominations to many Congress leaders. The BJP has also inducted Congress or opposition leaders in states where it is in power with a comfortable majority, showing that poaching of leaders is not a one-off policy for the ruling party. It has also got some leaders inducted into its allies such as Shiv Sena (Shinde group) in Maharashtra and Asom Gana Parishad in Assam.

The idea, it appears, is to make Congress dysfunctional before the 2024 Lok Sabha polls. If good mass leaders leave, it weakens the party’s ground structure and impacts its financial roots, making the party seem less attractive for the masses. Second, the BJP is building a narrative that all leaders are leaving the Congress as they don’t have faith in the party’s top leadership and the party is past its best. The Congress has repeatedly alleged that BJP was using “fear” of action by Central agencies to get its leaders before elections. Former Maharashtra chief minister, Ashok Chavan, had met Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge before joining the BJP, to explain reasons for his political shift.

Unlike the BJP, the Congress’ bid for a generation shift has not been smooth. Sukhu was considered the next generation leader after the death of former chief minister Virbhadra Singh, but the high command has failed to make him acceptable to all. In Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, the Congress was not able to bring in the generation shift before the assembly polls fearing repercussions from the old guard. The Congress lost. D K Shivakumar was not able to become CM of Karnataka as the party feared strong rebellion by old guard Siddaramaiah after a win in May 2022 assembly polls. In these 10 years, the BJP has developed a battery of younger leaders across states. It appears Congress does not have long term plans and is just looking to clear one hurdle after another. The next one is the 2024 Lok Sabha polls.

Chetan Chauhan, national affairs editor, analyses the most important political or environment story in the country over the week

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    Chetan Chauhan is National Affairs Editor. A journalist for over two decades, he has written extensively on social sector and politics with special focus on environment and political economy.

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