Congress course correction in Haryana may be too late
Elections are all about perception. This reality has finally dawned on the Congress high command after a long bout of procrastination and inertia inflicted by the summer stunner in the Lok Sabha polls.
On Wednesday, the Grand Old Party, still licking its wounds, made a belated course correction on the spectacle of dissidence and defiance that has been afflicting it in poll-bound Haryana.
In effect, the appointment of Kumari Selja, 57, as the state Congress president, and a placatory accommodation of a rebellious heavyweight, Bhupinder Singh Hooda, as the chairman of the campaign committee, represent the party’s rearguard action to salvage its position in next month’s assembly elections.
By easing out an unpopular Ashok Tanwar, who had run afoul with Hooda, the Sonia Gandhi-brokered compromise has quelled the two-time chief minister’s loaded threats to break away and float his own outfit. This is the first serious internal crisis that Sonia Gandhi has deftly defused since taking over as interim Congress president. Tanwar, a young Dalit face, was handpicked by Rahul Gandhi in 2014.
Once his oust-Tanwar demand was met, Hooda didn’t make too much of the second item on his wishlist: appointment as the state Congress chief and projection as the chief ministerial face in the campaign. He was also given the position of leader of Congress Legislature Party as a face-saver. In that sense, Hooda has made a tactical climbdown, for now.
FIRST WOMAN HEAD OF HARYANA CONG
In Selja, a prominent Dalit face not openly aligned with any faction, the Congress’s balancing act has also factored in the caste message. More significant is another symbolism: She is first woman to head the Congress unit, or, for that matter, any party, in patriarchal Haryana since its inception in 1966.
A Rajya Sabha MP, soft-spoken Selja has a limited support base and doesn’t command a pan-Haryana outreach. Her main calling card is her proximity to Sonia Gandhi, as her all-time loyalist and occasional shopping partner.
But the change of guard may have come too late. The party has frittered away much of its time and energy — after losing all 10 Haryana Lok Sabha seats to the ruling BJP — in its internal squabbles. Its faction-riven organisational structure is in poor shape. Just how poor is evident from the fact that its districts and block units have been headless for a long time.
Selja finds herself in the swirl of an approaching poll at a time when the party’s electoral fortunes are at an all-time low. After the BJP wrested power in 2014, the Congress has since been a serial loser, having drawn a blank in all assembly bypolls, mayoral contests and the Lok Sabha polls.
Despite being a Sonia Gandhi nominee, Selja will have to contend with the ceaseless cloak-and-dagger games among competing party leaders, chiefly Hooda, Kiran Chaudhary, Kuldeep Bishnoi and Randeep Surjewala. Hooda’s next gambit will be to garner a lion’s share of tickets for his supporters.
Selja’s task, certainly unenviable, is cut out. She will have to galvanise party workers, crank up the election machine and rally factional leaders. It is a challenge that will test her mettle.
What is clear is that the Congress, now on, will be playing a desperate catch-up game vis-à-vis a buoyant saffron party, which is fired up with its slogan: “Is baar pachattar paar”, an allusion to target of winning 75 seats in the 90-member assembly. In the last assembly polls, the BJP’s tally was 47.
Already on a roll is its well-oiled juggernaut, spearheaded by chief minister Manohar Lal Khattar’s statewide Jan Ashirwad Yatra that kicked off on August 18. Much before a formal announcement of polls, the BJP’s campaign blitz will shift to top gear with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s rally in Haryana on September 8. In contrast, the Congress is yet to launch its campaign.
Can Selja steer the Congress’s fightback? The odds are heavily stacked against her and her party.