New Delhi: The Congress seems to be in troubled waters in three of the states where it is still a force to be reckoned with — Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan.
While the party appears to be imploding in Punjab, where it lost office earlier this year, intense factionalism has surfaced in the Haryana and Rajasthan units in the run-up to the 10 June Rajya Sabha (RS) polls.
In Haryana, former chief minister and Congress Legislature Party leader Bhupinder Singh Hooda’s detractors are reportedly trying to queer the pitch for the party. In Rajasthan, Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot is said to be sweating it out to keep the Congress flock together in an Udaipur resort over fears of horse-trading.
Ensuring victories of party candidates in the RS elections is crucial for both Hooda and Gehlot.
For Hooda, because the Congress high-command virtually handed over the reins of the Haryana unit to him when it made his loyalist, Udai Bhan, the state chief.
Gehlot, meanwhile, is under intense pressure, with his rival Sachin Pilot pressuring the Congress high-command to make him the CM ahead of the 2023 state polls, party sources said. If Gehlot fails to deliver in the RS polls, the Pilot camp could use it as grounds to intensify its campaign, the sources added.
The semantics and the larger party sentiment regarding the polls to the Upper House are not lost on Congress insiders.
Speaking to ThePrint, a senior Congress leader who is also a member of the dissident ‘G-23’ group within the party, called the Rajya Sabha elections a “fiasco”, adding that the ticket distribution for it shows that the party is being run as a “fiefdom”.
“There is a lot of dissent in all state units as outsiders were nominated and all these outsiders are part of the Gandhi coterie. The CMs in these states are coming across as spineless. The regional leaders are coming across as spineless. You can’t insult entire states like this,” said the leader.
“Hooda is the only satrap [for the party in the country] now, whom the Gandhis had to succumb to, and his demand to not have (Randeep) Surjewala as a candidate from Haryana was the only one that was taken cognisance of,” the leader added. “For the Gandhi family, no Lok Sabha seat is safe anymore. So, they need to find refuge in the Rajya Sabha and they’re making every effort to have all their loyalists in the House.”
According to the Congressman, the party’s situation in Punjab was also a result of not following “due process” while appointing leaders. “Young leaders cannot just be given posts that they’re not ready for. They have to come through the system,” he said.
He was referring to the organisational overhaul in the state earlier this year through which a young leadership was put in place. Amrinder Singh Raja Warring, 44, was made chief of the state Congress thereafter.
Also read: Warning to dissenters? Why Congress expelled ex-MLA after he called new Punjab chief ‘corrupt’
Series of exits in Punjab
On 4 June, four former ministers of the party in Punjab — Balbir Sidhu, Gurpreet Kangar, Sunder Sham Arora and Raj Kumar Verka — jumped ship to the BJP. This came a fortnight after former Punjab Congress chief, Sunil Jakhar, quit the party to join the BJP.
Given that the BJP is a minor force in Punjab, these leaders’ decision to quit the Congress to join the former underlines growing despondency in the state party leadership.
The Congress has been looking rudderless in the state since party veteran Captain Amarinder Singh’s exit in November. Three of the four former ministers mentioned above — Sidhu, Kangar and Arora — couldn’t find a berth in the state cabinet after Amarinder’s ouster. The former CM later formed his own party and allied with the BJP.
Earlier, former Punjab Congress chief Navjot Singh Sidhu, whom the Gandhis chose over Amarinder in a factional duel, had started distancing himself from party activities, inviting a call from the state unit to take disciplinary action against him.
Thereafter, the leader, who lost his Amritsar East seat in the 2022 elections, was convicted and awarded a year’s rigorous imprisonment in a 34-year-old case of road rage.
The Congress high-command had replaced Amarinder with Charanjit Singh Channi as Punjab CM last year, but the party lost to the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in the state election this year.
Channi, who was once showcased as the Congress’ Dalit face, hasn’t been given any other assignment. Meanwhile, the Punjab Congress conducted a ‘Chintan Shivir’ to find ways to strengthen the failing organisation.
Speaking on the issue, political analyst Sanjay Jha said the Congress leadership should learn a lesson and “stop interfering in local issues of states”.
“Till Captain Amarinder was removed, he was on a winning turf. He may have won fewer seats than last time but the state most definitely would not have gone to the AAP. Look at Haryana. If Bhupinder Hooda had got full charge earlier, then the Congress may have won the state in 2019,” he said. “If you look at Rajasthan, once again, you’ve encouraged Sachin Pilot as a regional leader. He worked for five years in the state against a BJP wave and then what?”
The defection of the four former Punjab ministers is being played down by the new state Congress leadership.
Warring said he was “grateful” for their departure. “Best of luck for joining BJP. Grateful that the ‘elite’ who enjoyed all the privileges in the party have vacated the space for younger leadership from common background,” he tweeted.
They owe their current stature, that qualified them for new 'political asylum', to @INCIndia which groomed them like a mother grooms her children. And when it was their turn to reciprocate, they betrayed their mother for greener, nay, SAFFRON pastures. pic.twitter.com/O8BywgpTA8
— Amarinder Singh Raja Warring (@RajaBrar_INC) June 4, 2022
Haryana house in disorder
In Rajasthan and Haryana, the Congress finds its quest for one Rajya Sabha seat in each state made difficult by the entry of two media barons in the fray — Subhash Chandra in Rajasthan and Kartikeya Sharma in Haryana.
Both have been backed by the BJP. The Congress candidates for these seats are Pramod Tiwari and Ajay Maken, respectively.
In a bid to avoid cross-voting in these elections, the party has rounded up all its MLAs from the two states and sent them to luxury resorts where they’re being kept under strict watch. While the Rajasthan MLAs are being kept in Udaipur, the MLAs from Haryana have been ferried to a resort on the outskirts of Raipur.
In Haryana, the Congress is ridden with in-fighting, and senior Congress leader Kuldeep Bishnoi has been distancing himself from the party’s stance, stating on record that he will “follow his inner voice” when it comes to voting in the RS polls.
Bishnoi, along with two other MLAs — Kiran Choudhry and Chiranjeev Rao — did not travel with the other Haryana MLAs to the Raipur resort.
While Choudhry has reportedly said she’s a senior leader who does not need to be “carted around”, Rao, according to party sources, was celebrating his birthday and will be joining the cohort soon.
There are two Rajya Sabha seats going to the polls from Haryana, of which the Congress has the chance of winning just one. For that, the party would need 31 MLAs to vote in its favour and 31 MLAs is all it has in the 90-member House.
Speaking to reporters in Raipur, MP Deepender Singh Hooda said the Congress would get more votes than the number of MLAs it has. “All MLAs are with us. There will be no cross-voting from the Congress. But there will be cross-voting from the BJP and Jannayak Janta Party (JJP),” said Hooda.
It turns out that Kartikeya Sharma’s father, former Congressman Venod Sharma, and Kuldeep Bishnoi share some history.
In 2014, after he quit the Congress, Venod Sharma formed the Jan Chetna Party (JCP). Before the assembly elections in Haryana that year, Bishnoi, who was then founder-chief of the Haryana Janhit Congress (HJC), snapped ties with the BJP, to join hands with Sharma and the JCP.
Sharma’s historical clout within the Haryana Congress, and his relations with leaders close to the Hooda camp, the Bishnoi camp — and those of other camps within the party led by Surjewala, Kumari Selja etc — are said to have the Congress worried.
Also read: Sign of Sonia-Rahul disagreement? Surjewala dissent on Haryana chief new challenge for Congress
‘Eyeing Independents’ amid dissent in Rajasthan
In Rajasthan, where the Congress has 108 MLAs in the 200-member assembly, 41 votes are required to win each RS seat. This means that the Congress has absolute numbers to win two of the four RS seats going to the polls, while the BJP, with 71 MLAs, is assured of one.
As the BJP and the Congress will have 30 and 26 left-over votes, respectively, all eyes are on the fourth seat as Essel Group chairman and Zee TV founder Subhash Chandra can queer the pitch for the Congress’ Pramod Tiwari. The media baron, whose tenure as a Rajya Sabha MP from Haryana will end in August, is seeking another term as an Independent with help from the BJP.
This means that 13 Independent MLAs will play a decisive role in determining the fate of the fourth seat, as will another eight MLAs from smaller parties like the Rashtriya Loktantrik Party (RLP), Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD), Bharatiya Tribal Party (BTP), and the Communist Party of India (Marxist; CPI-M). These permutations and combinations mean that every vote from an MLA will be crucial for the Congress in Rajasthan.
Sources in the party said that ahead of the elections, apart from the 108 MLAs, the party is planning to gather 17 more MLAs — a total of 125 — at the Taj Aravali Resort in Udaipur.
The Rajya Sabha election, however, comes at a tumultuous time for the Congress, with at least four party MLAs and one Independent having spoken out against the Gehlot government in Rajasthan in the past few weeks.
(Edited by Nida Fatima Siddiqui)
Also read: Punjab managed, Congress turns to Rajasthan to resolve Sachin Pilot-Ashok Gehlot row