Congress President Sonia Gandhi was not far from the truth while analysing the reasons for the debacle in Uttar Pradesh, in saying the problem was “too many leaders”.
Legislative Assembly elections to five states this year saw the Congress win only one (Manipur) convincingly and a second (Uttarakhand) by a whisker. Punjab was a surprise loss, where it was confident of cashing in on anti-incumbency. There was total loss of face in Uttar Pradesh, with only 28 in the 403-seat Assembly. It was wiped off in Goa, with only nine of 40 seats.
Said a political observer, “The Congress has had to pay a heavy price for factionalism within its ranks.” Now, with polls in Himachal Pradesh slated for November, the party is again grappling with dissidence in the ranks there.
In Punjab, where the party was confident of a victory, it lost 17 seats with a vote margin from just 67 to 1,500 votes. A major headache had been disgruntled rebels, deprived of a party ticket and contesting as independents. In addition, factions within the state leadership, headed respectively by former chief minister and his resolute rival, Rajinder Kaur Bhattal, had made it a divided house.
In state after state, the party has been confronted with dissidence. In Uttarakhand, the Congress bagged just one additional seat (32) as against the Bharatiya Janata Party with 31,but managed to form the government. However intense factionalism held up announcement of the new chief minister, with the high command flying in central observer Ghulam Nabi Azad to speak to the rival camps, led by Union minister Harish Rawat and senior leader Vijay Bahuguna. After Bahuguna was declared winner, Rawat loyalists rushed to Delhi, threatening to break away if their leader was not declared CM. Despite the rebels being contained, there is simmering discontent within a section.
In UP, where Congress scion Rahul Gandhi himself led the campaign, the much-hyped prospects were belied. Apart from the lack of an organisation in the state, senior Union ministers were speaking in different voices, sabotaging each other. Steel minister Beni Prasad Verma publicly denigrated scheduled caste leader P L Punia. State head Rita Joshi and senior leader Pramod Tewari did not see eye to eye.
Party general secretary Birendra Chaudhry, who was in charge of Uttarakhand and now responsible for Himachal Pradesh, says the party must present a united front. He called a coordination committee meeting in Shimla last Tuesday, with all faction leaders.
Five-time chief minister and Union minister Virbhadra Singh has already been staking claim to be the next chief minister. Another Union minister, Anand Sharma, has been holding separate rallies across the state. Legislature party head Vidya Stokes has thrown in her lot with Singh. State party head Kaul Singh Thakur is also a contender.
On the meeting convened by Chaudhry last week, an insider says, “The riot act was read out to them. There are several CM-aspirants and they need to be controlled.” The committee will take joint decisions for campaigning. The party is to henceforth hold only joint rallies, with Anand Sharma and Virbhadra Singh participating. It remains to be seen if this truce is short-lived or not.