Congress' Organisational Reshuffle In Haryana, Himachal And Punjab: Fresh Moves, Old Ideas

Congress' Organisational Reshuffle In Haryana, Himachal And Punjab: Fresh Moves, Old Ideas

by Rohit Pathania - Friday, April 29, 2022 03:49 PM IST
Congress' Organisational Reshuffle In Haryana, Himachal And Punjab: Fresh Moves, Old Ideas Amarinder Raja Warring, new chief of the Congress' Punjab unit. (Facebook)
  • The reshuffles that have occurred have raised more questions than they have delivered answers about the functioning of the Congress party and the systemic changes it needs to undertake.

Punjab, Haryana and Himachal Pradesh are three important states for the Congress, as they form perhaps the last stretch across northern India where the party holds any significance. However, barring one or two odd decisions, what we are seeing in the recent organisational reshuffle in these three states is an attempt to rehash and repackage more of the same.

The way the responsibilities have been distributed also indicates that there is some sort of a power-sharing taking place between Sonia Gandhi and her children: the Haryana and Himachal changes show a Sonia touch while Punjab seems to be under Rahul Gandhi's control.

This raises more questions than provide answers, and also makes one wonder — who exactly is running the party?

Punjab: Challenges Galore For Amarinder Raja Warring

When you look at what is going on with the Punjab unit, you understand why the Congress is imploding at a national level.

The appointment of Amarinder Raja Warring as the head of the state unit has brought more problems than that were settled with the exit of Navjot Singh Sidhu.

Congress, which had attempted to project a rainbow coalition of leadership with Charanjit Singh Channi, Sukhjinder Singh Randhawa and Om Prakash Soni as its triumvirate to win back Punjab, has seemingly relapsed to its familiar 'jatwaad' political formula by putting forward a Brar as the state unit head.

However, the party’s Punjab unit is ridden with factions. With several tall leaders like Pratap Singh Bajwa, Bharat Ashu, Manpreet Badal (estranged cousin of Sukhbir Singh Badal), and Ravneet Singh Bittu, who it is rumoured may switch sides, the sheer number of interests to be weighed may become too much of a burden.

Dancing skills apart, what does work in Warring's favour is his grassroots connect, thanks to his NSUI and Youth Congress days of yore. This may enable him to seek a clean break from the past, should the party choose to, and also shows the Rahul-Priyanka touch in his appointment.

However, the public estrangement and humiliation of Sunil Jakhar, by far the tallest leader of the party in the state, is something he would have not wanted, even if for disciplinary purposes.

As this author has said multiple times, the Congress can spring a major bounce back, but only if it wants to. If it keeps chasing ghosts and thinks that same old 'jatwaad' politics will work for it instead of starting afresh and building a socially cohesive voter base and presenting a positive narrative, any number of reshuffles are useless.

Haryana: A Threat Of Alienating SC Voters

The mistakes of Punjab are also seen in parts in Haryana. By the time next assembly election comes around in 2024, Congress would have been out of power in the state for a decade.

Despite a strong fight it put up in 2019 under the tallest Jat leader, Bhupinder Singh Hooda, it could not reach the majority mark. In contrast, Manohar Lal Khattar, a non-Jat chief minister, was able to cobble up the numbers, getting the support of the Jannayak Janta Party of Dushyant Chautala.

Given the fact that Hooda has failed in two successive elections, the signal it apparently sends is that someone who has failed twice can be rewarded with authority in place of giving someone else a chance.

Udai Bhan, who has been brought in as the Haryana unit chief, is seen as a man close to Hooda. Given the trust shown in Hooda and the history of the Gandhi family with Haryana, this can be seen as a Sonia Gandhi move. It may also be seen as an outreach towards 'G-23', of which Hooda is also a part.

But at what cost?

For many Congress sympathisers, it is worrisome that the Congress has chosen to undermine the tallest Schedule Caste (SC) leader from Haryana, Kumari Selja, and replaced her with a man believed to be firmly in the Hooda camp, just to end factional infighting.

What authority former chief minister Hooda retains is anybody’s guess, given how there are four working presidents for the same issue.

Given the BJP’s experiment of attracting votes in big numbers from non-Jat communities, the threat of Udai Bhan's appointment backfiring electorally stands. As it is, the memories of the Mirchpur caste riots that had rocked the state in 2010 stay thick in the minds of the state’s SCs, and any such measure would be seen as an attempt to sideline them.

This is critical, especially when the party was able to increase its vote share and seats substantially in 2019 vis 2014 on the back of increased SC vote share in the state. At 22 per cent of the vote share, the Dalit voters are second largest grouping in the state, with only Jats ahead of them at 29 per cent.

Himachal Pradesh — An Interesting Experiment That Can Backfire

Himachal Pradesh saw the return of the old guard, with Pratibha Singh, the wife of Congress’ tallest leader Raja Virbhadra Singh — and herself from the Keonthal royal family — being given charge in the state.

Her win in the Mandi bypolls was seen as a result of the sympathy wave in wake of Virbhadra Singh’s death. That analysis, however, ignores that she had won the seat in the past as well — in 2013 in the Lok Sabha bypoll, replacing Virbhadra who had won the Vidhan Sabha election the previous year.

Also, Pratibha Singh’s win in the Lok Sabha elections has sent the alarm bells ringing for the BJP, given it is the constituency of the incumbent Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur.

Mandi had voted heavily for the BJP in 2018, and this is certainly not a good sign for them, what with the region's past affiliation for the Congress.

Given these factors, the appointment of Pratibha Singh indicates a distinct possibility that the Congress will try to tap into Virbhadra’s legacy to reclaim their strength in upper Himachal.

To be sure, the Congress had performed rather credibly in the 2017 elections also, managing to keep its vote share intact. Given their traditional base being upper Himachal, the Congress had in fact won seats in Hamirpur, believed to be a BJP fortress, indicating the potential to grow in other areas too.

However, factionalism remains a challenge for the party here too. While Pratibha Singh may command respect, a bigger role for her son in the scheme of things could backfire.

Vikramaditya Singh, Virbhadra’s son and currently MLA from Shimla rural, may just get a bigger role, though it could cause much heartburn for the party at large, given his rather chequered image on the corruption front. It may also cause much heartburn in Kangra, where the stalwarts of the Congress may feel sidelined and may seek to rebel.

Further, there are several factions within the state unit, and marshalling them in time for polls can be a challenge. People like Kaul Singh Thakur and Anand Sharma are part of the G-23, and while they may be scoffed at as lightweights, they do accentuate factional challenges. In such a scenario, Pratibha Singh has a difficult task at hand.

The reshuffles that have occurred have raised more questions than they have delivered answers about the functioning of the Congress party and the systemic changes it needs to undertake.

Mixed signals over the cold war with G-23 will only confuse the party cadre further. An attempt to make a clean break has been made sans any fresh ideas.

In an attempt to reinforce trust in some leaders, alienation of others and of the social groupings that they pull traction within also remains a danger. Most of the state unit leaders have the unenviable task of resolving faction fights in their units. Confused and muddled are perhaps the best ways to describe what has occurred over the past few days.

Rohit Pathania works in the space of renewable energy and environment. Other interests include politics and the economy.
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