Despite the Congress falling back on Sonia Gandhi for helming the party yet again, there is no end to its troubles. It is claimed she has been pressed into service till the wise men in the party can locate a suitable candidate to head it on a permanent basis. The only caveat enjoined on the party by Rahul Gandhi while quitting as party chief after the disastrous performance in the Lok Sabha poll is that whoever is chosen to be Congress President must not be a Gandhi. This, however, is not acceptable to his mother and sister who fear that once the party slips out of the control of the family they may not be able to assert control over it. Hence, the return to Sonia Gandhi after a short interregnum during which her son was the party chief. Sonia is the longest-serving Congress chief in the party’s 135-year-old history.
She is old and ailing. Whether she can revive the fortunes of the once Grand Old Party remains questionable. A number of senior leaders have deserted the party. Several more are considering to leave, given half the opportunity by the rival parties, mainly the ruling BJP. When both ideology and loyalty take back seat in politics, its practitioners pursue naked opportunism. And frankly, Congress abandoned its core ideology a long time ago. It has flirted with soft communalism, a la carte economic policy and an unclear approach to social/societal issues. As a result, its appeal has become so diffused that it ends up alienating all social and economic groups.
Anyway to return to the exodus from the party, last Sunday’s mega rally by former two-term Haryana Chief Minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda in his pocket-borough, Rohtak, poses the latest headache for the Congress President. Indeed, it was widely speculated that Hooda would announce the formation of his own regional party on the occasion, taking with him ten sitting MLAs and a host of former MLAs and other local level functionaries. At the last minute, he was persuaded by senior Congress leaders not to announce his decision to quit. Sonia Gandhi’s return as party president helped reassure him that his minimum demands would be considered.
With the Assembly election looming ahead later this year, Hooda is desperate to plunge into the battleground. But the State Congress Chief, Ashok Tanwar, has become a thorn in his side, dogging him at every step and not allowing him the freedom he seeks to refashion the party in his own image. The first demand in Hooda’s ultimatum to the high command is the immediate replacement of Tanwar with a nominee of his own. Free hand to run the party the way he wants it and in distribution of election tickets is next.
Also, he is against the party propagating its opposition to the scrapping of Article 370. At the Sunday rally, Hooda openly commended the Modi Government for its courageous stand in ending the special status of Kashmir. He said that he did not agree with the party’s position which voted against the enabling Bill in Parliament.
Given that Haryana has an unusually high proportion of men in the armed forces, and the number of ex-servicemen is considerable, Hooda reckoned opposing the scrapping of Article 370 would prove electorally suicidal. Next day, Tanwar threatened disciplinary action against Hooda for defying party discipline and demanded that he be allowed to issue him a show-cause notice. The simmering rivalry was out in the open.
Due to the proximity of the poll, the high command will have to either concede Hooda’s conditions or he will walk out and float his own regional party. As it is, the Congress has lost much ground in the State, as testified by its complete washout in all ten Lok Sabha seats. Even Hooda and his son, Deepender, failed to survive the Modi wave. Following the deletion of Article 370, the BJP is now on a much stronger wicket.
The Lok Dal of Om Prakash Chauthala has fragmented into rival groups, while Chuathala himself is serving a jail term for corruption. In other words, the BJP is sitting pretty. However, should Hooda quit Congress to form his own party, he can still attract a section of the Jat vote. Otherwise, it may turn out to be a cakewalk for Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar-led BJP. How Sonia Gandhi grapples with this immediate challenge, especially when her moral and political authority is vastly diminished, will be known in the next couple of weeks.