Cong makes changes with revival hopes in Punjab, Haryana, Himachal. Will they work?
The changes are aimed at “course correction”, streamlining the party’s messaging and consolidating internal divisions, but challenges remain
New Delhi: Even as the Congress party was in the middle of a protracted discussion with poll strategist Prashant Kishor for a possible role ahead of the 2024 Lok Sabha elections, the party has made key changes in the three northern states – Punjab, where it recently lost power to the Aam Aadmi Party; Haryana, where it is sitting in the Opposition and hopes to make inroads in 2024; and Himachal Pradesh, which goes to the polls later this year.
The changes, people familiar with the thinking in the party, are aimed at “course correction”, streamlining the party’s messaging, consolidating internal divisions, and infusing fresh ideas and younger energy to the state units. All three states are among the few where the party is still a significant player, and has a sizeable network on the ground.
In Haryana, the Congress announced on Wednesday that Uday Bhan would be the new Pradesh Congress Committee chief. A former legislator from Palwal, the 58-year-old Bhan is considered close to former chief minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda, who is the party’s tallest leader in the state. Bhan replaces Kumari Selja, who had already served a full term, and there were demands from the cadre that the state unit needed fresh energy. With her exit and the appointment of Bhan, the Hoodas now have complete hold over the Haryana Congress. It is significant that on Wednesday morning, Hooda’s son and Rajya Sabha MP Deepinder Hooda met Congress president Sonia Gandhi. Insiders say that with this move, the Congress may have won over senior Hooda who has been a prominent voice in the “G23” (group of leaders who wrote to Gandhi asking for changes in the party’s functioning). Deepinder Hoods also worked closely with Priyanka Gandhi Vadra during the Uttar Pradesh elections campaign.
Incidentally, Bhan is the son of Gaya Lal, the infamous Haryana politician who is the inspiration for the colloquial phrase “Aaya Ram, Gaya Ram” for turncoats because he once changed three parties in a single day.
What the party needs to be wary of in the state, however, is that it has replaced a Dalit as PCC chief, and not for the first time. Ashok Tanwar was replaced after a very public feud with Bhupinder Hooda, and is now in the Aam Aadmi Party. And while Selja has not said anything so far, she is also said to be unhappy.
The Hoodas may be in control, but will they be able to also enthuse other castes beyond their Jat voter base and stronghold of Rohtak?
“Young leadership has left the party or they have surrendered – AAP will form government bigger than in Punjab,” said Tanwar, reacting to Wednesday’s developments.
Another problem with the Congress’s new team is that most of the leaders are little-known; other than Shruti Choudhary, who is a former member of Parliament for the party and the granddaughter of Bansi Lal. However, the Hooda camp is confident as the party improved its tally from just 16 seats to 31 in 2019 despite the Hoodas taking charge only in the last few months. This time, they hope that having full control of the party and the BJP’s anti-incumbency will go a long way in helping them win the state.
In Punjab, which was roiled by infighting for six months leading to the 2022 assembly elections between former chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh and former state unit chief Navjot Singh Sidhu, the Congress has decided to make a clean break with the existing power dynamics. Charanjit Singh Channi, who replaced Amarinder in the hope that the party could utilise the Dalit card to regain power, has also been sidelined. The official line is that a former chief minister has a “special place” in the party.
The Congress last week named Amarinder Raja Warring as the state unit head. The key reason for this was that he was one of the only two legislators that won in the Malwa region, at a time when the Congress saw a virtual wipeout by the Aam Aadmi Party.
Warring, 44, is said to be a close aide of Rahul Gandhi. In fact, he was heading the Indian Youth Congress before the last elections. The other members of the new unit also are handpicked by the Gandhi team. At the same time, former state unit chief Sunil Jakhar is also on a warpath with the party high command. But the biggest challenge for the Congress may be from Navjot Singh Sidhu. On the day that the party was being humiliated by Kishor’s exit, Sidhu was tweeting a photo with him. According to party insiders, Sidhu may be looking to move out and explore independent options outside the Congress. Gandhi’s team members told HT that they believed if there was anyone that could take on AAP in the state, it was a fresh face like Warring.
The changes in hill state of Himachal Pradesh were along expected lines. It is the most emergent states of the three in terms of poll dynamics given that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has been in power in the state since 2017, and the AAP has stepped up efforts in recent weeks with multiple visits by its national convener Arvind Kejriwal, the Congress has chosen to bank on the image of the late CM Virbhadra Singh by naming his wife Pratibha Singh as the state unit chief.
“If you think about faces in the state, then you cannot get stronger than Pratibha Vir Bhadra Singh,” said a senior leader.
What she has going for her is indeed a legacy which also managed to bring about a stunning bypoll win in November last year, where the party won all four assembly seats and one Lok Sabha seat. It even forced the BJP to consider a change in leadership (which was later decided against), but since then the scenario has changed. With the AAP riding on the winds of change from neighbouring Punjab, will legacy politicians and dynasty politics spoil the Congress’s plans here too?