| Sonia Gandhi pays homage to Jawaharlal Nehru on his death anniversary at Shanti Van as Sheila Dikshit looks on. (PTI)
Panchmarhi, May 27: It was dubbed a “unity exercise”, but there was no hint of harmony in the air.
The Congress’ two-day session to prepare the party for the coming polls in Madhya Pradesh kicked off here, but senior leaders Ambika Soni and Kamal Nath as well as Jyotiraditya Scindia stayed away. Their absence only served to highlight Arjun Singh’s remarks on the “cancer” of groupism eating into the party.
If the big guns stayed away, Madhya Pradesh party workers gave an earful to chief minister Digvijay Singh on the crippling power crisis.
Arjun, too, did not show up, but he sought to stick to his agenda by sending a letter addressed to the state unit chief and the chief minister requesting the delegates to work for unity in the party.
His emphasis on unity and the absence of Soni, the AICC general secretary in charge of the state, again underlined that the two were unwilling to face each other at a party forum. At another level, it reflected the schism among Sonia Gandhi’s close circle of advisers.
Digvijay, who arrived late, was in an uncharacteristically foul mood. As soon as he entered, he ordered print journalists and those from television channels to leave. “For God’s sake, leave us alone. Please do not encroach upon our privacy. Please leave,” he said the moment he was asked to comment on Arjun Singh’s letter and the criticism by state unit delegates of the factionalism in the party and the power crisis.
The mood among the delegates at the Nalanda College venue was far from upbeat. Each speaker underlined the need for unity asking the “big leaders” to sink their differences to ensure the party’s victory in the coming polls.
Rebel MLA Kalpana Parulekar went a step further, questioning the Digvijay regime’s handling of the power crisis. She defended her campaign to mobilise farmers to not pay electricity bills, saying: “If there is no power, why should they pay bills.”
Kalpana, who three years ago had joined the BJP’s Uma Bharti in an agitation on behalf of retrenched daily wage earners and is known as a “rebel with a cause”, circulated a leaflet.
The leaflet took a dig at the delegates for not saying the obvious. Quoting an Urdu couplet, she said: “Sab bhare baithe the lekin bolta koi na tha (Everyone was charged but nobody was speaking).”
Kalpana, who was lauded for her comments, said the Congress under Sonia needed to be transparent while discussing party affairs.
Several delegates were heard commenting on the Arjun-Soni tussle and wondering if senior leaders could not see eye to eye, how could they enforce discipline. Some local leaders said Arjun’s disillusionment with the leadership was proof that “there was something wrong somewhere”.
The chief minister’s camp blamed Arjun for shifting the Panchmarhi agenda. They said the idea of the meet was to let district and state unit delegates have their say and gather talking points for the Assembly polls.
Earlier, Digvijay had said he was in Panchmarhi to “listen to party colleagues” about the nine-and-a-half years of his rule. “But here the mood inside was one of disquiet. Each leader has an agenda to settle scores. In this atmosphere of mutual suspicion, how do we put up a united face of the party,” said a delegate from Rewa.
Old timers said the mood today was in sharp contrast to the national-level brainstorming session five years ago on the eve of state polls then.
“Today, the spirit of Panchmarhi, 1998, is missing. The message that the Congress under Sonia has arrived is missing,” said a delegate who did not want to be named.