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Pushed, Cong tries to dig in heels
Change-of-guard plans on hold as rebels lose patience in east & west

July 21: A senior Congress minister in Maharashtra and another in Assam today stepped down to push for a change in chief minister, but the high command indicated it would not give in to blackmail by “individuals working to fulfil personal ambitions”.

Maharashtra industries minister Narayan Rane quit this afternoon saying he did not want to be a “partner” in the Congress’s impending defeat in the year-end state elections. But he also accused the high command of not keeping its word to make him chief minister.

“The future of the party in the Assembly elections does not look bright. I do not want to be a partner in the party’s defeat, and therefore I decided to step down as a minister…. Winning the elections under CM’s (Prithviraj Chavan) leadership looks difficult,” Rane said in Mumbai.

“I am nine years in the Congress and I am unhappy. I was promised that I will be made CM in six months, but I have waited for nine years, and they have not kept their word.”

(From top) Maharashtra chief minister Prithviraj Chavan and his challenger Narayan Rane; Assam chief minister Tarun Gogoi and his rival Himanta Biswa Sarma

In Guwahati, education and health minister Himanta Biswa Sarma said it was “physically, mentally and politically” impossible to work under a chief minister who appeared to have an “evil design” to destroy the party.

Sarma denied he was bowing out to step up pressure on the high command but claimed it had not lived up to its assurance to replace Tarun Gogoi if the party’s showing in the Lok Sabha polls was poor. The Congress won only three seats.

“I have no personal agenda to become chief minister…. Time for me to become chief minister is over. I am opposing Gogoi’s leadership in the greater interest of the people of Assam and the Congress. If Gogoi remains chief minister, the number of seats the Congress wins in the 2016 Assembly poll will be reduced to a single digit,” he said.

The twin resignations triggered crises in the two states for the Congress, but the central leadership looked determined not to show signs of vulnerability to blackmail as it was certain to throw the party into deeper trouble.

Although the Congress had made up its mind to change both the chief ministers, today’s rebellion appears to have derailed the plan. Maharashtra is now unlikely to see a leadership change despite the scepticism about Chavan, and Gogoi appears set for a longer stint in the Assam hot seat because of the brazen push by the dissidents.

Sources indicated the high command was unlikely to surrender to blackmail by “individuals working to fulfil personal ambitions” and would not compromise despite the gravity of the crises.

Although the situation in Maharashtra is unlikely to escalate further because of the year-end elections, Assam has caused serious worry among senior leaders who feel deft political management is crucial.

Gogoi’s immediate removal as the chief minister is being ruled out, but a majority of leaders concede a new leadership will have to be built up in Assam where the BJP’s rise is alarming.

A leader said: “Himanta Biswa Sarma is probably the obvious choice but he spoiled his case by his impatience. You can’t set deadlines and extract decisions at gun point.”

Some leaders cited the examples of Jaganmohan Reddy in Andhra Pradesh and B.S. Yeddyurappa in Karnataka, both of who tried to bulldoze their central leaders into making them chief minister but were put down.

However, the case of Maharashtra and Assam is different as the Congress central leadership itself had a role in deepening the crisis. It created an impression that a change of guard was imminent in these states and even started the process of selecting a new leader by sending observers.

Mallikarjun Kharge, who went to Guwahati as AICC observer, submitted a report saying 62 MLAs wanted a change in leadership. The process of selecting a new chief minister in Maharashtra too was at a very advanced stage, sources said.

Assurances were given to leaders in both states that a change was in the offing but the entire process was reversed at the last minute apparently because Rahul Gandhi did not favour rewarding dissidence.

A senior leader said: “If it appears like blackmail now, only the high command’s mishandling of the situation is to blame. There is a disconnect between party managers at the top.”

Many leaders said in private there had been bungling and lack of tact by key players in the high command. They fear serious political consequences in both states.

A huge defeat is being predicted in the Maharashtra polls and a split in Assam is not being ruled out. Many leaders said Gogoi would finally have to go as a majority of Assam MLAs was against him continuing.

As for the central leadership, there seems to be no unity of purpose among senior Congress leaders and Rahul Gandhi’s team on the course of action. Three MLAs have quit the party in Bengal. Senior leader Chowdhary Birendra Singh has dropped out of the Congress in Haryana and Chowdhary Lal Singh in Jammu and Kashmir. All this points to a bigger crisis at hand.

The Congress was cautious in its official reaction to the resignations but clearly hinted at its stand on the rebels. Spokesperson Abhishek Singhvi said: “These individuals had differences for quite some time.

“With Narayan Rane, it is an issue of personal ambition… he has said several times that he wants to be the chief minister. Similar statements have come from Sarma. Personal ambition for the chief minister’s post can’t be factored in the party’s concept of good governance.”

Asked if these things were happening because the Congress leadership had been weakened by the Lok Sabha poll debacle, Singhvi said: “The party is standing strong… people will judge these leaders for their politics. Their acts have nothing to do with the party’s position.”

On whether he was suggesting that Gogoi would not be replaced as was the case in Maharashtra, he said: “What I said is applicable to both states.”