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Hooda hit by hoodoo of bluster, chair turns shaky in hard bargain

New Delhi, Oct. 22: In the run-up to the polls, Bhupinder Singh Hooda had oozed confidence. He had talked of sweeping the elections.

Today, he faces a distinct threat — of being swept out of the race for chief minister.

Although Hooda needs just six MLAs for another shot at power, the Congress high command fears such a government would be extremely shaky under his hegemonic control.

Sources in the Congress, which won 40 of the 90 seats in the state, down 27 from its 2005 tally, said the party had already begun exploring other options though some powerful senior leaders were still trying to protect Hooda.

The sources said the party leadership was confident Hooda could rustle up a simple majority but not sure whether that would be adequate against a buoyant Om Prakash Chautala, whose INLD ended the day with 31 seats, 22 more than last time. INLD ally Akali Dal won one seat.

Among the seven Independents, four are Congress rebels who, the sources said, would merrily return. The party has already consulted these MLAs and taken their consent.

The BJP has won four, the Akali Dal one and the BSP one. The sources said a few of these could be poached but even that might not provide stability.

Congress leaders said the man who could provide the cushion the party needs against Chautala is former chief minister Bhajan Lal, whose breakaway Haryana Janhit Congress has won six seats.

Sources said Congress leaders had already contacted Bhajan Lal and his son Kuldeep Bishnoi in the hope they would come on board if the high command met their conditions.

Their first and non-negotiable condition is Hooda’s removal from the top. Hooda, made chief minister in 2005 even as the Congress fought the last election under Bhajan Lal’s leadership, had systematically worked to decimate the political legacy of the veteran leader, finally driving him out of the party.

Both Bhajan Lal and his son have a personal grudge against Hooda and the Congress cannot think of their support without a change of guard.

Hooda’s critics in the state — Kumari Selja, Chaudhary Birendra Singh, Rao Inderjit Singh and Kiran Chaudhary — have already begun efforts to convince Sonia Gandhi that Hooda could not be retained at the cost of the party’s long-term interests.

They say that Bhajan Lal, who served the Congress for over four decades, should be brought back.

Selja, the Union tourism minister and front runner in the race for chief minister, has already met the Congress president. Many senior party leaders feel that Selja, a Dalit and a woman, could be an ideal counter to Mayavati’s growing influence in the region.

Many leaders, whom Hooda had antagonised, have begun lobbying for his ouster. Birendra Singh, who was another aspirant but lost the election, is also working hard to stop Hooda from getting another term.

Several senior leaders are openly blaming the fractured mandate on Hooda’s overconfidence. They say he has changed the Congress culture in Haryana by transforming it into a Jat party and insisted on being given a free hand in ticket distribution.

Even the pre-election media campaign had reflected a Hooda-alone flavour, ignoring even Sonia and Rahul Gandhi.

The high command, however, had rallied behind Hooda, unwilling to change horses midstream. But the situation now has again emboldened his rivals and Hooda may have to pay the price for his domineering ways — despite the fact that the Congress’s performance is the best for any incumbent government in the last 37 years.

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