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Hill challenge to high command

Harish Rawat in New Delhi on Tuesday. (Prem Singh)

New Delhi, March 13: The Congress culture of thrusting chief ministers on states against the wishes of legislators has been openly challenged for the first time in the tiny hill state of Uttarakhand, where the fractured mandate had made government formation a tricky exercise.

Harish Rawat, widely perceived as the chief ministerial candidate, has decided to fight against the high command’s decision to install Vijay Bahuguna as the head of government.

As soon as Bahuguna’s name was declared last night, MLAs assembled at Rawat’s residence and entreated him to revolt against the “injustice.”

Rawat, who was denied the chance of becoming chief minister 10 years ago when the high command preferred veteran N.D. Tiwari, summoned the courage to speak up and wrote a formal protest letter to Sonia Gandhi. He also sent in his resignation as minister of state in the Union government.

The central leadership was taken aback by the rebellion, almost alien to Congress culture where sycophancy thrives, but the core committee decided to stick to its guns and sent Bahuguna to Dehradun to take oath. Senior leaders felt buckling under pressure would have been worse although many found the choice of Bahuguna “surprising.”

Bahuguna alone took oath today, in the presence of central leaders, some Congress MLAs, the three Independents, three BSP legislators and the lone Uttarakhand Kranti Dal (UKD) MLA.

Rawat, who avoided speaking on camera, told journalists: “The AICC in-charge Birendra Singh said, ‘Rawat has the support of only 6 MLAs’. He should now explain where the MLAs were as only eight Congress MLAs were present at the swearing-in of the chief minister in Dehradun this evening.”

Around 20 of the Congress’s 32 MLAs were at Rawat’s residence at Teen Murti Lane in New Delhi. With hundreds of combative supporters shouting slogans and dancing to drumbeats, it looked like Rawat was prepared for a long battle. His supporters openly accused the central leadership of taking decisions on “non-political considerations.”

Asked if he had resigned from the Union ministry, he said: “No comments.”

On reports that he was in touch with the BJP, Rawat said: “I am not seeking anything outside the Congress umbrella. I am not fighting a war against the party. I wanted to prove a point to the leadership and I have done that.”

While his supporters and some MLAs said the only option now was to float a new party, Rawat is not in a mood to make any reckless move and would wait for the scenario to unfold.

One senior MLA told The Telegraph: “There is no point in remaining in the party when the faith in the top leadership is shattered. We are in a position to form the government as a section of the BJP will extend support.” But Rawat may wait till the confidence vote.

The Congress, which has 32 MLAs, also has the support of the independents, the BSP and the UKD. But with at least 15 party MLAs firmly behind Rawat, Bahuguna will not be able to muster the 35 votes required to win the confidence of the House.

The BJP, with 31 MLAs, will then be more than happy to fish in the troubled waters. Baba Ramdev is also said to be working behind the scenes to defeat the Congress game plan, according to sources.

The Congress high command, however, believes Rawat will give up after a while. Sonia Gandhi is expected to talk to him.

Sources said Ghulam Nabi Azad, who was sent to Dehradun to elicit the views of the legislators, had conveyed to Sonia that an MLA, not an MP, should be chief minister. But a section in the high command favoured Bahuguna, a Lok Sabha MP who was a judge in Bombay High Court. Bahuguna is the son of the late H.N. Bahuguna and the brother of Uttar Pradesh Congress chief Rita Bahuguna Joshi. He is also related to the outgoing BJP chief minister B.C. Khanduri.


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