The Telegraph
Wednesday , May 21 , 2014
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Elections in two states top Cong worry list

New Delhi, May 20: Elections in Maharashtra and Haryana later this year are the Congress leadership’s biggest worry at the moment, with the Lok Sabha results suggesting a humiliating defeat is imminent.

Party sources said a comprehensive analysis of the rout in the general election would have to wait as the leadership first grapples with the challenge in these two states, which require quick decisions.

While there is immense pressure for the removal of Maharashtra chief minister Prithviraj Chavan, the leadership is clueless about Haryana where Bhupinder Singh Hooda remains well-entrenched.

In Maharashtra, there is unanimity among central and state leaders that the chief minister failed to provide strong leadership. Of the state’s 48 seats, the Congress won only two while ally NCP won four. Most state leaders and MLAs had conveyed to the central leadership much earlier that Chavan’s style of functioning would lead to defeat.

State leaders dismiss the “Modi wave” line, arguing that chief ministers like Mamata Banerjee, Naveen Patnaik and Jayalalithaa had held their own. They also ask how BJP chief ministers Shivraj Singh Chauhan and Raman Singh had blunted anti-incumbency.

But while accepting that Chavan’s managerial skills have been found wanting and his clean image wouldn’t be enough to put up a good fight, the central leadership is inclined to go to the polls under his leadership because it believes a new chief minister cannot make an impact in three-four months.

Central leaders said changing chief ministers in the last lap yields little electoral dividends, and cited the recent example of Uttarakhand where Harish Rawat was sent in place of Vijay Bahuguna but could not prevent a washout.

Sources said the leadership wants to focus on strengthening the organisation and fighting the election with unity instead of changing the chief minister.

Several MLAs and senior leaders reluctantly saw merit in this logic but threatened to quit the party if a new state Congress chief and AICC general secretary are not appointed immediately. One of them told The Telegraph: “AICC general secretary Mohan Prakash is responsible for running the party in Maharashtra. If he is not removed, there will be a huge exodus. We have conveyed this message to the high command.”

Most state leaders want former chief minister Ashok Chavan, one of the party’s two Lok Sabha election winners, as state unit chief in place of Manikrao Thakre.

In Haryana, where the party’s tally slipped to one from nine of the total 10 seats, Hooda does not face that kind of dissidence.

The party is worried that losses in Maharashtra and Haryana would strengthen the perception of an anti-Congress wave in the country and further demoralise workers. If it can save even one state, it would help in countering that.

Hooda has claimed that the BJP’s runaway success — it won seven seats and saw its vote share jump from barely 9 per cent in the last Assembly elections to 34.7 per cent although it has no charismatic leader in the state — was because of Modi, a factor that he says won’t be in play in the Assembly elections.

Congress sources said there is a belief that a winning caste combination can still be achieved in Haryana. Jats have turned against the party, creating a sound footing for the BJP, but Hooda still remains the tallest Jat leader and he will try to salvage the lost ground in the months leading up to the Assembly elections.

Another Congress state that yielded terrible results is Assam, where the party expected to sweep but ended up with only three seats while the BJP scored seven. The Congress vote share has declined by over 10 per cent since the 2011 Assembly elections, causing serious concern. Frequent riots and dissidence have added to the leadership’s worries.

But, sources said, Assam still has time for corrective measures and a decision to build a new leadership could be taken soon. Chief minister Tarun Gogoi is in Delhi for discussions. The Congress leadership rarely acts in a hurry and the changes may take some time but Gogoi could get some other responsibility in the next shuffle.