Congress in Troubled Water

The political scenario is becoming more dismal for the Congress party in Himachal Pradesh ahead of the assembly elections – set to be held later this year. The hill state is facing anti-incumbency with the Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh and the Congress government facing a spate of protests over the gang rape and gruesome murder of a minor girl in Shimla. The Congress has been facing rough weather across the country and losing power in one state after the other to the BJP. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has taken the party’s election bugle to the state – holding a massive rally in Shimla. It’s an uphill task for the Congress and the BJP certainly has an upper hand in the ensuing polls, writes RAKESH LOHUMI

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As the assembly election is drawing near the political scenario is becoming increasingly difficult for the ruling Congress in Himachal Pradesh. Certain unsavoury developments within the state in recent weeks coupled with a virtual rebellion by some party leaders have added to the woes of the party which has been on a losing spree across the country.
The huge public outcry over the gang rape and gruesome murder of a minor girl in Kotkhai in Shimla, the home district of Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh, and the massive protests that followed virtually rendered the position of the government untenable. The inept handling of the case by the police at the initial stages sent a wave of anger among the people and things came to a head when one of the accused was allegedly murdered while in police custody. There was a spate of protests and people took to streets, blocking the main highways. The opposition parties, particularly the BJP which is the main contender for power, jumped into the troubled waters to draw maximum political mileage from the incident in view of the impending polls. Several social organisations also joined the agitation, which saw violent protests, throwing the state into political turbulence. Having lost faith in the state investigating agency the people demanded that the case be handed over to the CBI.
Allegations that the police was trying to shield the real culprits put the government on the defensive. As BJP mounted pressure on the chief minister to own up responsibility for shoddy investigations and resign from office, a beleaguered government decided to entrust the case to the CBI as part of damage control exercise. Virbhadra Singh wrote a letter to the Prime Minister requesting that the case be taken over by the central agency without any delay. As the Centre took time in responding, the state moved the high court with a plea that directions be issued to the CBI to take up the case. The court acceded to the request and directed the CBI to take up the case and constitute an SIT (Special Investigation Team) within 48 hours.

With the government on the back foot some disgruntled legislators also Wrote a letter to the high command demanding change in leadership

However, the handing over the case to the CBI did not provide much respite as the BJP has kept the pot boiling by organising protests right down to polling booth level to press the demand for resignation of the chief minister. The party also involved its women’s wing in the protests making it evident that the issue will be exploited to the hilt for electoral gains.
The incident could not have taken place for the Congress at a more inopportune time. It not only gave a potent election issue but also encouraged the rivals of Virbhadra Singh within the Congress, who have been lying low, to speak in dissenting voice. While firebrand leader from Kangra openly challenged his leadership, transport minister G S Bali embarrassed his own party government by terming the rape and murder incident a blot on the state. State Congress chief Sukhwinder Singh, who has been at loggerheads with Virbhadra Singh, decided to seek report from the district party units over the turbulence cause by the incident in the state to appraise the high command of the situation on the ground. With the government on the back foot some disgruntled legislators also wrote a letter to the high command demanding change in leadership.
However, the tragedy for the Congress is that the high command is no more in a position to assert its authority and enforce discipline. While the BJP high command has been meticulously planning the moves for the impending electoral battle, the Congress high command is in a state of utter confusion. It seems incapable of taking tough decisions and there are no visible signs of its involvement in the affairs of the state particularly with regard to preparations for the assembly polls. The party has been facing rough weather across the country and losing power in one state after the other to the BJP. There is deep sense of disillusionment among the party cadres and they have little hope from the high command. Himachal is a state where anti-incumbency has been the overriding factor in deciding the outcome of elections. The political regime has been witnessing a change with every election over the past three decades with Congress and BJP taking turns in office. Thus, the overall poll scenario for the Congress is far from encouraging. The only silver lining is that the party has a government in the neighbouring state of Punjab. It will be a great help in arranging manpower and raising the resources needed for carrying out an effective poll campaign.
The in-charge of party affairs in the state Ambika Soni has resigned and she has been replaced by veteran leader Sushil Kumar Shinde in the last week of July. Even if Shinde plans to make some changes, it may not be possible as there is little time left for polls. Elections are to be held in the state along with Gujarat and indications are that the polls may be held a little earlier. The Congress government assumed office on December 25, 2012 but the polling was completed on November 4. Since the three tribal assembly segments become snowbound during winter polling will be held before the high mountain passes are closed.

the bJp is on a high after it managed to install its mayor and deputy mayor in the shimla municipal corporation With the support of an independent

Rahul Gandhi has repeatedly toured the state; People protest the brutal murder of a girl, and deteriorating law and order in general; Prime Minister Modi did a massive rally at the historic Ridge Maidan and blew the election bugle

The BJP is on a high after it managed to install its mayor and deputy mayor in the Shimla Municipal Corporation with the support of an independent. It was for the first time in the 32year history of the corporation that the BJP has managed to have a majority, though it emerged as the single largest party in 2012. It has kept up the cadres in the active mode to maintain the momentum provided by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s massive rally held on the Ridge Maidan on April 27.
The new in-charge of party affairs Mangal Pandey has been making frequent visits to the state, interacting with workers at the grassroots to get authentic feedback and planning party programmes accordingly. Unlike in the past the party did not slowdown its field activities even during the monsoon and rolled out “Parivartan Rath Yatras” in all the four parliamentary constituencies as part of its mass contact programme. Led by prominent leaders the “yatras” passed through the nook and corner of the state to cover all the 68 assembly segments over a period of three weeks. National leaders also participated at different stages in the yatras, which started and concluded at important Hindu shrines to send the right message to the people of “Dev Bhoomi” as Himachal is popularly known. In an effort to extend its appeal beyond the cadres the organisers made it a point to invite all the panchayat pradhans, irrespective of their political leanings, to various functions held en route. Over the years a large number of old party workers have become inactive and to ensure their involvement the party specially honoured them at these functions.
The Virbhadra Singh government came under fierce attack on the issue of corruption and indifferent governance during the “Parivartan Yatras”. The party leaders also highlighted the achievements of the Modi government and their impact on the state and central leaders also addressed rallies where people were apprised of various policies and development initiatives in detail. The party plans to organise “Padyatras” in the next phase during which the party workers will carry out intensive door-to-door campaigns covering every household. The gory incident of gang rape and murder of a minor in Kotkhai provided it more ammunition to attack the Congress in its stronghold of Shimla district which has eight assembly segments. The impact is likely to extend to adjoining Solan and Sirmour districts which together account for 10 seats. It is the best opportunity for the BJP to make permanent inroads into the Congress bastion.
The Congress is entirely dependent on the leadership of octogenarian Virbhadra Singh and despite the voices of dissent against him getting louder, the party does not have a leader of his stature to take on the BJP in the electoral arena. There are still few months to go for the polls and much will depend on the new incharge Shinde whose first and foremost task is to bridge the widening gulf between the party organisation and the government, unite the warring leaders and make them work with vigour for the party candidates in the ensuing polls.