Rebels are rocking the boat in Congress-ruled states

After Uttarakhand, Arunachal Pradesh, Congress MLAs are now raising the banner of revolt in Manipur

BJP national vice-president Shyam Jaju (right) and rebel Congress legislators step out of Uttarakhand governor K.K. Paul’s residence in Dehradun after a meeting on Friday. Photo: PTI
BJP national vice-president Shyam Jaju (right) and rebel Congress legislators step out of Uttarakhand governor K.K. Paul’s residence in Dehradun after a meeting on Friday. Photo: PTI

New Delhi: First Arunachal Pradesh, then a simmering rebellion in Manipur and now Uttarakhand. The political crises in the three small states point to a larger problem brewing within the Congress—the inability to keep its own house in order.

On Sunday, Uttarakhand was placed under President’s rule after a crisis was triggered by nine rebel Congress MLAs, led by former chief minister and senior Congress leader Vijay Bahuguna, revolting against chief minister Harish Rawat and joining hands with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

After a brief period of President’s rule in Arunachal Pradesh, dissident leader Kalhiko Pul took oath as the chief minister of the north-eastern state, dislodging former chief minister and Congress veteran Nabam Tuki.

In Manipur, too, a section of discontented Congress MLAs have raised the banner of revolt against sitting chief minister Okram Ibobi Singh. They are unhappy over the chief minister’s attempt to rejig his cabinet and the central leadership of the Congress is seeking to strike a compromise.

Political analysts believe that the key to the present problems of the Congress may be due to the lack of an adequate democratic framework which can enable a more amicable settlement of differences.

“The leadership issue (the ascent of Rahul Gandhi as the party president) in the Congress is still not sorted. It is not clear as to who is in demand, it keeps shifting from time to time, day to day and situation to situation. This inability to deal with rebels is because the party is failing time and again to strategize, take proactive measures to avoid such situations or to have a leadership that takes steps to contain such a crisis,” said N. Bhaskara Rao, a New Delhi-based political analyst.

According to Rao, Congress has failed to do what is called “vulnerability mapping” or anticipate problems before they snowball into a crisis.

“There has clearly been a problem in the way the top leadership has handled the situation. There are three to four rival groups in every state but the problem is we don’t engage with all of them. We don’t realize that each group needs a hearing. Whenever we don’t give a hearing, such things happen whether it is Arunachal Pradesh and now Uttarakhand,” a senior Congress leader said, requesting anonymity.

“Also, the top leadership relies heavily on a set of leaders who are usually aligned to one of the groups. We entrust too much faith on one group and fail to listen to other voices within the party. In a way, the party is paying for its own deeds,” the leader added.

Interestingly, after the defeat in 2014 general elections, internal rebellion in the Congress party has erupted in relatively smaller states—Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur and even Uttarakhand.

Annpurna Nautiyal, dean of school of humanities and social sciences at H.N.B. Garhwal University in Uttarakhand, feels this is for a reason.

“These are small states, those which do not send more than 5-6 members to the Lok Sabha. They are not in the priority list for the Congress and so there is genuine resentment against the so-called high command by the ground-level leadership. Earlier they used to send senior leaders to the state to talk, engage and negotiate with rebel leaders, but that is not happening any more,” Nautiyal said.

At least in Uttarakhand, the rebel leaders felt that the lack of engagement by the top leaders was one of the key reasons for their resentment. A news report in The Indian Express on 23 March quoted one of the nine rebels, Harak Singh Rawat, as saying that the crisis was borne out of entirely “the weakness of the central leadership”, while another MLA Umesh Sharma said that Rahul Gandhi “has time to meet JNU Students’ Union president Kanhaiya Kumar but not his own party MLAs”.

“This also poses questions on Rahul Gandhi’s leadership. If he thinks he is capable of handling such situations, then instead of focusing on other issues, he should first find solutions for problems in his own party. If people are saying something, they need to be heard. If you ignore them, you run the risk of widening this divide,” said Nautiyal.

The Congress party is now worried that several states, regardless of whether they are in power or not, like in the case of Kerala, face factional rivalries.

“What is more interesting is that Congress is a political party that has always thrived on rebel groups where opposing forces balance each other but there is no such thing now. There is no such thing now in the party where discontentment is absorbed. Everyone in the party is expected to fall in line but no one knows where that line is,” Rao said, summing up the situation.

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