An election gone wrong, the mystery of a “replaced" pen, a defeat for the Congress and above all, allegations of rebellion against Gandhi family loyalist Bhupinder Singh Hooda.

The former Haryana chief minister is in the eye of a storm in the wake of the just-concluded Rajya Sabha election, in which the Congress-Indian National Lok Dal (INLD) candidate lost due to invalid votes cast by MLAs who owe allegiance to Hooda.

The big question: has Hooda turned rebel? The party is divided. One section feels he is “too loyal" to engineer a mutiny like this; the other is of the view that Hooda, often sidelined by the party, is trying to send out a message to the party leadership about his importance in state affairs.

A two-time chief minister and four-time Lok Sabha member, Hooda is an old Congress hand known to be close to party president Sonia Gandhi. Three generations of the Hooda family—his father Ranbir Singh Hooda was a senior party leader and a member of the constituent assembly, and his son Deepender Hooda is a Lok Sabha MP—have been associated with the Congress.

Hooda’s political fortunes came under a cloud when the party performed poorly in the Lok Sabha elections in 2014, losing all seats in Haryana, followed by a drubbing in the state elections later that year.

On Saturday, the Congress lost the chance to add one more member to its Rajya Sabha tally. The party, along with the INLD, decided to back independent candidate and lawyer R.K. Anand. It was known that Hooda was of the opinion that the party should abstain in the elections to avoid showing allegiance to any one candidate but a day before the polls, a meeting was held in which the party authorized the Congress president to take a call. She decided in favour of Anand.

On polling day, the votes of 14 Congress legislators were found invalid. The reason the party cites is that the pen meant to be used in the voting “got replaced", because of which the votes were counted as invalid.

“Hooda is an old hand in the party. His family’s allegiance to the party has been for three generations and to that extent he may not deliberately engineer something like this. Someone somewhere realized there is a fault line and a grey area that could be exploited. But the entire thing does seem planned, whoever did it. We should wait to see what comes out of it to decide whether Hooda is a rebel. There has been no instance in the past to suggest something to this effect,’’ a party leader said, requesting anonymity.

While many in the party have often spoken against the top leadership and criticized it in times of defeat, Hooda does not belong to that category, the leader cited above said, adding that even in the “worst of his days" when he was sidelined in the party, Hooda made sure there was no public display of anger or discontent.

This, however, may not be wholly correct. In an incident that pointed to the clout that Hooda has in the Haryana Congress, Ashok Tanwar, Haryana party president, was booed during a farmers’ rally in the national capital in April last year, presumably by Hooda supporters who attended the rally.

In the run-up to the general elections, Tanwar was appointed president of the Haryana Congress unit, ruffling feathers in the Hooda camp. With a divide opening up in the party, between the old guard and young blood, Hooda’s supporters objected to Tanwar’s appointment. Some say, therefore, that Saturday’s development is a “deliberate" attempt by Hooda to send home a message.

“How is it that only Congress and only those MLAs’ votes were found to be invalid...One or two votes can still be understood but 14 is a big number. I think it is very deliberate and Hooda wants to show who is the boss in the party and who calls the shots. He has shown that if ignored, he can take the highway. It’s going to cost the party a lot,’’ a senior party leader and former Union minister said, also requesting anonymity.

Hooda is known to have been close to former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi. A Jat community leader, he is, in a way, an indisputable leader of the party in Haryana and has formidable ground support.

“He has served the party for so long that he is synonymous with it in Haryana. Such an incident has never happened before. His conscience is clear and so he has asked for a repoll. However, no one can stop the blame game and those who stand to benefit from it will continue to do so,’’ said a close aide of Hooda’s, requesting that he not be named.

On Monday, the party approached the Election Commission for countermanding the poll and it believes that there has been no rebellion by Hooda or anyone else and it is a “conspiracy" by the BJP.

“It is a deliberate attempt by the BJP in connivance with the returning officer to defeat the Congress-INLD-backed candidate. There is no fraud or rebellion of any kind. There was a decision taken by the party and everyone followed it. There is no question of seeking any explanation from Hooda,’’ said Congress general secretary B.K. Hariprasad, the party’s observer in the state for Saturday’s poll.

“This is a rebellion against the party’s top leadership. It is going to affect the party organization in the state which is already in a bad shape and upset the morale of its cadre. The fact that there is a rivalry between the former CM (Hooda) and the current state unit president (Tanwar), is adding to the problems,’’ said Kushal Pal, an associate professor and head of the political science department at Dyal Singh College in Karnal, Haryana.

As the situation stands right now, the party is blaming it all on the pen. “There has been no rebellion of any sort, no defiance of the party’s order. It is a conspiracy by the BJP. A purple-ink pen was attached to a string when voting happened, someone changed it. The big question is who changed the pen and how did it reach there,’’ a party MLA and senior leader said. He did not want to be identified

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