Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr | Cong’s slide in Himachal sign of a deeper malaise

The Asian Age.  | Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr

Opinion, Columnists

Cross-voting chaos in Himachal as Congress faces dissent, BJP claims majority, creating a political turmoil

Himachal Pradesh Chief Minister Sukhvinder Singh Sukhu, Karnataka Deputy Chief Minister DK Shivakumar, Former Chhattisgarh chief minister Bhupesh Baghel, Former Haryana chief minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda and Congress leader Rajeev Shukla during a meeting, in Shimla, Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2024. (PTI Photo)

The defeat for the Congress in the election to the lone Rajya Sabha seat from Himachal Pradesh has a bizarre turn to it. Congress’ candidate Abishek “Manu” Singhvi did not lose to Harsh Mahajan, a former Congressman who had left the party in 2022, in terms of getting a lesser number of votes. There was a tie when six Congressmen cross-voted and three Independents went with Mr Mahajan, at 34 each. It was the lots that went against Mr Singhvi. Being a former Congressman of prominence, Mr Mahajan must have influenced the six rebels to vote for him. The mystery, of course, is that of the three Independents.

The fact that they voted together instead of in their individual capacity makes for a strange reading.

The BJP has not hesitated to poach members from the ruling party in a bid to form its own government anywhere in the country. The party has played political rugby without apology. That it fielded Mr Mahajan, a former Congressman, for the Rajya Sabha seat is a ploy in itself, and it must have calculated that it could steal votes from the Congress’ side. But it seems to have overplayed its hand.

After gaining the Rajya Sabha seat, it made the claim that the Congress had lost its majority in the state, which is not the case. The two sides stand with 34 members on each side. And the BJP is now dependent on the support of six Congressmen and three Independents. And if the six Congress members have been disqualified under the anti-defection law, then the BJP is left with its own 25 members and the three Independents, which takes the number to 28, still well behind the Congress’ 34.

The aggressive approach is part of the BJP culture, but the fact remains that the BJP has no majority in the House. Of course, the expectation is that it will draw away more Congress members. It is futile to blame the BJP for violating the norms of democracy because the party is not for playing by the protocols of the game.

The blame for the crisis then falls squarely on the shoulders of the Congress Party. Quite clearly, the party, after having won the election a year ago, is not able to keep its flock together. There are innumerable reasons for the discontent in the party. The choice of the leader has always been a sore point. The Congress has always tried to break the dominance of the local cliques, and empower and enthrone someone from outside the circle. But in the day-to-day management of affairs, the chosen chief minister cannot hope to depend on the central leadership. In the case of Himachal Pradesh, the dominance of the Virabhadra Singh family remains unchallenged. And chief minister Sukhwinder Singh Sukhu is on a weak wicket. The resignation of public works department minister Vikramaditya Singh, son of Virabhadra Singh, is a case in point, despite the later withdrawal. The stated reason for his unhappiness is that his father’s statue has not been set up at Mall Road in Shimla. This might be just a pretext, and the real reasons must be quite different. But it does show how power battles are fought inside the Congress.

Many of the sage advisers of the Congress -- from outside the party, and including many in the media – is that the legislature party should choose the chief minister, and that he/she should not be handpicked by the central leadership. At most times, the factional tussles at the legislature party level are so intense that they turn to the central leadership to pick the chief minister. And once someone is chosen, the dissident groups get into action. In a strange way, this is an example of a party that does not have organisational discipline. To have strong and vocal backbenchers is a positive thing. But the backbenchers don’t seem to stop with keeping the government on its toes. They are looking for ways of overthrowing the leadership and the government.

The endemic rebellion shows that there is chaos, and there is no strong central leadership. Ironically, the critics of the Congress have always blamed the tyrannical rule of the family, the Nehru-Gandhis.

What seems to plague the Congress is that it has lost its ideological glue, which is rooted in the outdated concepts -- in today’s context -- of secularism and socialism. Many Congress members are not wedded to these principles, and they are only too ready to throw them out. The Congress may have to rebuild the party on these principles, or find other principles which are more relevant. The Congress as a power machine is breaking down because it does not have a monopoly over power across the country which it had once. The country’s political geography has changed radically, and the party is now excluded from large tracts.

The BJP on the other hand is governed no doubt by disingenuous Hindutva with all its negative connotations, which are eating into the vitals of the social fabric and creating an atmosphere of aggression in place of trust. At the same time, the party is willing to grab and appropriate any politician to enlarge its numbers. So, it is a combination of political mercenaries and a toxic ideology that is carrying it forward.

The BJP has, however, realised that ideology has its limitations and that is why it is willing to bargain with anyone and everyone.

In many ways, this is politics as usual. It does not pay to bemoan the fact that there is horse-trading because when politics is reduced to power stakes, the trading is inevitable. The Congress with all its fissiparous characteristics remains the only party with the semblance of a national organisation, and which can fight the BJP. There was a time when political observers lamented the fact that there was no effective opposition to the Congress under Nehru and Indira Gandhi. The wheel of fortune has turned, and there is a lament, not yet loud, that there is need for a real opposition to Narendra Modi.

The wheel will, of course, turn once again, and in the course of time the BJP will lose its dominance in the country despite their frenzied claim of 1,000 years of Ram Rajya. The Himachal Pradesh episode should not be magnified beyond proportion because the Congress in Karnataka had aced the BJP in getting the fourth seat to the Rajya Sabha.