By Sandeep Sahu
Odisha Congress is back to doing what it knows best: indulging in factional feud. Reports from Delhi suggest things have reached tipping point. Coming as they do less than four months before the panchyat elections, widely being seen as a semi-final before the Battle Royale in 2019, the developments over the last couple of days do not augur well for a party that has been out of power in the state for 16 years now.
Leader of Opposition (LoP) Narasingha Mishra, who led a delegation of 16 Congress MLAs that met party vice president Rahul Gandhi on Sunday, may have scotched speculation about his resignation from the post. Talk of mass resignation by all 16 after Rahul reportedly chided them for asking for a change of guard too could be a media creation as the LoP has alleged. But in the backdrop of the hectic parleys in New Delhi over the last two days, the ‘official’ explanation that the Congress Legislature Party (CLP) met the high command to brief it about its meeting with President Pranab Mukherjee on the Mahanadi issue has to be taken with bagful of salt. [For the record, the party MLAs met Sonia Gandhi’s personal secretary V George this morning, which was followed by a two-hour long one-on-one between Rahul and Mishra to finally end with another meeting between the MLAs and Ahmed Patel, Sonia’s trouble shooter at large, in the evening.]
That all is not well with the party has been clear for some time now. Dissidence came to the fore for the first time during Harichandan’s stint when as many as 12 Congress MLAs camped in the national capital for days earlier this year allegedly to seek replacement of Taraprasad Bahinipati, the party chief whip in the Assembly. But the party was able to weather the storm after several rounds of backroom negotiations.
Bickering within the party, however, kept resurfacing every now and then – first when senior leader Bhakta Charan Das went public with his strong disapproval of the PCC chief’s decision to appoint his bête noire as the Kalahandi DCC president. This too was swept under the carpet after a closed-door meeting between Das and Harichandan. This was followed by an open war of words between former Union minister Srikant Jena and LoP Narasingha Mishra at a party office bearers’ meeting a few weeks ago when the former slammed the party MLAs’ decision to prostrate themselves before Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik on the floor of the Assembly to press their demand for filling up of vacant government posts meant for ST and SC candidates.
But things really came to a head when LoP Narasingha Mishra took the lead in calling for an all-party meet on the Mahandi water dispute with Chhattisgarh which Harichandan, for reasons that are not yet clear, chose to skip. The fissures within the party became more obvious when Mishra and Harichandan led separate marches in Bhubaneswar during the statewide protest on the issue. Though Harichandan sought to downplay the rift during a press conference in the evening where Mishra too was present, it was obvious that the party had missed out on an opportunity to send out a message of unity on the occasion.
From then on, things have gone steadily downhill with the CLP constantly at loggerheads with the PCC over a number of issues. The clarion call of “We, not I” given by Prasad Harichandan on the day he took charge as PCC president on December 28, 2014, now lies in tatters.
It is a mystery why the demand for a change in the state PCC leadership gathers momentum just when a major election is around the corner. PCC presidents were changed on the eve of Assembly elections both in 2014 and 2009, giving the new leader very little time to put the bickering house in order.
It is not as if factionalism in the Congress rears its head only when the party is in Opposition. Even during the golden run of the party in the 1980s when it was in power for nearly a decade without a break, dissidence never quite deserted the state unit. At one time, more than 80 MLAs led by the Late Basanta Biswal had ganged up against Chief Minister JB Patnaik. That the latter survived the scare was a testimony to his political guile and ability to win over people.
It was no different when the party returned to power in 1995 with Chief Minister JB Patnaik fighting dissidence for much of his third term before he was unceremoniously sacked by the high command following the gang rape of Anjana Mishra and murder of Australian missionary Graham Staines in January, 1999.
Things reached the nadir towards the end of the year when the state was reeling under the devastating impact of the Super Cyclone On October 19 with dissidents rushing to New Delhi to demand the replacement of Giridhar Gamang, the man who succeeded JB. Many observers are of the opinion that the people of the state have never quite forgiven the Congress for fighting among themselves at a time when the state was grappling with the effects of the worst natural calamity in recent memory.
There is obviously something in the DNA of the party’s Odisha unit that prevents it from presenting a united front – in the best of times and in the worst. Until the party gets it act together, it does not have a hope in hell of coming back to power in Odisha.