Virbhadra wins election, not Cong praise

New Delhi, Jan. 10: Even the worst critics of Virbhadra Singh concede that the face-saving victory in Himachal Pradesh, which enabled the Congress to dilute the shock of the fifth straight defeat in Gujarat, was because of him.

But not the party mouthpiece, the Congress Sandesh, which does not mention him once in its latest issue.

The editorial in the Sandesh says: "The victory in Himachal was hailed as the result of the development programmes of the UPA government and the expression of faith in the Congress by the polity."

There is no mention of Virbhadra anywhere. Even the "Stateswatch" section, which records important developments from every state, has ignored the Himachal win while dealing extensively with the Gujarat campaign.

Virbhadra is unpopular among central leaders who see him as domineering and resent his refusal to dance to the tune of those who draw their political clout from 10 Janpath.

Still, many leaders are surprised at the "lack of grace" in the refusal to acknowledge his contribution.

Virbhadra, who was a member of the first Parliament alongside Jawaharlal Nehru, is a five-term Lok Sabha member, seven-time MLA and six-time chief minister. The antipathy towards him highlights an underlying tendency to discourage or curtail satraps who have their own mass base. Ironically, most of the recent electoral losses, including Gujarat, have been blamed on the absence of a strong local leadership.

When Sonia Gandhi initially came into politics, she gave exceptional importance to the party's chief ministers and used them to build the challenge to the ruling BJP at the Centre in the run-up to the 2004 general election. It was the annual Congress chief ministers' conference that gave Sonia political clout when she was struggling for recognition as a leader against the veteran Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

Chief ministers like Digvijaya Singh, A.K. Antony, Sheila Dikshit, Ajit Jogi, Vilasrao Deshmukh, Amrinder Singh, S.M. Krishna, Tarun Gogoi and Ashok Gehlot not only helped her restore the Congress to its national pre-eminence but nursed the financial and electoral muscle of the party.

The situation changed with the defeats of many of these chief ministers, and the focus shifted from the state leadership to the high command structure. Leaders with no experience of winning elections and no popular support assumed the space vacated by the satraps.

Sheila Dikshit, the Delhi chief minister who continued to win elections, was subjected to ouster plots and conspiracies but managed to hold on because of her personal rapport with Sonia and her children.

Haryana chief minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda, too, has won elections but never got the importance his counterparts were given in the pre-2004 days.

The culture of sycophancy has taken such deep roots in the party that nobody risks raising uncomfortable issues, rendering such exercises as the upcoming Chintan Baithak ritualistic.

The December issue of Sandesh is proof of this: the rallies of Sonia and Rahul in Gujarat have been prominently displayed, and there are articles hailing the Congress president's charismatic personality because her birthday was on December 9.

One article written by senior leader Suresh Pachauri, who also heads the party's research wing, argues that had Sonia wanted she could have become the Prime Minister right after Rajiv Gandhi's death. The Congress president has so far been credited for the welfare agenda of the government, but Pachauri writes: "She has always endeavoured that there should be rapid growth in industry so that India not only is counted amongst the developed countries but also mark a special and distinctive place in the world."

Another article says: "Regardless of the fact that Sonia is the daughter-in-law of the one of the most dominant political families in the country, it is by dint of her persona, charisma and kind nature that she has been able to differentiate and prove herself."

It is not for Sandesh to delve into the uncomfortable questions about the party's performance in such states as Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, Chhattisgarh, Odisha and Punjab or the traditional problem areas Tamil Nadu, Bengal, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.

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