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Hooda vs Selja: Spectre of internal rift haunts Haryana Congress

Party insiders say Bhupinder Singh Hooda wants his son Deepender to be made state unit chief but others oppose

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi with party leaders from Haryana in a group photograph, during a meeting in New Delhi. (PTI)

After factionalism in its Punjab unit led to an electoral debacle, the Haryana Congress is witnessing internal discord between two top leaders. This comes at a time the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) is looking to replicate its Punjab success and expand in the state ahead of the 2024 Assembly polls.

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Party insiders said the state unit was divided into two camps — one led by Pradesh Congress Committee chief Kumari Selja, the other loyal to former Chief Minister and current Leader of the Opposition Bhupinder Singh Hooda. Though the two have not openly spoken out against each other, that they are not on good terms is apparent as they have not shared the stage at party events in recent months. For the past few months, Hooda has been touring various districts as part of the “Vipaksh Aapke Samaksh (Opposition amidst you)” campaign. Selja, meanwhile, has kept away from the campaign and supervises other organisational matters of the party.

Hooda is believed to have the support of over two dozen of the party’s 31 MLAs. Several former MPs and ministers are also considered Hooda loyalists. Kumari Selja, on the other hand, is seen as someone quite close to Congress president Sonia Gandhi.

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According to party functionaries, Hooda has been trying to oust Selja and get his son Deepender appointed the state unit chief. However, senior leaders such as Randeep Surjewala, Kiran Choudhry, and Kuldeep Bishnoi are against such a move. Before the 2019 polls, the Hooda camp had managed to push out former state Congress chief Ashok Tanwar, who eventually quit the party.

Rahul Gandhi steps in

On March 25, former Congress president Rahul Gandhi chaired a meeting of the party’s Haryana leadership in New Delhi in an attempt to broker peace between the two factions. Senior leaders such as the Hoodas, Selja, Surjewala, Choudhry and Bishnoi were among those who were present.

Sources said heated arguments occurred at the meeting as the Hoodas pushed for a leadership change in the state. Deepender reportedly urged Rahul to order a survey of the party’s MLAs and cadre to find out which leader, his father or Selja, was more popular and enjoyed maximum support.

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Rahul, according to party insiders, told the Haryana leaders they would have to accept “collective responsibility” and contest the elections as a “collective leadership”.

The party official in charge of Haryana, Vivek Bansal, admitted that “factionalism is indeed a major challenge before the party high command” in the run-up to the state elections.

“Of course, it (factionalism) is a major issue, which is why the meeting was called by the top boss (Rahul),” Bansal told The Indian Express. “But, very soon, you will see that this issue will be resolved. I am very confident that I shall be able to resolve this issue in the near future.”

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Asked if Selja would be replaced as state Congress chief, he added, “It is too early to say anything on that. Such decisions shall be made by the party high command.”

Sources said Bansal was scheduled to meet Rahul again on Monday to discuss the matter.

Meanwhile, while Selja dismissed reports of any discord in the state unit, Hooda told The Indian Express that “there can be differences of opinion among the party’s leaders, but there is no difference of heart”.

“Rahul ji asked everybody to speak frankly. Everybody shared their concerns and a discussion was held about the political scenario, not only in Haryana but also in other states. My concern was basically about the organisation, which I put forth. Several others spoke about the party’s recent performance in Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, and even at the national level. So, Rahul ji heard everybody and said everybody would have to put their act together and step out on roads, reach out to the public. He also told everybody to remain united to avoid what happened in Punjab,” Selja told The Indian Express.

Hooda’s 2019 rebellion

Such leadership battle in the Haryana Congress, especially involving Hooda, is not new.

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Before the 2019 Assembly elections, he spoke out against the party’s high command after he was not declared the chief ministerial candidate. At a massive rally in Rohtak in August 2019, Hooda said, “I am the chief ministerial candidate, with or without the party.” He almost hinted at parting ways with the Congress if he was not declared the CM face.

The Congress gave in to his demands by appointing him its Legislature Party leader, the chairperson of its state election committee, and the chief ministerial candidate. However, it was Selja who replaced Tanwar.

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The tussle over who would lead the state Congress intensified again after the Congress, with 31 seats, fell way short of the majority mark of 46 in 2019. Subsequently, the BJP, with 40 MLAs, and the Jannayak Janta Party of Dushyant Chautala joined hands to form the government.

Last year, 21 MLAs from the Hooda camp visited Delhi and met Congress general secretary KC Venugopal to seek Selja’s ouster.

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This constant in-fighting has weakened the party organisation. The Congress has not appointed district unit leaders for over nine years. Asked about it, Bansal said, “We shall soon put everything in order, including the party’s leadership issue and district organisations framework as well.”

First published on: 27-03-2022 at 01:10:22 pm
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