Days after the Congress leadership appointed him as the Haryana Pradesh Congress Committee (HPCC) president, senior Dalit leader and ex-MLA Udai Bhan, 67, took charge of his post at the state party headquarters in Chandigarh Wednesday. The event was, however, turned into their show of strength by Leader of Opposition (LoP) and ex-chief minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda and his son and Rajya Sabha MP Deepender Hooda.
A close confidant of Senior Hooda, Bhan replaced another Dalit leader Kumari Selja, a known rival of Hooda, as the Haryana Congress chief.
Riding their luxury SUVs, Hoodas along with Bhan covered a distance of nearly 216 kms – from Rai (Sonipat) to the HPCC office at Chandigarh’s Sector 9 – along the national highway in over 12 hours (a distance usually covered in 3.5 hours). Their kilometres-long convoy comprised of trucks, which were fitted with amplified speakers blaring Haryanvi songs and jingles praising the Hoodas, and cars and buses, which were packed with Congress workers shouting slogans for Hoodas and barely any for Bhan.
Although the Congress high command’s bid to name a staunch Hooda loyalist clearly signalled its decision to give a “free hand” to LoP Hooda, a Jat stalwart, in the state Congress affairs in the run-up to the 2024 Assembly polls, the move seems to have been resented by a section of the state party unit involving senior leaders like Randeep Singh Surjewala, a Jat leader, and Kuldeep Bishnoi, a prominent non-Jat face.
In signs of rumblings of discontent in the Haryana Congress, both Surjewala and Bishnoi skipped Bhan’s “coronation” event. Selja went to the HPCC headquarters to attend the event, but as the arrival of Hoodas and Bhan was delayed for hours, she also left before it could begin.
Talking to The Indian Express, Selja said, “They told me that they shall be reaching here (Chandigarh) at 4 pm, then they said they were getting late. I reached the party office at 5, kept waiting for them, but then I learnt that they would be taking at least two-three more hours. There was not even a place for me to sit. The pandals were drenched in water due to rain and the rooms at the party office were locked. Where would I have sat? Thus, I left. Till what time could I have waited?”.
She had congratulated Bhan and the four new working presidents soon after their names were announced by the party leadership.
One of the four working presidents, Shruti Choudhry, was also absent from the event, although she said she had tested positive for Covid-19 just three days ago and would thus not be able to make it.
A senior MLA from Hisar’s Adampur seat, Bishnoi had engaged in intense lobbying to be appointed as the state party chief’s post or at least its working president, but he was not given any position in the HPCC revamp.
Bishnoi has however made it clear that he is upset with the party leadership’s decision. One of his close aides told the Express, “We shall not be attending any party event till we meet Rahul Gandhi and seek a reply from him on the party high command’s decision. Rauhl ji is busy these days. We shall see when he meets us and then we shall decide accordingly.”
Surjewala, the All India Congress Committee (AICC) general secretary in charge of communication, has also come out openly in Bishnoi’s favour. He told a press conference last week that Bishnoi would have been the “best HPCC president”. Like Bishnoi, Surjewala, a former minister in the erstwhile Hooda-led Haryana government, is also considered to be one of the chief ministerial aspirants, among other senior state Congress leaders.
Notwithstanding their party detractors’ bids to vent their resentment against the HPCC revamp, Hoodas have, however, clearly emerged stronger now. While the son Deepender had met AICC president Sonia Gandhi hours before the rejig of the state party unit, Hooda, accompanied by Bhan, met Gandhi after she cleared the new HPCC appointments.
Evidently, Hoodas appeared to have gone all out to ensure that the Wednesday function marking the new HPCC team’s taking charge is turned into their show, with the spectacle stretching from the national highway to the state party headquarters. The AICC’s Haryana in-charge Vivek Bansal too reached Chandigarh to take part in the event.
Their supporters not only greeted Hoodas and Bhan at Sonipat, Hoodas’ stronghold, but also welcomed them at nearly two dozen points on their way to Chandigarh.
A number of Haryana’s Assembly constituencies skirting the national highway are currently represented by the BJP MLAs, which include Gharaunda, Rai, Ganaur, Panipat (City), Panipat (Rural), Gharaunda, Karnal, Ambala, Cantonment, Ambala City, Panchkula, etc. Hoodas’ convoy halted at all these places to display their strength in the BJP-held seats. The three Congress-held seats along the route include Samalkha and Israna in Panipat and Nilokheri in Karnal.
Hooda, who has majority of the party MLAs on his side, had been seeking Selja’s removal from her post for a long time. Selja had replaced Ashok Tanwar as the HPCC president in September 2019. Hooda had also been at loggerheads with Tanwar, getting him ousted from his post and eventually from the party itself.
Bhan’s appointment as Selja’s replacement was said to have been suggested by Hooda whose opponents within the faction-ridden state Congress has dubbed the former as a “rubber stamp” for the LoP.
Moments after his elevation, Bhan himself said that “there is no leadership issue in the party’s state unit now” and that “we all shall be working under the able leadership and guidance of Hooda and take Congress to new heights”.