The irony of the situation is inescapable.
A few months ago, former Uttarakhand chief minister Harish Rawat was busy tamping down on the raging dissidence in the Punjab unit of the Congress in his capacity as party general secretary in charge of the state. It was on his watch that Amarinder Singh was forced out as chief minister while bete noire Navjot Singh Sidhu was appointed President of the party’s state unit and Charanjit Singh Channi elevated as chief minister. It was Rawat’s job to mediate between Amarinder Singh and Sidhu and also placate angry dissidents which often placed him in the line of fire.
Today, the wheel has come full circle. Like Amarinder Singh, Rawat is a bitter man.
A week’s a long time in …
As he prepares for next year’s assembly election in Uttarakhand, he has publicly complained about the lack of support from the party. Rawat, who is currently the Congress poll campaign chief for the upcoming election, put out a series of tweets recently lamenting that at a time when Uttarakhand is heading for an assembly election, the party is playing a negative role by ignoring him.
These tweets were clearly aimed at the Gandhis and their emissaries – Uttarakhand in charge Devendra Yadav and KC Venugopal, Congress general secretary looking after party organisation.
Rawat’s tweets said it all.
"The powers-that-be have let loose many crocodiles (predators) in the sea that we have to navigate. Those whom I am supposed to follow, their people have tied my hands and feet. I have been thinking... Harish Rawat, it's gone too far, you have done enough, it is time to rest," he wrote.
"Then there is a voice in the head that quietly says I am neither weak nor will run from challenges. I am in turmoil. Hope the New Year shows me the way. I am confident that Lord Kedarnath (Shiva), will show me the way," he added.
Though Rawat has been seething for some time now, the latest outburst was provoked by inside information that the party had already finalised a list of 35 candidates for the coming polls while he was in the dark about this development. This enraged Rawat who is pressing the Congress leadership to declare him as the party’s chief ministerial face.
And in order to lay claim to this position post-elections, Rawat wants his supporters to get a bulk of tickets. Not only have his demands been ignored but he has also not got any support from the state unit which has left Rawat on his own to handle his poll campaign.
Venugopal and Devendra Yadav are particularly on target as these two leaders, known to be close to Rahul Gandhi, have emerged as the chief villains who are accused of running the show without consulting senior state leaders.
Though there is some merit in the argument that Rawat’s latest tantrum is essentially aimed at pressurising the Congress leadership into giving in to his demands, there is no denying that Rahul Gandhi’s chief lieutenants are riding roughshod over entrenched state leaders in a bid to build fresh leadership in Uttarakhand.
However, the party could end up paying a heavy price if its rather belated efforts to mollify Rawat and other disgruntled leaders do not succeed for there is no denying that the former chief minister is the party’s tallest leader in the hill state and has the potential to damage the party, especially in the Kumaon region where the former chief minister has a substantial following.
For the present, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi who met the Uttarakhand contingent on Friday did not promise to project Rawat as the party’s chief ministerial candidate though he did assure him of his full support if the party comes to power. Meanwhile, Rawat was urged to concentrate on the poll campaign while Devendra Yadav and state leaders including Pritam Singh and Kishore Upadhyaya were directed to undertake joint campaigns with Rawat in a bid to present a united front in the election.
But the big question is whether Rawat will be satisfied with these platitudes though he did come out of the meeting to announce that he will be leading the party campaign in Uttarakhand. Rawat has not crossed the Rubicon so far but he has not hesitated to raise a banner of revolt in the past. He took on the Congress leadership in 2012 when the party-appointed Vijay Bahuguna as Uttarakhand chief minister, a post which Rawat felt was wrongfully denied to him.
Rawat and his supporters boycotted the swearing-in ceremony but they stopped short of leaving the party. Similarly, Rawat had lodged a strong protest when Narayan Dutt Tiwari was named chief minister.
This time around, Rawat has more at stake. He is 73 years old and this is his last shot at power. He cannot afford to sit out in the wilderness for another five years. Though his supporters have denied that Rawat could quit the party if driven to it, the senior Congress leader is keeping his options open.
Rawat had recently called on former chief minister Trivendra Singh Rawat to wish him on his birthday and subsequently met leaders of the Uttarakhand Kranti Dal. These meetings predictably sparked off speculation that Rawat will not be averse to parting company with Congress.
On the other side, the Bharatiya Janata Party is keeping a close watch on these internal developments in Congress. The party has had its eye on Rawat for some time now and had even issued informal directions to its party cadres in Uttarakhand not to attack Rawat too vehemently.For the moment, Rawat may bide his time. He could wait until the process of ticket distribution gets underway. He may be compelled to take some drastic measures if his supporters are denied tickets. Alternatively, he may field rebel candidates on prestige seats. Either way, Congress stands to lose.