After taking over as president of the Odisha Pradesh Congress Committee (OPCC) in December 2014, Prasad Harichandan declared that his mantra would be “We, not I.” He promised to usher in collective leadership in a party whose leaders pull each other down rather than take on the Biju Janata Dal (BJD), which is firmly in the saddle despite facing a volley of scams in its fourth term.
More than two years later, Harichandan leads a party organization that is often at odds with the legislative wing and senior leaders of the party. With panchayat elections less than four months away, a majority of MLAs have joined hands to oust him.
The situation has deteriorated to such an extent that a group of NSUI activists including an OPCC secretary barged into a hotel room last week in which AICC general secretary B K Hariprasad was in a meeting with senior leaders including AICC secretary Subhonkar Sarkar. The NSUI leaders were protesting the “disrespect” shown to the departed leader Lalatendu Bidyadhar Mohapatra. Their allegation: no one from AICC including Hariprasad had attended Mohapatra’s funeral.
Though the state leadership suspended a state NSUI leader for misbehaving with Hariprasad, the action only exacerbated the divisions within the party in Odisha.
The differences between the organisational and legislative wings of the party came to the fore on August 3 when OPCC president Harichandan did not attend an all-party meeting convened by the leader of the opposition Narasingh Mishra over the Mahanadi river water dispute. The all-party meeting was a great success as all political parties except the BJD and Samajwadi Party attended it.
Not to be outwitted, Harichandan announced an Odisha bandh over the Mahanadi issue on August 16. Though the bandh was a great success, the cracks in the Congress became wider. While Harichandan led a procession from Congress Bhavan, another procession was brought out by Narsingh Mishra from his official residence. The two groups led by Harichandan and Mishra staged dharnas at different places, exposing the vertical split in the party.
From the Odisha bandh onwards, the organisational and legislative wings have been functioning in a parallel manner, creating confusion in the rank and file. Things came to a boil when party MLAs met AICC vice-president Rahul Gandhi on October 15 and demanded the removal of Harichandan. The response of Rahul was not as expected and the MLAs were dissatisfied.
Harichandan then met Rahul Gandhi on October 28. The OPCC president got a breather after 23 District Congress Committee (DCC) presidents met Rahul at Delhi on November 3, and pledged support to him.
The next moves of the MLAs are being watched after Congress chief whip Taraprasad Bahinipati created a flutter by publicly criticising Hariprasad. If the internal squabblings in the Congress are not resolved, the days are not far when the BJP will take over in Odisha as the main opposition to the BJD. The results of the panchayat polls can only make it clear whether Congress will remain as the number two political party in Odisha or its slide will continue.