Ending months of speculation about a change of guard, Vijay Bahuguna today resigned as Uttarakhand Chief Minister amidst indications that Union Minister Harish Rawat has emerged as a strong contender to succeed him.
Shortly before going to the Raj Bhawan to submit his resignation to Governor Aziz Qureshi, the former High Court judge-turned-politician said he was resigning on the directives of the party high command.
"I am resigning from the post of Chief Minister on the directives of the party high command. Tomorrow there will be a meeting of MLAs and I request them to pass a resolution with consensus authorising Congress President Sonia Gandhi to elect the new chief minister," Bahuguna told reporters.
Union Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad and AICC General Secretaries Janardan Dwivedi and Ambika Soni, who is in charge of party affairs in the state, will be here tomorrow as central observers for ensuring a smooth changeover.
Speculation was rife for months over Bahuguna's ouster after his leadership skills come under scrutiny in the wake of a natural calamity of catastrophic proportions that had hit the state in June last year claiming thousands of lives.
Bahuguna's alleged delayed response with rescue operations being launched about four to five days after the calamity struck on June 16-17 came in for bitter criticism, prompting the party high command to look for a substitute for him.
Bahuguna parried a question on the circumstances that led to his exit, saying he has "no comments" to offer.
"This is my good fortune that I got a chance to serve the nation and I will always do whatever is possible by me for the development of the state," he said.
Congress sources said that after Bahuguna's exit, Rawat is the front-runner for the post. The name of Pritam Singh, who is the Food and Civil Supplies Minister, is also doing the rounds.
Pritam Singh belongs to the Rawat camp and the talk is that he could emerge as a compromise candidate if the anti-Rawat faction refuse to accept him. Pritam Singh is an MLA from Chakrata.
Others in the race include state Finance Minister Indira Hridayesh.
The decision to replace Bahuguna was taken at a meeting Congress chief Sonia Gandhi had with senior party leaders on Wednesday.
However, PCC sources here said Rawat's name as Bahuguna's replacement is almost final but a formal announcement in this regard will be made only after a meeting of the Congress Legislature Party is held here in the presence of party's central observers.
Bahuguna's ouster after 22 months in office is being seen as a move by the party to go to the Lok Sabha polls under a strong leader. There are five Lok Sabha seats in the state.
Delegations of MLAs and other Congress leaders from the state have been regularly meeting central party leaders here over the past six months to press for Bahuguna's ouster.
The Congress, with 33 members in the Assembly, enjoys the support of the seven-member Progressive Democratic Front that comprises three independents, three members of the BSP and one MLA of the Uttarakhand Kranti Dal. The remaining 30 MLAs are of the BJP.
Rawat, who lost to Bahuguna in the race for CM in 2012, has been in pursuit of the post but the party high command had not been enthusiastic as it was felt it could intensify factionalism in the deeply divided state unit of the party.
The Union Water Resources Minister was the first PCC president of Uttarakhand after its formation. Rawat, despite leading the party to victory in 2002 Assembly elections as the PCC chief, had to make way for N D Tiwari.
He was sidelined again in 2012, when Bahuguna became CM.
A sulking Rawat was made a cabinet minister at the Centre later.
According to some reports, there could be a close fight between Rawat and Pritam Singh.
Hridayesh recently surprised many by openly staking claim to the top post. The senior most member of Bahuguna Cabinet, Hridayesh had created a flutter by suggesting her name for the post of chief minister in case of a change of guard in Uttarakhand.
Incidentally, 22 out of a total of 33 Congress MLAs had written to the party central leadership in the second week of January reposing their faith in Bahuguna recently as indications emerged that Rawat could replace him.
The principal argument of Bahuguna backers was that there are no corruption charges against him and it would not be appropriate to rock the boat ahead of coming panchayat elections which are also being viewed as a dry run to 2014 Lok Sabha polls.
The MLAs declaring support for Bahuguna had also said in the letter that he has faced opposition from time to time only from Harish Rawat who has long been nursing the ambition of becoming the chief minister of Uttarakhand.