Helmed by a woman, but Congress still a boys’ club

Do women in politics get their fair share of credit? This question came to mind when the results of the Haryana assembly elections were coming in on Thursday.

Published: 26th October 2019 08:53 AM  |   Last Updated: 26th October 2019 01:08 PM   |  A+A-

Haryana Pradesh Congress Committee (PCC) president Kumari Selja shows a victory sign after casting her vote during Haryana Assembly elections in Hisar on 21 October 2019. (Photo | PTI)

Do women in politics get their fair share of credit? This question came to mind when the results of the Haryana assembly elections were coming in on Thursday. As the ticking scoreboard showed that the Congress had performed far better than what had been expected, there was a rush to credit former Haryana chief minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda for the party’s turnaround. Media persons jostled with each other to get a sound byte from Hooda while discussions on television channels spoke extensively about the spirited manner in which the former chief minister had led the Congress charge.

But there was no mention of Selja, who was appointed president of the Haryana Pradesh Congress Committee, barely a month before the election. There is no doubt that Hooda is a tall Jat leader who has a mass following in Haryana and cannot be ignored or written off despite the fact that the Congress was reduced to a mere 15 seats on his watch in the 2014 Assembly poll.

If  Hooda’s informal projection as the party’s chief ministerial face sent out a positive signal to the dominant Jat community, it is equally true that Selja’s timely appointment as head of the party’s state unit helped the Congress to reach out to the non-Jats who had gravitated to the Bharatiya Janata 
Party (BJP).

Selja took charge of the party unit in Haryana at a time when it was in a shambles. Her predecessor Ashok Tanwar, who had kept himself busy battling Hooda, had made little effort to set up party structures during his five-year tenure or organise any programmes or activities to galvanise the party workers and get them battle-ready. On the other hand, she had to deal with Tanwar who did not take kindly to his removal. He threw a tantrum, organised a protest outside Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s residence and then eventually quit the party after penning a long letter to complain about how Rahul Gandhi’s protégés were being deliberately sidelined by senior leaders.

When Selja visited the Haryana Congress office on taking over, the place had been stripped of all documents and computers by Tanwar’s cronies. There was no staff, no one even to sign cheques, coordinate the poll campaign or handle the media. Everything had to be organised at short notice as the Congress did not have the luxury of time since the party did not decide on the changes in the state until election eve. Selja’s appointment was in the pipeline for nearly two years but it was delayed because Tanwar was handpicked by Rahul Gandhi who was not inclined to remove him.

Though faced with an uphill task, the new team made some early efforts to re-establish its credentials. Hooda and Selja, who had been at loggerheads for nearly a decade, put aside their differences and toured the state together to underline that the infighting in the party was now a thing of the past. The two did not allow themselves to get caught in a slanging match with the BJP on the abrogation of Article 370 and instead focused on the agrarian crisis and the economic slowdown. The election outcome shows that the strategy paid off.

Having languished on the sidelines for the past several years, Hooda’s stock in the Congress has predictably shot up. He is being feted for singlehandedly reviving the Congress in Haryana when everyone was convinced that the assembly election was a one-sided battle and that the party would not even cross the double-digit mark. Now that the Congress has doubled its tally and emerged as a strong and credible opposition in the Haryana assembly, Hooda will obviously continue as leader of the Congress legislature party which he undeniably deserves.

The fact that the former chief minister is an embedded member of the party’s old guard will further ensure that his position remains unshakeable. Not just Hooda, but the Haryana election has come as a huge relief for Sonia Gandhi’s loyalists who have been running the show since she took over the party presidency when Rahul Gandhi stepped down after the Congress was mauled in the last Lok Sabha election. The poll verdict will undoubtedly strengthen their hold over the party organisation.

But it is anybody’s guess if Selja’s contribution will be acknowledged by the Congress. Though the Dalit leader from Haryana, who won her first Lok Sabha election in 1991, is known for her proximity to Sonia Gandhi, it is unlikely that the party’s old guard will pay any heed to her. The Congress may be headed by a woman and has also had a woman Prime Minister in the past, it continues to be a true-blue 
boys’ club.

Anita Katyal
The writer is a senior journalist. 
This column will appear every fortnight

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