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After Azad’s exit, Congress keeping fingers crossed on Anand Sharma

Congress Leader Anand Sharma

Even as the Congress is trying to put up a brave face in the aftermath of a jolt caused by veteran party leader Gulam Nabi Azad’s resignation, the development is bound to cast its shadow in Himachal Pradesh—the next poll-bound state, neighbouring Jammu and Kashmir.

Former Union minister Anand Sharma, a key G23 leader, has quit as chairman of the Congress steering committee for the Himachal Pradesh assembly elections citing “continuing exclusion and insults”.

Sharma, who hails from Shimla, visited the city three days ago to gauge the mood of the party ahead of the state assembly elections. He gave some clear hints to partymen that the crisis brewing in the Congress is deeper than being viewed as simple ‘displeasure’ among leaders like Gulab Nabi Azad, Bhupendra Singh Hooda or himself.

If the steps suggested by the G23 leaders, who form the heart of the Congress Working Committee are not undertaken for revival of the party in the states–where Congress has lost its foothold, then the party will see an erosion of its support base in the other states as well.

As the Congress gets ready for the next assembly polls, to challenge the incumbent BJP government in Himachal Pradesh, there is a fresh sense of disquiet in the rank and file of the party.

Himachal Pradesh has been seeing a change in government every five years with the Congress and BJP alternatively ruling the state in the past. However, the situation this time around is quite disturbing for the Congress.

“Our fingers are crossed over the next move that Anand Sharma and the G-23 group leaders will make. If some more leaders leave, the electoral battle could turn in the BJP‘s favour. The BJP is already telling the people that the Congress is splitting—the ship is sinking” a veteran Congress leader said.

Anand Sharma, who was elected to the Rajya Sabha three times from Himachal Pradesh and once from Rajasthan has been a union minister and is an acknowledged face of the party in Himachal Pradesh. Even when Virbhadra Singh, a former Chief Minister, was not inducted in the Dr Manmohan Singh cabinet in 2009—Anand Sharma was chosen among the first nine cabinet ministers.

Later pressures worked and Singh was also inducted with the portfolio of union minister for steel. However,  he was later dropped when a charge sheet in a corruption case was filed against him in a Shimla court. Virbhadra eventually returned to the state as Chief Minister in 2012 but Sharma continued as a senior minister with important portfolios like union minister for Commerce and textiles.

Sharma never got elected in Himachal Pradesh. Only one election he contested for the state assembly against a BJP (Jan Sangh) stalwart Daulat Ram Chauhan, went against him later became an issue of continuous election petition up to the Supreme Court.

Compared to Sharma, Azad’s exit from the Congress is bound to have a rippling effect as Jammu and Kashmir also has to witness elections soon and Azad may form his own regional outfit. But Sharma still has to tread a cautious path in Himachal Pradesh, where the third front –tested the waters and tried but failed in the state’s bipolar politics.

Yet, he will definitely have some role in the election campaign as the party doesn’t have a leader of his stature after Virbhadra Singh’s demise.

Last week, Sharma was heard saying that G23 is working to bolster Congress, ensuring that the party presents a united front as it is a faction-ridden and lacks a chief minister’s face for the polls.

“You never know, the Congress placates him and gives a task as the party’s key campaigner or he could go the other way. Our fingers are crossed”, a sitting MLA admits.