Maharashtra

Own goal

Print edition : June 21, 2019

Maharashtra Pradesh Congess president Ashok Chavan flanked by Sushil Kumar Shinde (left) and Radhakrishna Vikhe-Patil, at a core committee meeting of the party in Mumbai on March 14. Both Chavan and Shinde lost in the election. On June 4, Vikhe-Patil submitted his resignation as a Member of the Legislative Assembly. Photo: Vivek Bendre

NCP president Sharad Pawar, Congress candidate for Mumbai North Lok Sabha constituency Urmila Matondkar and Congress leader Ashok Chavan during the campaign in Mumbai on April 28. Photo: ANI

The declining quality of leadership, the failure to cash in on the Maratha vote, and the unwillingness to forge alliances with smaller parties are some of the reasons for the dismal performance of the Congress-NCP combine in the Lok Sabha election.

FROM May 1, 1960, when the State of Maharashtra was created, until May 14, 1995, the Congress ruled the State, except for a brief period in 1978 when there was a coalition government. For an almost uninterrupted 35 years, the Congress held complete sway over the State. In 1995, the saffron coalition of the Shiv Sena and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) toppled the Sharad Pawar government. The Sena’s Manohar Joshi became the first non-Congress Chief Minister of the State. Although the Congress and its electoral ally, the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), did reclaim the State after that for another 15 years, the saffron forces had already found their foothold. On the parliamentary front, the Congress fared no better. From a high point of winning 41 of the 44 seats it contested in the State in 1962, the party won in only one of the 26 seats it contested in 2019.

The main reason for the BJP-Sena’s overwhelming victory is the many failures of the Congress-NCP combine. The secular alliance lost the election because of its refusal to tie up with new allies; its failure to attract the Maratha voters, who have been its strong support base; the absence of strategic planning and poor organisational work exemplified by the fact that it did not invite star campaigners from the party’s central leadership. To top it all, the BJP-Sena alliance had a hunger for power, which it translated into excellent strategic planning, while the Congress-NCP combine drifted between complacency and nervous bouts of energy.

What cannot be left unsaid is that the Congress-NCP alliance had no firm election plank. It seemed to be just reacting to the BJP’s rhetoric rather than creating a proactive campaign strategy. This “loss of confidence”, as a Congressman put it, resulted in the defeat of the party. The Congress-NCP alliance had always had a strong developmental agenda. The combine would have gained had it focussed on this agenda rather than create new slogans in an attempt to beat the BJP at its own game. (Incidentally, the victory of the Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi-All-India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (VBA-AIMIM) candidate in Aurangabad was credited largely to his focus on local developmental issues.)

Perhaps the Congress’ biggest mistake was to have ignored Prakash Ambedkar and his VBA, a party of the marginalised and deprived sections of society, which has allied with Asaduddin Owaisi’s AIMIM. Prakash Ambedkar, grandson of Dr B.R. Ambedkar, had made it abundantly clear that he was open to a dialogue with the Congress on forging an alliance. His only condition was that he would talk only to the party president Rahul Gandhi. But Rahul Gandhi was apparently dissuaded from meeting Prakash Ambedkar; so the VBA decided to contest all the 48 seats on its own.

Conservative Congressmen were hesitant to align with the VBA because it required stepping out of their self-defined image of the Congress as the grand old party. The VBA was considered too young and Prakash Ambedkar too brash. Many political observers looked askance at the VBA’s tie-up with the AIMIM because Owaisi is outspoken. “The Muslim angle was an uncomfortable point for many in the party. Not because they themselves are anti-Muslim but because they were worried it might alienate undecided voters,” said a Congressman. The Congress-NCP nominated only one Muslim candidate. The combine appeared to be trying make a subtle appeal to Hindutva-oriented voters. If this was its underlying plan, then it would most certainly have backfired. The Hindutva voter would sneer at any appeal by the Congress-NCP alliance and the Muslim voter would be wary.

The opposition also paid the price for not allying itself with the VBA. A look at the voting trends indicates that the VBA candidates split the vote in at least eight seats. If the VBA and the Congress had struck an alliance, the BJP-Sena alliance could have lost in Solapur, Sangli, Hatkanangale and Nanded. An alliance with the VBA would have also increased the winning chances of the Congress-NCP alliance in Hingoli, Latur, Buldhana and Gadchiroli-Chimur. The arithmetic is quite simple, as is obvious from a few examples given below.

In Solapur, Prakash Ambedkar secured 1,69,523 votes. His presence in the fray possibly spoiled the victory of Congress leader Sushilkumar Shinde. He lost to the BJP candidate by a margin of 1,57,07 votes. Prakash Ambedkar also contested from Akola where he came second with 2,78,241 votes. The margin of defeat for the Congress candidate was 2,98,505 votes.

In Sangli and Hatkanangale, the Congress-NCP had a seat-sharing agreement with the Swabhimani Paksha. In Sangli, the Paksha’s candidate was Vishal Prakashbapu Patil, the grandson of former Chief Minister Vasantdada Patil. Vishal polled 3,44,643, whereas the winning BJP candidate Sanjaykaka Patil polled 5,08,995 votes. The VBA candidate secured 2,97,349 votes. In Hatkanangale, where the Paksha chief Raju Shetti contested, the Sena candidate Dhairyasheel Sambhajirao Mane won. Shetti lost by 95,500 votes. The VBA candidate secured 1,23,419 votes.

In Nanded, former Chief Minister Ashok Chavan lost to the BJP candidate Prataprao Patil Chikhalikar by 40,000 votes, a thin margin in a Lok Sabha contest. The VBA candidate polled 65,341 votes. In Hingoli, the Congress candidate Wankhede Bapurao, who had defected from the Sena, lost to the Sena candidate Hemant Patil by more than 2,37,000 votes. The VBA candidate polled 1,73,388 votes. As a point of interest, the VBA’s only winning candidate, the AIMIM’s Imtiyaz Jaleel, will be Maharashtra’s first non-Congress Muslim MP.

Raj Thackeray’s campaign

Another small party that had been keen to tie up with the Congress-NCP alliance was Raj Thackeray’s Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS). As it turned out, the MNS did campaign vigorously for the Congress-NCP alliance, and Raj Thackeray’s rallies were well attended. In fact, despite not contesting the election, Raj Thackeray had a campaign plan that focussed on “outing” various false claims of the BJP and its leaders. This was an enormous crowd pleaser and added to his natural oratorial skills. In this respect, Raj Thackeray certainly behaved more like a political campaigner than the Congress-NCP candidates did.

This was the other complaint against the Congress and the NCP. Their campaigning lacked star power and lacked a mass leader. All the six rallies that Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed in the State were crowd-pullers. The local BJP and Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) workers ensured that the rallies were well attended. The Congress offered a line-up of State Congress chief Ashok Chavan and Congress party campaign chief Sushilkumar Shinde, both of whom are not known for their oratorial skills and, in any case, were busy trying to shore up the campaigns in their respective constituencies.

Over the years, the quality of leadership has been declining within the Congress and the NCP. Rallying voices and powerful leaders from the past were Yashwantrao Chavan, Vasantdada Patil, Shankarrao Chavan and Sharad Pawar, the only remaining warhorse who can still hold a crowd and withstand the stresses of an election campaign.

“There was a youthful hunger in the BJP for this election,” said a Congressman. There was a “party first” attitude within the BJP that made it function cohesively.

For example, Kirit Somaiya was the sitting BJP MP of the Mumbai North East constituency, but the party gave the ticket to a relative nobody. Instead of sulking, Somaiya threw his weight behind the new contender and this helped the BJP retain the seat. Contrast this with a similar situation in the Congress in Ahmednagar where an old feud between the Pawars and the Vikhe Patils translated into the NCP refusing to give up the Ahmednagar seat. As a result, the Congress’ Sujay Vikhe Patil decided to join the BJP. So petty politics between the alliance partners resulted in the BJP winning the seat.

While the BJP nominated seasoned candidates, the Congress dithered and chose Bollywood actor Urmila Matondkar for Mumbai North (she was defeated) and put pressure on Priya Dutt, who had made clear her reluctance to enter the election fray, to contest from Mumbai North Central. Whether or not this indicated poor planning by the party or a dearth of candidates in its fold is not clear, it was the Congress-NCP alliance’s choice of candidates that contributed to its poor performance.

The alliance failed to cash in on the vote of the Maratha community, which has had a long association with the two parties. Prakash Ambedkar has said on more than one occasion that the Congress is basically a Maratha party. Indeed the fortunes of the community have been linked to the rise of both these parties. The BJP has broken this traditional bond, but the Congress-NCP alliance still had the advantage. The Maratha community has been disillusioned with the BJP-Sena government’s tardy response to its demand for reservation. The Maratha Kranti Morcha, which had organised more than 50 silent morchas demanding reservation all over the State three years ago, even threatened to campaign against the BJP-Sena. As is apparent from the results, this threat did not manifest itself State-wide. However, it did show up in pockets like Aurangabad where four-time Sena MP Chandrakant Khaire lost to Jaleel and not just because of the VBA’s appeal. The Sena rebel candidate and sitting MLA Harshvardhan Jadhav polled 2,83,000 votes. The main election plank of Jadhav, a Maratha himself, was the implementation of reservation for Marathas. The opposition failed to capitalise on the Maratha sentiment either by forming alliances with rebel candidates or by making Maratha reservation a campaign issue.

While the numbers clearly show that the Congress-NCP alliance is on the slide and the BJP-Sena is on the ascendant, the fact remains that the Congress has a longer association with Maharashtra than the saffron parties.

While it is true that the new mood among voters makes them sway towards nationalist rhetoric, the Congress has unfortunately slipped from its moorings and is adrift. While dedicated Congress voters may still cling to the beliefs that the Congress avowedly stood for, it is time the party did some serious introspection and returned to the beliefs that kept it in power for 50 years in Maharashtra.

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