When news of Rahul Gandhi’s scheduled visit to the Sevagram Ashram in Wardha on 2 October trickled down to the Congress workers in Maharashtra, there was much jubilation in the ranks. Soon after, the visit was called off, leaving the Congressmen in a ‘should we laugh or cry’ situation.
Rahul Gandhi’s flip-flop is not new, but his visit would have been a morale booster for a party caught in the terminal stage of neglect. The assembly election in Maharashtra is just 19 days away, but the excitement is missing within the ranks of the paralytic Congress.
This is the party, which once had a stranglehold on Maharashtra all through the 1980s and 1990s. It started losing the grip in the 2000s. Long and continued neglect of the Congress base in Maharashtra, ensuing confusion in the upper echelons of the party in Delhi, complete lack of state leadership, infighting in the party, and the erosion of its traditional vote bank are the primary reasons for its decline to almost a point of no return.
The importance of ED case
Given the situation at hand, 78-year-old Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) chief Sharad Pawar has stepped in and is sparing no effort to save his party and the Congress as well. The irony is that Pawar was once the man who wanted to be an alternative to the Congress in Maharashtra.
If the events of the last two weeks are examined minutely, one can surmise that the Maratha strongman may not want to entirely give up on that option yet. The Enforcement Directorate case against Pawar and his nephew Ajit for alleged corruption in the running of the Maharashtra State Cooperative Bank from 2007-2011 has given the NCP chief political mileage in the run-up to the elections.
Pawar has accused the BJP of political vendetta and played the victim card, but the anti-Pawar lobby within the Congress believes that the BJP is actually giving a push to Pawar’s sagging image in its bid to eclipse the Congress in Maharashtra.
Pawar is a closer friend to Prime Minister Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah than Congress’ Sonia and Rahul Gandhi. It is this equation that makes the ED case important.
Erosion of Congress base
Since Independence, the Congress has seen many electoral defeats, but this is the first time the party has not just lost elections but its confidence too. And the impact is visible in election-bound Maharashtra, one of the two states going to polls after the Lok Sabha results.
Till 1977, Maharashtra was an undisputed Congress bastion. In 1978, the Congress saw a vertical split at the Centre and its impact was felt in Maharashtra too. But the party managed to bounce back to power with a thumping majority in the assembly election of 1980. Over the next decade, the Congress held on to power despite a gradual dip in vote share.
In 1995, in the wake of the demolition of the Babri Masjid, the Congress lost power to the BJP-Shiv Sena combine in Maharashtra. In June 1999, Pawar broke away from the Congress and established the Nationalist Congress Party. Yet, the Congress emerged as the single-largest party with 75 seats in the assembly election that year. It managed to come back to power through an alliance with the breakaway NCP, which had won 58 seats.
The NCP-Congress combine ruled Maharashtra for 15 years from 1999 to 2014, but every election saw an erosion of the Congress vote base. The Congress that had won 43 seats and cornered 51.24 per cent vote share in Maharashtra in 1984 Lok Sabha elections managed to win just a single seat in 2019 polls and secured a vote share of 16.27 per cent. The NCP, on the other hand, won five Lok Sabha seats (it backed an Independent too) this year. The Congress’ solitary win was largely due to the defection of Shiv Sena MLA Suresh Dhanorkar right before the Lok Sabha polls.
As the Congress has always been focused on power, strengthening of the organisational structure has never been a priority. The central high command’s tight control over the state unit stunted the growth of the regional leadership. The lack of an impactful second-rung leadership is clearly visible now. The Congress has failed to understand the new-age politics, still continuing with its age-old tactics. As a result, it has failed to attract young leaders.
Losing traditional supporters
The traditional vote-bank of the Congress, which includes Muslims and Dalits, is now disintegrating and leaving the party because of its disillusionment with the leadership in Maharashtra. The Bhima-Koregaon incident saw angry Dalit youths search for a more aggressive leadership. The coming together of the Bharipa Bahujan Mahasangh led by Prakash Ambedkar and Asaduddin Owaisi’s AIMIM provided an alternative to these youths in the form of the Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi. The alliance polled 41 lakh votes in Maharashtra in this year’s Lok Sabha elections and won a seat from Aurangabad. However, Owaisi’s party has walked out of the alliance before the state election.
The CSDS survey after the 2019 Lok Sabha elections found that the Congress’ support base among Marathas and OBCs has shrunk too.
The strength of the Congress has always been its hold over the cooperative movement in rural Maharashtra and the network of educational institutions. After 2014, when the BJP-Shiv Sena government came to power in the state, those involved in the cooperative and educational sectors started feeling the heat. Slowly, these leaders moved away from the Congress, aligning themselves with the BJP instead to protect their interests.
NCP, Congress trust deficit
The Congress and the NCP are now going to the polls together in this adverse political environment. The emergence of the new BJP under Narendra Modi-Amit Shah, with its focus on power, has increased the electoral woes of the two parties.
The trust deficit between the Gandhi family and Sharad Pawar has trickled down to the Congress loyalists who continue to have their reservations about the NCP chief’s intentions. Though Pawar has been with the Congress, he is seen as ‘not being with the Congress’.
In the past, the Congress has always contested on more seats than ally NCP. But this time, both parties are contesting an equal number of seats (125 each). If the NCP wins more seats than the Congress, it will give Pawar an upper hand. And if the NCP gets to nominate the leader of the opposition, then the Congress will be forced to play second fiddle to Sharad Pawar’s party.
History has witnessed that in the states where the Congress has lost its ‘big brother’ role to another party, it has been completely wiped out.
Given Pawar’s politics of opportunism all through these years, the Congress is confused whether he is a saviour or a threat.
The author is a political commentator. He is a columnist with various Marathi newspapers. Views are personal.