New Delhi: Trouble over ticket allocation for the upcoming polls in Maharashtra and Haryana has opened wounds that have been festering in the Congress party for the last five years — a disenchantment among state leaders and a lack of decisive leadership.
On Thursday, former Mumbai unit chief Sanjay Nirupam hit out at the party — the Congress did not heed my advice on even one assembly segment, he said. Disgruntled, he has decided to sit out the crucial Maharashtra polls.
Just a day earlier, the former Haryana Congress chief Ashok Tanwar alleged that the party was “selling tickets”, and protested outside the residence of interim party president Sonia Gandhi.
The ticket allocation process has only exacerbated fissures in the party, which is now threatening to derail the Congress’ already shaky election campaigns in both states.
“The worst part is that the people are unhappy with Modi, unhappy with the state government, unhappy with the state of the economy, but they don’t see Congress as a viable alternative,” said a Maharashtra Congress leader. “They don’t want to vote for the old Congress; they want change.”
Failure as opposition
In both states, where elections are due on 21 October, the Congress has no real face to project.
In Haryana, the party’s most prominent leader, former chief minister Bhupinder Hooda, is seen as a Jat leader. But with even him at the helm, the party will have to contend with the BJP’s strategy of consolidating non-Jat votes that has paid it rich dividends in both the 2014 assembly elections and the 2019 Lok Sabha polls.
Congress leaders fear that the non-Jat votes may get further consolidated if Hooda emerges as the the party’s face.
In Maharashtra, the Congress doesn’t have a single leader with pan-state appeal.
To make matters worse, both the BJP chief ministers, Manohar Lal Khattar in Haryana and Devendra Fadnavis in Maharashtra, have concretised their position as effective administrators and appear to be battling little anti-incumbency.
But the lack of anti-incumbency is as much of a testament to both chief ministers’ competence as it is an indictment of the opposition’s incompetence. A splintered opposition, especially the Congress, has completely failed to corner the BJP on issues such as the economy and unemployment.
In both states, the Congress has also seen a change in top leadership since the 2019 Lok Sabha election debacle, with Balasaheb Thorat taking over as Maharashtra PCC chief from Ashok Chavan and Kumari Selja taking over from Ashok Tanwar in Haryana.
“There is complete discontentment in the party despite a change in leadership,” said a senior Haryana leader. “The change has only brought back the people responsible for the decline of the Congress.”
The Maharashtra conundrum
The last assembly election was a rude reality check for the then ruling Congress-NCP alliance in Maharashtra — the Congress was reduced to 42 seats and NCP to 40 in the 288-member assembly. The complete rout followed the Modi wave that swept the country.
In the five years since, the Congress has further lost ground in the state.
A deep mistrust between coalition partners Congress and NCP while in the opposition has hastened the decimation. The NCP had offered support to the BJP to form the government in 2014 when the Shiv Sena dilly dallied in being a part of the government.
The strained relationship caused a collapse of the opposition, strengthening the Sena-BJP government when it eventually came to power. Fadnavis’ clout and control in the state continued to grow with the BJP uniting behind the unlikely CM who is now being hailed for his governance.
The Congress also found itself on the back-foot on various issues. The multiple power centres in the party, especially the limited interaction with state leaders, cost them electorally in 2014. The factionalism became crippling especially after Ashok Chavan was given charge of the party in the state in 2015. Leaders found him difficult to reach and often not approachable.
The party being reduced to just one seat in the Lok Sabha elections was the final straw.
Ever since, there have been en masse defections by senior Congress leader to the ruling BJP. Congress’ leader of opposition Radhakrishna Vikhe Patil was one of the first to jump ship followed by former Maharashtra minister Kripshankar Singh and Abdul Sattar (who joined Shiv Sena).
The party’s troubles have now grown manifold after it released its first list of candidates Sunday. There has been no paucity of heartburn among the senior leaders who feel that they had been ignored.
“What’s the point? The party has ignored loyalists and valued defectors,” said a senior Maharashtra leader. “We will fight but how will we explain what is happening to our workers on the ground,” he added.
“Despite a change in the leadership, with Balasaheb Thorat taking over as the state’s president, the entire show is being run by Ashok Chavan,” said another Maharashtra leader who did not wish to be named. “This has led to a reinstatement of the same team that caused the party’s Lok Sabha rout.”
The rocky ties with the NCP also continue. The two parties are squabbling over key constituencies and the number of seats each would contest, even miffing the media that waited patiently for a decision earlier this week.
Monetary trouble is also likely to dog the party with its primary fundraiser in the state, former Mumbai Congress president Milind Deora, sitting out of the election.
The second leader added that the party is staring at dim prospects in the elections. “It will be a miracle if we manage to win even 24 seats,” the leader said.
The Haryana headache
Congress’ decline in Haryana began with installation of Team Rahul in the state, say Congress insiders. Tanwar replaced Phoolchand Mullana as the party’s chief right ahead of the 2014 Lok Sabha election. From the outset, it led to two very distinct factions in the state — one led by Hooda and the other by Tanwar. This was a complete breakaway from the earlier model in Haryana where the party and government were united.
Another setback came for Hooda, when close aides Rao Inderjit Singh and Birender Singh quit the Congress after its Lok Sabha defeat of 2014.
The dismal performance in the assembly elections, where it won only 15 of the 90 seats, worsened the situation with senior leader Venod Sharma quitting to form his own party, the Jan Chetna Party.
Hooda had expected that the high command would elevate him as the head of the Congress Legislative party, but Kiran Choudhary, considered close to Rahul Gandhi, was appointed instead.
Despite a change in guard, with Kumari Selja taking over as Haryana chief from Tanwar, history is now repeating itself — the turf war between Hooda and Tanwar reached the national capital Wednesday.
Tanwar openly revolted over the “unfair ticket allocation process” and managed to mobilise a horde of supporters who descended upon interim president Sonia Gandhi’s official residence at 10, Janpath.
Other senior Haryana Congress leaders are also extremely upset by what they see as Hooda’s “influence” over ticket distribution. A member of the Haryana screening committee, responsible for shortlisting candidates, told ThePrint that over half of the tickets in the 90-member assembly had been dictated by Hooda’s recommendations.
Another grouse Haryana leaders are nurturing is the allocation of tickets to defectors.
“Many non-Congressman turncoats have been given tickets,” said a second senior Haryana Congress leader. “The people who have worked for the party have been completely ignored and those who have performed badly rewarded,” the leader added.
“In Gurgaon for instance, three tickets of the nine assembly constituencies have been given to people who can’t even come third,” said the second Haryana Congress leader. “The screening committee has taken a biased decision without even bothering to survey the efficacy of the candidates.”
The party’s poll prospects in Haryana are equally dismal. “There is no presence on the ground and resentment everywhere. Even double digits is a dream now,” said the first Congress leader.