Mumbai: To continue its outreach to voters after the Bharat Jodo Yatra, the Congress is planning a two-month grassroots Hath Se Hath Jodo Yatra (Joining Hands March) starting this month. But in Maharashtra, some of the party’s own senior leaders are neither able to join hands nor see eye to eye with each other.
Too many power centres, conflicting statements by senior leaders, and rebellions within political families that have held Congress bastions for decades have severely crippled the party in the state, say analysts as well as party insiders.
And given that Maharashtra sends the second-largest number of MPs to the Lok Sabha (after Uttar Pradesh), the situation could lead to serious ramifications for the party, some pointed out.
The situation is made all the more ironic given that the Congress was born in erstwhile Bombay in 1885, but now seems to be self-combusting in the region of its birthplace.
The latest instance of a big rift in the Maharashtra Congress was when family members of legislative party leader Balasaheb Thorat went against the party decision for the upcoming legislative council elections. Thorat’s brother-in-law and nephew — Congress leader Sudhir Tambe and his son Satyajeet Tambe — were both suspended from the party over this matter.
This embarrassing saga, say party insiders and political analysts, is symptomatic of a widespread malaise.
“All top leaders don’t seem to be working together. The Congress in Maharashtra has become a party with all-talk-no-action leaders,” said political commentator Hemant Desai.
“The party that was born in Maharashtra is looking very weak though it is still somewhat relevant in the Vidarbha region. There is no ground work or any programmes undertaken by the party,” he added.
While some Congress leaders point fingers at the BJP for “breaking up families”, others say that the problem is largely an internal one.
Divided families, ‘homebreaker’ BJP?
Veteran leader Sudhir Tambe was supposed to be the official Congress candidate for the Nashik graduates constituency of the MLC polls slated for 30 January. But instead of filing his nomination papers, he tried to make way for his 39-year-old son Satyajeet, a former state Youth Congress president.
Because he didn’t have all the necessary paperwork, Satyajeet then went ahead and filed his nomination as an Independent candidate without the party’s consent.
Congress sources had told ThePrint earlier this month that Satyajeet’s uncle Balasaheb Thorat was surprised and “unhappy” about his nephew’s move.
The divide in the Tambe-Thorat house is a blow to the Congress too. For about two decades, the Tambes and Thorats have together assured victory for the Congress in two places — the Nashik MLC seat that Sudhir Tambe had held for three consecutive terms, and the Sangamner assembly constituency in Ahmednagar district that Balasaheb Thorat has clinched for seven terms in a row.
The latest controversy has led to some Congress leaders pointing fingers at the BJP, which has curiously not fielded a candidate against Satyajeet in the Nashik MLC election. The young leader also made public statements about seeking the BJP’s “support”, although the party has kept its cards close to its chest.
“It is a tradition of the BJP that they try to break people’s families. They cannot even find a candidate of their own and hence they resort to breaking others’ houses,” Maharashtra Congress president Nana Patole told reporters in Mumbai last Wednesday.
While the BJP’s role in the Tambe rebellion is up for debate, the party has had an unmistakable impact in other Congress strongholds.
Before the 2019 assembly elections, there were cases of entire Congress ‘dynasties’ shifting to the BJP in Maharashtra, taking their support bases with them.
For example, in March 2019, then Congressman Sujay Vikhe-Patil jumped to the BJP and became a debutant MP from Ahmednagar. Six months later, his father, Radhakrishna Vikhe-Patil, too followed suit and is now a cabinet minister in the Eknath Shinde-led Maharashtra government. The Vikhe-Patils have jumped several parties through the years, but the family’s longest association had been with the Congress.
Similarly, former MP Harshvardhan Patil, who represented the Indapur parliamentary seat for the Congress for four terms, joined the BJP ahead of the 2019 assembly polls. His uncle, Shankarrao Patil, had held the Congress’ fort, Baramati parliamentary constituency, for two terms in the 1980s and was a cabinet minister in the 1970s.
Narayan Rane and his sons, who shifted to the Congress from the Shiv Sena in 2005 and helped the former make inroads in Maharashtra’s Konkan region, quit the party in 2017. Two years later, he formally joined the BJP with his support base in the coastal districts. Rane is now a Union minister.
There have been constant rumours about two other longstanding Congress families possibly shifting their allegiance to the BJP — the Chavans of Nanded and the Deshmukhs of Latur. Congress MLAs Ashok Chavan and Amit Deshmukh, have, however, vehemently denied these suggestions on multiple occasions.
“The BJP is trying to capture those families who can win irrespective of what party they belong to. They cannot increase their own base and hence try to get people and families who are winning for years,” said a Congress leader who himself is part of a political family.
“In this case as well, they tried to scout Satyajeet and made him stand independent. It is embarrassing, but there is no other alternative. The BJP is trying to break away candidates of other parties, not just the Congress. Even families like Pawars, Bhosales, all are under threat. This will keep on happening. It is their strategy,” he added.
Another Congress leader alleged: “They are tapping into these big families who are major players in the co-operative sector. Cooperation is ideally a state subject, however, this term, the central government created a new ministry of cooperation and since Maharashtra has many co-operatives, the BJP is trying to break these political families.”
Last week, BJP state president Chandrashekhar Bawankule retorted to the ‘home breaker’ allegations doing to the rounds. “The Congress is a sinking ship and there is no unity within the MVA (Maha Vikas Aghadi) partners. So Congress is accusing us of breaking homes,” he said.
The MVA coalition, comprising the Shiv Sena, Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), and Congress, was in power in Maharashtra from November 2019 to June 2022, when a split in the Shiv Sena led to that government’s collapse.
Too many power centres
Earlier this month, the state Congress organised a meeting in Nagpur for the Hath Se Hath Jodo campaign. But several senior leaders like Balasaheb Thorat, Ashok Chavan, Yashomati Thakur and Vishwajeet Kadam kept away, citing various reasons.
And this is not a one-off event. Last month, when the MVA organised a massive protest rally against the BJP and Maharashtra Governor Bhagat Singh Koshyari, Chavan skipped the event and attended his nephew’s wedding. He sent his wife in his stead to the rally.
In 2019, Patole had helmed the ‘Pol Khol Yatra’ (Expose BJP March) ahead of the assembly election, but senior leaders kept away from it saying they were not taken into confidence.
Later after becoming the party state president, Patole made conflicting statements about going solo in the upcoming municipal elections, despite being in power with the Sena and the NCP, creating confusion amongst workers, analysts say.
When the MVA coalition was in power, as many as 28 Congress MLAs wrote to the then party president Sonia Gandhi in 2021 saying the party’s ministers were not helping members on development works and access to finances.
“The Congress is completely in the doldrums in Maharashtra. There is no one leader. Many senior leaders have their own institutions and bastions,” said Prakash Bal, a political commentator.
“There is no cohesion or a leader who would build the party together and it is difficult for the Congress to fight elections on its own. There is no organisation on the ground level,” he added.
However, senior Congress leader and former CM Ashok Chavan said there was no confusion in the party, and laid the blame squarely on the BJP.
“No, it is not like that there is confusion within the party. Even during the MLC elections, it was the BJP that tried to facilitate cross-voting. This is not hidden any more. That is the BJP’s strategy to break votes and create confusion,” Chavan said. “Even in Nashik, the same experiment happened and this is a serious issue. Things should have been discussed and sorted while giving out the forms, but it didn’t happen and we are working on it.”
Lack of ‘discipline’
Multiple Congress leaders that ThePrint spoke to said that lack of sufficient supervision or involvement of the party’s central leadership has fostered the creation of different power centres in Maharashtra.
“The discipline that needed to be there in the party is not there. If incidents of insubordination happen, there has to be action by the high command… that is not happening,” a third Congress leader said.
He added that there was no action against MLAs who allegedly cross-voted during the MLC election last year, despite the All India Congress Committee (AICC) having ordered an inquiry and a report being sent to the party leadership. “Lack of action emboldens people like Satyajeet,” he said.
During the MLC elections in June last year, seven Congress MLAs allegedly cross-voted leading to its failure in getting the party’s first choice candidate, Chandrakant Handore, elected, while its second choice of candidate Bhai Jagtap won, embarrassing the party.
He further said the responsibility for the Congress’ current state does not lie only with Patole and is a collective failure of all senior party leaders.
“The speculation around Satyajeet Tambe was going on for one month when Fadnavis even hinted during a programme publicly in front of Thorat that they are eyeing Satyajeet,” he said. But nobody picked it up. It is sad,” he added.
This time though, the Congress’ disciplinary action committee was quick to act against the Tambe father-son duo. Satyajeet is suspended for six years, while Sudhir Tambe is suspended pending an inquiry.
Last week, Nagpur MLA Ashish Deshmukh shot a letter to the party high command blaming state Congress president Patole for the party’s despair today, particularly Satyajeet Tambe’s rebellion.
“In June 2022, Handore was the first choice candidate but Bhai Jagtap got the votes disrespecting the order. On July 04, 2022 during the floor test at least 10 MLAs remained absent and so the Shinde government got a majority easily, and Satyajeet Tambe’s rebellion has further embarrassed the party,” the letter read.
During the Shinde-led government’s floor test, as many as 10 Congress MLAs, including Ashok Chavan and Dheeraj Deshmukh, were absent as they could not make it on time, leaving the party red-faced.
(Edited by Geethalakshmi Ramanathan)