The Congress has barely got off the blocks in the Maharashtra Assembly polls before it has run headlong into controversy. And one which is very much of its own making. By fielding Rajendra Shekhawat, the son of President Pratibha Patil, for the prestigious Amravati seat and denying the sitting MLA and state minister Sunil Deshmukh a ticket, the Congress appears to have shot itself in the foot. In the process, it has also dragged the office of the President into an unseemly controversy. Mr Shekhawat seems to have little to recommend for himself unlike Mr Deshmukh who has won handsomely in both 1999 and 2004. With Mr Deshmukh saying he will contest as an independent, the Congress has a fight on its hands.
This is yet another example of the Congress showing itself unable to consolidate its resounding victory in the Lok Sabha elections. In the run-up to the Maharashtra elections, many Congress stalwarts had floated the ‘go-it-alone’ approach and pressed to jettison the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP). This, fortunately, was not heeded by the party leadership and a mutually beneficial seat-sharing arrangement has been worked out. The Shekhawat controversy, however, could spread beyond Amravati and be held up as an example of arbitrariness on the part of the Congress and its inability to acknowledge ground realities. With the BJP fighting for its survival, the Congress should have built on its strengths much more than it has done. Raj Thackeray’s Maharashtra Navnirman Sena could split the vote in BJP-Shiv Sena strongholds to the advantage of the Congress-NCP alliance.
However, just as in the Congress following the nomination of Mr Shekhawat, the NCP too is facing a fair amount of rebellion. Several candidates who have not got tickets have decided to contest as Independents. These people could be spoilers for the alliance that would otherwise have been on a strong wicket. Electoral compulsions dictate that both the Congress and the NCP should have allocated tickets based solely on merit and winnability. Neither can be seen to give in to pressure, irrespective of which quarter it comes from. The stakes in Maharashtra are very high. The Congress-NCP has the advantage of entering the fray from a position of strength. But much depends on both being able to contain dissensions within and come up with an agenda that builds on its aam admi focus. But as things stand now, it will require the formidable skills of NCP leader Sharad Pawar and the Congress’s central and state leadership to pull things together.