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2019 Lok Sabha elections: Will Maharashtra support Congress?

The big question for workers now is how to convince voters to support the party, if their own top leader couldn’t get his son to stay

lok-sabha-elections Updated: Mar 18, 2019 00:20 IST
         

From a bastion for decades to a mere two seats in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls and losing the Assembly elections – the Congress saw it all in Maharashtra. Are they set to regain their lost glory this election? While top leaders aim to reduce the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) tally in the state, which has 48 seats, experts feel there is not much hope.

Here’s why: Within days of the election dates being announced, Sujay, the son of the party’s Opposition leader in the Assembly, Radhakrishna Vikhe Patil, joined the BJP. The big question for workers now is how to convince voters to support the party, if their own top leader couldn’t get his son to stay.

The Vikhe Patil episode, which came soon after Dalit leader Prakash Ambedkar’s refusal to join the Congress-NCP coalition in the state, has demoralised the party cadre, bringing the differences among leaders to the fore.

Mumbai leaders are openly criticising their unit chief Sanjay Nirupam, while a senior leader, Balasaheb Thorat, publicly asked Vikhe Patil to come clean on hobnobbing with the BJP. Vikhe Patil has in turn replied saying he is answerable to the party bosses and not Thorat.

WASTED OPPORTUNITIES

Sujay’s entry into the BJP is being linked to his cordial relations with chief minister Devendra Fadnavis, which is also seen as the reason why the party failed to corner the state government on the floor of the Assembly. Observers feel that as the prime Opposition party in the state, the Congress’s performance should have been more impressive. When at least a dozen of ministers from the Fadnavis government were facing corruption charges, the Opposition failed to take the cases to their logical end or put the government in beleaguered position.

“Be it the corruption charges against cooperation minister Subash Deshmukh for amassing Centre’s grant for milk powder plants or his illegal bungalow in Solapur, the Congress should have aggressively raised the issues. The party also failed to corner the CM over the transfer of Cidco land to builders. This has affected the credibility of the party,” admits a senior Congress leader.

The Congress has always enjoyed support from farmers, Dalits and minorities. Political observers feel they failed to strengthen their lost base in the past five years. “It was surprising to see the party didn’t learn anything from the humiliating defeat in 2014. The leaders are still indulging in factionalism and safeguarding their own interests. The party lacks in organisation, leadership and focus. It could not come up with any programme to galvanise the support of their traditional voters or give them due representation in the party. Neither do they have a strategy to convince voters that they are an alternative, nor are they using modern means of social media and technology to do so,” said Suhas Palshikar, a noted analyst and election researcher.

In the past five years, the Maratha community held 58 mass silent rallies, while various groups of farmers held aggressive agitations. But instead of using these developments to challenge the Fadnavis government, the Congress opted to take no active stand, making them “blessings in disguise” for the BJP. The government controlled the damage by announcing farm loan waiver and giving 16% reservation to the Marathas.

“The Maratha community was fragmented over the past 15-20 years, mainly owing to disillusionment against the Congress-NCP rule. Although the young Marathas turned to the BJP as an alternative, they may not have been inclined towards the ruling party. But the Congress and its allies did nothing to stop Marathas from choosing a different path,” Palshikar said.

Besides the ruling combine, smaller parties representing Dalits and minorities, so far guaranteed vote banks for the party, too, will pose a serious challenge to the Congress. Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar’s grandson Prakash floated a front, Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi, along with All India Majlis-E-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) to target smaller groups of backward classes and minorities. Despite several attempts, Prakash Ambedkar did not accept the Congress-NCP’s offer to join hands with them. The Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), which have influence over the Dalits and Muslims in certain parts of the state, too, have stayed away from the Congress. This could act in favour of the ruling party and dent the Congress-NCP’s support base.

“Although smaller parties representing Dalit voters have deviated from the Congress, it still has an opportunity to regain a larger vote share that didn’t support it in the last election,” said Hemant Desai, another political commentator.

EROSION IN URBAN BASE

In the past five years, the Congress has rapidly lost support in urban areas too. It lost elections to major civic bodies, including in Mumbai. The BJP has replaced the Congress as the main beneficiary of urban voters, leaving the Congress under-confident of winning the Lok Sabha seats in Mumbai and other cities.

The infrastructure projects launched by the BJP-led government in Mumbai, Thane, Pune and Nagpur may make it difficult for the Opposition to garner support from urban voters. Besides Vidarbha, the Congress has always banked on Mumbai, where the party was formed 133 years ago. North Indian voters, the second largest group after Marathis in the financial city of the country, was an assured vote bank for the party, until recently. It would be interesting to watch if this vote base switches back to the Congress in this election. The fate of the Congress candidates in at least two Mumbai constituencies – North West and North Central – largely depends on these voters. The party is expecting a better response in rural areas owing to the unhappiness among farmers.

Balasaheb Thorat, senior Congress leader, said, “Farmers in Maharashtra are going through unprecedented hardship and have been blaming the government for it. It all depends on how we convince the voters to convert the discontent into votes for us. Over the last two years, we organised rallies across the state to highlight the plight of farmers, which got good response. We lack in use of social media, which was seen in the Gujarat Assembly elections in December 2017, but we will overcome it.”

Ajit Nawale, farmer leader and general secretary, Akhil Bhartiya Kisan Sabha, said, “It is true that voter sentiments in rural parts of the state and among farmers is against the ruling party, but it does not mean that it is in favour of the Congress. The Congress and other Opposition parties have equally failed in generating confidence in rural areas with alternative policies and assurances.”

WARRING LEADERS

Another major challenge the party faces is factionalism. Across the state, leaders have been fighting against each other, even at the cost of the party’s prospects.

In Mumbai, the feud within the party has come out in the open, with senior leaders targeting city unit head Sanjay Nirupam. The party has five former chief ministers and several former Union ministers and dozens of former state ministers. However, the ego battles and turf wars have weakened them even in areas where it enjoys good support. According to a senior functionary, none of the leaders who enjoyed the perks that came with power for years is willing to contribute at a time when the party is short of resources. Very few leaders have bothered to connect with the masses in the past few years. Thorat, however, claimed the leaders were united. “We have decided to fight together and have chalked out a strategy to win maximum number of seats,” Thorat said.

GROUND REALITY

The central leadership hopes the Congress-NCP led coalition in Maharashtra wins at least 20-25 seats in its bid to stop the BJP from getting another term. In 2014, the saffron combine won 42 seats that formed a sizeable chunk of the NDA’s 300-plus tally. Under the current circumstances, it seems like a tough task in Maharashtra. The BJP and Shiv Sena have put their act together to avoid losses over bickering. In contrast, the Opposition coalition doesn’t appear to be a cohesive unit. The Congress and NCP don’t trust each other. They have failed to get smaller Opposition parties on board. None of the prominent Dalit leaders is part of their coalition. On ground, the party has not done much to counter the BJP’s campaign yet.

The Congress, however, has traditionally been known as a mass-based party that gets the support of people even if it doesn’t have strong leaders or a network of disciplined workers. In the current situation, only a stroke a good luck can ensure a good show against an aggressive BJP-Shiv Sena alliance.

First Published: Mar 18, 2019 00:20 IST