While former chief minister Ashok Chavan has a mass base, he has the sword of the Adarsh case hanging over his head.(HT FILE)
While former chief minister Ashok Chavan has a mass base, he has the sword of the Adarsh case hanging over his head.(HT FILE)

Will Congress reclaim lost ground in Maharashtra?

Congress has sensed the BJP-Sena combine is vulnerable on a host of issues but there is work to be done to wrest power back in its former bastion
Hindustan Times | By Surendra P Gangan
PUBLISHED ON APR 06, 2018 10:13 AM IST

For the Congress, the road to recovery after its 2014 debacle goes through Maharashtra. The state — once known as the party’s bastion and has the second largest number of Lok Sabha seats (48) after Uttar Pradesh — can play a significant role in the Congress’ effort to bounce back. Knowing this well, the party unit in Maharashtra is working on ways to recover its lost ground in Maharashtra. That is easier said than done. The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is gearing up to retain the crucial state and the Congress will need to do a lot more than what the party seems to be doing now. The question is: Will the Maharashtra Congress be able to do it?

The party is yet to completely recover from the crushing defeat handed over to it by the BJP in the 2014 Assembly elections. The four prominent parties in Maharashtra contested separately and the Congress’ tally (42) reached the lowest in the state’s history. In the last two years, the party seems to be shifting gears to take on the ruling BJP-Shiv Sena combine. On the other hand, it is making efforts to revive its alliance with the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) though a sizeable section of party leaders are still wary of NCP chief Sharad Pawar’s motives.

Reuniting With The NCP

Though no final decision has been taken about the alliance, both the parties have realised that it would not be possible for them to dislodge the BJP-led government in the state, unless they put up a united front. Both the parties share the same voter base and an alliance would prevent division of votes and increase chances of winning the seats.

Though their top leaders may or may not be keen to do so, the local level leaders of both Congress and NCP are keen on a reunion after being without power for over three years now. The possibility of a Congress-NCP reunion for the forthcoming Lok Sabha and Assembly elections next year has forced the ruling BJP and Shiv Sena to consider burying their widening rift. The BJP’s decision of snapping ties with Shiv Sena in the 2014 Assembly elections had come only after Congress and NCP parted ways ahead of the elections. The two parties also lost a sizeable number of seats due to division of votes. As such, the key leaders from both the parties have realised that unity will help them in winning more seats to wrest back the power from the saffron combine.

“There is an element of distrust between the two parties but not being in power for the last three-and-a-half years has taught the leaders a lot. Our state leadership has realised that this was the right time to bank on the unrest among farmers, Dalits and Muslims amid the issues of loan waiver, Bhima-Koregaon violence, the Supreme Court ruling related to the SC/ST Atrocities Act and the triple talaq decision. And while doing so, it’s better to put up a united opposition as an alternative to the ruling combine,”said a senior party leader who did not want to be named.

Tackling Infighting

It is not just the bickering with NCP that Congress will have to take care of. The internal disputes within the party still continue and there is no end to factionalism. The infighting among its leaders in Vidarbha was so intense that it had organised two separate rallies during its Jan Akrosh March against the agrarian crisis last year.

Nitin Raut, a party leader from Vidarbha region and head of its SC/ST cell, said, “It is true that we lost our fortress in Vidarbha to BJP in the last election, but regaining is not difficult if the leadership succeeds in bringing the warring local leaders together. The region has a large population of Dalits, other backward classes and in the current scenario when they are unhappy with the government, it’s our duty create confidence among them. I think the state leadership is taking corrective steps in the right direction.”

State level party leaders claimed they have buried their hatchet and have decided to face the election united. “There are no differences left among the leaders. I think we have been able to expose the ruling BJP on various issues effectively at the national and state level. We held rallies, marches on various issues in the state and have been in continuous dialogue with the workers. Besides social disharmony evident in the society to a large extent, inflation has crippled the common man. With two traditional parties together (Congress and NCP), we will be able to install our government in the state next year,” said former chief minister Sushilkumar Shinde, who is also one of the members of the party’s core group in the state.

Mere Alliance May Not Be Enough

Significantly, several state Congress leaders have been under the impression that the people will get fed up with the BJP-Sena and vote for their party again and as such, they need not do much. They received a shock when BJP won several civic bodies and district councils in local polls in 2017. The party needs to attack the government over the issues where it says the ruling parties are failing, which doesn’t seem to be happening consistently.

Congress leaders took to the streets by holding Jan Akrosh Yatras in parts of the state and also succeeded in forcing the government to announce the farm loan waiver, but failed in maintaining the tempo. The party had to cancel the next phase of the yatra it had planned in December last year. While the NCP has covered almost the whole of Maharashtra through its Halla Bol Yatras against the government, Congress fell short in its efforts. The party’s performance inside the legislature is poor. In past couple of years, there has been no dearth of issues but the party has failed to corner the government.

“I think the political scenario is fast changing in the favour of opposition parties. If the Congress succeeded in retaining Karnataka in the Assembly elections to be held next month, it would give a major boost to its Maharashtra unit, being the neighbouring state. There is major discontent among the people over inflation, agrarian crisis including farm loans and failure to ascertain reasonable price for the agriculture produce. I think Congress should have been more aggressive on these issues, which are very close to the heart of the people,” said political analyst Hemant Desai.

“Another problem with the party is the lack of a common face that has appeal among the voters. Ashok Chavan has not been cleared in the Adarsh scam so far, while others like Prithviraj Chavan do not have mass appeal. However, the party enjoys the goodwill consolidated over the years and a secular image among the Muslims and Dalits,”Desai added.

The party has a weak presence in many districts including Beed, Jalagaon, Bhandara, Chandrapur, Ratnagiri, Raigad and Sindhudurg. The party is now hoping for a better showing in Mumbai, Pune city, Kolhapur, all districts of Central Maharashra and some districts of Vidarbha.

It is also wooing disgruntled legislators from the ruling parties and also the leaders that had joined BJP in the last elections. BJP MP Nana Patole has returned to the party by resigning from the Lok Sabha, and BJP legislators Ashish Deshmukh (Nagpur) and Sunil Deshmukh (Amravati) may follow suit, say party leaders.

A top leader said work to revive the party organisation is on in full swing. “The efforts are in place to strengthen the party at grassroots level ahead of the general elections. We held district-level workshops in 12 districts and the remaining 24 will be completed in the next two months. Prominent state leaders have been taking stock of the political situation during these workshops in the run up to the elections,”the leader said.

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