The outcome of the assembly elections in Maharashtra and Haryana and by-polls in some states, including Gujarat, is expected to give the much-needed boost to the Congress’s efforts to overcome the challenges faced by it after the debacle in this year’s Lok Sabha polls.
Contrary to what political observers and exit polls predicted, the Congress has done well in Haryana and, along with its ally, the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), put up some resistance in Maharashtra.
Soon after its hammering in the national elections, the Congress plunged into a leadership crisis when its former president Rahul Gandhi resigned from the post on May 25 at a meeting of its highest decision-making body, the Congress Working Committee (CWC). For over two months, the party was in a state of confusion with Rahul Gandhi’s refusal to withdraw his resignation. On August 10, the CWC asked the party’s longest-serving chief Sonia Gandhi to take the Congress’s leadership again.
The first priority for Sonia Gandhi was to set the house in order in poll-bound Haryana, where former chief minister, Bhupinder Singh Hooda, 72, had raised a banner of revolt. He was threatening to form his own party if the leadership in the state was not changed immediately. Subsequently, Ashok Tanwar, 43, was replaced with former Union minister Kumari Selja, 57, as the state Congress chief on September 4. Hooda was asked to take charge of the party’s election management.
In just 47 days, Hooda and Selja not only brought the Congress back into contention but also came within a striking distance of ousting the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) from power. The party won 31 seats — 16 more than it had bagged in 2014.
According to political analysts, Jats, Muslims, and Dalits have rallied behind the Congress and that the party could have done better had Hooda been given some more time.
“Hooda was not given sufficient time to bring other castes into his party’s fold. Tanwar, with no support base, was given a long rope. Not only did he fail in creating a social base of his own but also could not unite the party. It was a big mistake and proved detrimental for the Congress,” said Rajendra Sharma, who heads the political sciences department at Rohtak’s Maharishi Dayanand University.
“There is a lesson for the Congress. It has to give up its status quoist approach and move fast in terms of decision-making,” he added.
In Maharashtra, the Congress’s organisational structure, its fighting spirit, and the election machinery appeared to be missing on the ground. The state leadership was in disarray as many of its senior leaders, including Radhakrishna Vikhe-Patil and Harshwardhan Patil, defected to the BJP in the run-up to the polls. Others, like Sanjay Nirupam, refused to campaign.
This was also perhaps the first time since the Congress and NCP came together in 1999 that the former ceded the role of the bigger party in the alliance to the NCP. Sharad Pawar, the NCP chief, led from the front against the BJP-Shiv Sena combine.
In Maharashtra, the election was mainly between the ruling coalition versus Pawar, who will turn 79 this December. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP chief Amit Shah primarily targeted him in their public rallies. A video of Pawar delivering his election speech in driving rain become a hit on social media.
The Enforcement Directorate’s case against Pawar and his nephew, Ajit, under the Prevention of Money Laundering Act allegedly in connection with the Maharashtra state cooperative bank scam appeared to also have worked in the NCP’s leader’s favour. What seemed till then a one-sided contest in favour of the ruling coalition suddenly became interesting. It provided much-needed momentum to the NCP.
Even defections could not do much damage to the NCP. The party retained the Satara Lok Sabha seat in a by-election.
Its candidate Shriniwas Patil defeated Udayanraje Bhosale, a descendant of Maratha king Shivaji, who defected to the BJP from the NCP.
The Congress was expected to perform poorly as compared to the NCP.
Many political observers predicted that the Congress could drop to the fourth position in the state. While the party has certainly been pushed to the fourth spot, it has improved its 2014 tally.
The Congress got 41 out of the 288 seats in the 2014 assembly elections and appeared set to bag 45 this time. With 53 seats, the NCP has emerged as the main opposition party. It is also entitled to get the post of the leader of the opposition in Maharashtra.
Sonia Gandhi and Congress general secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra did not campaign at all in Haryana and Maharashtra. Rahul Gandhi addressed just six rallies in Maharashtra and two in Haryana.
The BJP made national issues like the revocation of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status a poll issue. The opposition focused on bringing the attention back on local issues: drought, floods and economic slowdown.
Mumbai-based political analyst Abhay Deshpande said the people of Maharashtra did not like the BJP’s style of politics, especially its move to poach leaders from the NCP and the Congress. “BJP’s Article 370 and nationalism narrative also did not work in Maharashtra. The Pawar factor was a big one this time. Congress seemed completely uninterested in Maharashtra. Its tally would have improved had the Congress concentrated a bit more in the state.”
Even in the by-elections, the Congress has done well, especially in Gujarat, the home state of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP chief Amit Shah.
Its candidate, Raghubhai Merajbhai Desai, defeated BJP’s Alpesh Thakor who quit the Congress and joined the BJP a few months ago.