By-elections and lessons for the Congress

For the Congress, the results of the four by-elections to one Lok Sabha seat in Haryana and three Assembly seats in Bihar, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra came as no surprise — barring the last, where it had expected its ally, the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), to win: the Khadakwasla Assembly constituency in Pune district.

A senior party functionary said, “None of these seats falls in our area of influence — so we do not set great store by them.” Officially, party spokesperson Renuka Chowdhury, while maintaining the same position, added that the party took all election results seriously and therefore would undertake the necessary “course correction.”

In the normal course, results to four by-elections would not have attracted much attention. But since they were held against the backdrop of the high-voltage campaign against corruption — and the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) — not just by the Opposition parties, but also by Team Anna, Congress spokespersons found themselves answering a volley of questions on whether they regarded these results as a referendum against it. Of course, both the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) which won one seat, with its allies winning two more, and Team Anna have been claiming credit for the results.

But while the Congress failed to make a mark in these elections, to attribute the results to the anti-corruption campaign of either the Opposition or that of Team Anna appeared to be a bit of a stretch — even the Hisar verdict — Congress sources said, especially as it was a foregone conclusion that the Haryana Janhit Party (HJP)'s Kuldip Bishnoi would reap the sympathy wave from the death of his father, the late Bhajan Lal. Could the dip in the Congress candidate's votes be attributed to the campaign? Perhaps, except for the fact, say Congress sources, that unlike Mr. Bishnoi and Ajay Chautala, the INLD candidate, who came second, the Congress candidate did not have any criminal cases against him. Indeed, it is Haryana Chief Minister Bhupinder Hooda's critics in the party who are holding him responsible for the fall in the Congress vote.

A closer look at the results demonstrate that in three of the four seats — Hisar (Lok Sabha), Daraunda and Banswada (both Assembly seats), the status quo continues: Mr. Bishnoi won Hisar, a seat held by his father till his recent death; similarly, Kavita Singh of the JD(U) won Daraunda in Bihar, held till recently by her mother-in-law, Jagmato Devi, whose death necessitated this by-election. And Pocharam Srinivasa Reddy retained Banswada, which he had resigned after the Telengana agitation started: the only difference was that the last time, he won it on the Telugu Desam Party symbol; this time, he did so on Telengana Rashtra Samiti ticket. The Congress did not have a chance, seen as it was as reneging on the promise it had made in December 2009.

In Maharashtra, of course, it was a different story: Khadakwasla had been held by the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS)'s Ramesh Wanjale till his death. In these elections, the MNS decided not to contest; and the Congress leaders wanted to field the dead MLA's widow, Harshada Wanjale, who happened to be in their own party and was a zilla parishad member to boot. The NCP said the seat belonged to it and so Ms. Wangale contested the elections on NCP ticket — and lost to the BJP. There was no sympathy factor in her case.

Congress sources say that the local NCP unit was upset that an outsider had been given the ticket, and so did not work for Ms. Wangale: indeed, Deputy Chief Minister Ajit Pawar of the NCP, who had had made it a prestige issue, is now being blamed for losing a seat the party should have won quite easily. The unhappiness in the NCP — and possibly in the Congress, at the NCP taking the seat — is also borne out by the fact that of the four seats under discussion, it was only Khadakwasla that saw a pathetic 30 per cent turnout on voting day — the others all saw a 70 to 80 per cent voter turnout.

Nevertheless, even though only Khadakwasla came as a surprise, for the Congress, these results do hold out some lessons: in Bihar, there is conformation that the party has not improved at all; in Maharashtra, that there is need to make the ruling Congress-NCP coalition work better; and in Andhra Pradesh, the verdict of Banswada is a signal to the Centre that it must take a decision on Telengana soon.

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Printable version | Mar 29, 2020 12:29:59 AM |

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