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Analysis: What ails the Maharashtra Congress?

Most of the dissenting Maharashtra Congress MLAs are reportedly miffed with CLP leader Balasaheb Thorat. File

Most of the dissenting Maharashtra Congress MLAs are reportedly miffed with CLP leader Balasaheb Thorat. File | Photo Credit: Vivek Bendre

With the Congress beset with leadership problems at the central level, the malaise is afflicting the party’s organisation in Maharashtra. Long-festering problems within the Maharashtra Congress unit came into sharp relief earlier this month after 22 (of the 44 Congress MLAs in Maharashtra) openly voiced their dissatisfaction with their leaders in the State and later met with party chief Sonia Gandhi in New Delhi to voice their grievances in person. 

According to senior party leaders and analysts, these issues have been lingering since the formation of the tripartite Maha Vikas Aghadi government comprising the Shiv Sena, the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and the Congress in late 2019, with coordination issues between the party brass and its rank-and-file bedevilling the Maharashtra Congress unit. 

This is overlaid with the conflicting interests of Sharad Pawar’s NCP and the ideologically opposed Sena led by Uddhav Thackeray, with several Congress legislators particularly upset with the NCP’s ‘dominance’ and a lack of strong Congress leadership to counter the expansionist aspirations of Mr. Pawar’s party. 

The Maharashtra Congress woes have become particularly pronounced after the BJP’s ascendancy post-2014 which coincided with the tenures of senior Congressmen Ashok Chavan, Balasaheb Thorat and now Nana Patole as Maharashtra Pradesh Congress Committee (MPCC) chief.    

The passing of former Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh in 2012 has left the party bereft of a commanding mass-based leader in Maharashtra, which has been compounded the demise of experienced ‘trouble-shooters’ at the central level such as Ahmed Patel and Oscar Fernandes who took a keen interest in resolving the party’s organisational woes in the State.

Most of the dissenting Maharashtra Congress MLAs are reportedly miffed with Mr. Thorat, who was elected the Congress Legislative Party (CLP) leader by Ms. Gandhi in 2019, for failing to ensure that Congress MLAs received adequate fund allocation that would help in building the party’s base in the future in key constituencies.   

“The perception is that Mr. Thorat has not been able to negotiate firmly with our allies, the Shiv Sena and particularly the NCP, to ensure the Congress gets its due. He is not someone who is viewed as being firm or particularly aggressive,” said a Congress legislator requesting anonymity.

Central leaders ‘inaccessible’

Yet another pointed to the “inaccessibility” of central leaders who neither lent a sympathetic ear to resolve regional grievances nor took the trouble to visit the district Congress headquarters.

“Unlike earlier Maharashtra Congress in-charges like Margaret Alva or Vayalar Ravi, the incumbent Maharashtra in-charge H. K. Patil’s visits are only restricted to Mumbai and not to district Congress headquarters. As a result, the feedback is highly sanitised and there is no hint of the severe atrophy of the party organisation at the booth levels, many of which are only on paper,” said the Congressman.  

If the CLP leader has not proved effective in securing the best deal for his party in the tripartite coalition, others say that leaders such as H.K. Patil, the All-India Congress Committee (AICC) Secretary in-charge for Maharashtra, and Mr. Patole have not ‘pushed’ the Congress Ministers hard enough.   

“There used to be a tradition of Congress Ministers holding a ‘janata durbar’ in their respective constituencies or districts. The purpose of holding them was to connect to their electorate by listening and resolving their grievances which helps in party expansion. While they were usually held in the district Congress Committee offices, this practice has completely stopped now. The MPCC chief or the AICC in-charge have the power to direct the Ministers, they have not been doing so,” said a Congress leader from Pune. 

Senior Congressman former lawmaker Anant Gadgil, an erudite face in the party’s State unit, observes that the Congress tradition of ‘chintan shivirs’ _ the seeding ground for grand schemes _ has virtually become decrepit.

“For instance, the Employment Guarantee Scheme was finalised at such a ‘shivir’ in Nashik during the days of the late Yashwantrao Chavan which metamorphosed during the UPA regime,” says Mr. Gadgil, the son of former Union Minister and veteran Congressman Vitthal Gadgil.   

A bigger problem is regarding accountability of AICC observers, he says. According to Mr. Gadgil, tickets are rarely finalised on elective merit but on “good relations” with the AICC observer.

“A regrettable pattern has emerged where the wrong feedback by such observers has gone to the high command from the civic body to the Parliament level. The choice of Congress candidates has affected the party adversely,” he said.  

Structural problems

Pointing to a number of structural problems hamstringing the party’s growth in Maharashtra and elsewhere, Mr. Gadgil observes that the talent pool that was once the National Students’ Union of India (NSUI) has become stagnant while the Youth Congress has lost connect with the youth.

“At one time, the NSUI used to be a formidable force in itself. Today, when social media is rife with toxic ‘anti-Muslim’ and hyper-nationalistic posts, where is the NSUI and the Youth Congress to combat it. Are they reduced to mere visitng cards?” he says.

Dynastic politics, nepotism

While an overhaul had been promised, nothing seems to actually change on ground with dynastic politics and nepotism continuing to afflict the party’s regional rungs.

The recent Youth Congress elections saw Congress Minister Nitin Raut’s son Kuna become the State president of the Youth Congress.   

“Earlier, Vishwajeet Kadam, son of the late Patangrao Kadam and Satyajit Tambe, Mr. Thorat’s nephew, have served in this post. So, the objective of the election, which was to elect a fresh face free of the dynastic baggage has been defeated. It also raises questions of transparency in electoral process within the party that is being promised by Rahul Gandhi and other top party brass,” said a Pune-based analyst.

Mr. Gadgil further notes the whittling away of the Congress base; while Marathas and the Scheduled Castes at one time used to wholeheartedly vote Congress, the Maratha community is largely with the Sena and the NCP.

He says that the Congress has ceded ground to the BJP in the urban areas given the saffron party’s canny connect strategy with ambitious projects such as the ‘Smart City’ enterprise. Pune, once a Congress bastion, now finds the party in complete disarray with the BJP totally dominating the Assembly seats and the civic bodies of Pune and Pimpri-Chinchwad.  

“While it is a tough call to supplant the BJP in the urban areas, it is no surprise that the perception is that the NCP and the Sena leaders are more active than the Congress in the ruling MVA. Today, it is the NCP that has the best portfolios and their Ministers, be it Ajit Pawar or Jayant Patil or someone else, ensure that their MLAs get the requisite funds which will ultimately help in their party’s expansion besides laying a solid base ahead of the polls,” said Mr. Gadgil.

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Printable version | Aug 13, 2022 8:45:12 am | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/other-states/analysis-what-ails-the-maharashtra-congress/article65337545.ece