Election takeaways for the Congress

For the Indian National Congress that was anticipating a wipe-out in Maharashtra and Haryana, the Assembly elections that just concluded in these two States have revived hope in an organisation that has been in a comatose state since the general election earlier this year.

In Maharashtra, the party, in partnership with the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) led by the redoubtable Sharad Pawar, has limited the extent of the Bharatiya Janata Party-Shiv Sena’s victory, making the process of government formation difficult. And in Haryana, along with other Opposition parties, it has managed to force the BJP to seek post-poll partners to form a government.

Reality versus polarisation

These results, however, cannot be read as a sign that the Congress is on the comeback trail. Even its victories in the Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh Assembly elections, that were held towards the end of 2018, saw the party biting the dust in these States a few months later in the Lok Sabha election. But they do demonstrate that the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah duo is not invincible, and that local issues do matter. They show that playing the politics of polarisation cannot always trump issues of rising unemployment, growing rural distress and an economy facing a downturn.

Therefore, for the Congress to remain politically relevant, its organisation must become battle-ready, so that when an opportunity arises, it can take advantage of its opponents’ shortcomings. A former Congress functionary went so far as to say that these results demonstrated that the party had been “defeated organisationally, not politically”. Of course, the Congress needs to do more to become a winner: it must have a convincing counter-narrative and a leader who can sell its own message of hope. But these State elections do reveal the chink in the BJP’s armour.

Party in a churn

Ever since the Congress faced its second successive rout in a Lok Sabha election, the party leadership has appeared to give up, weakening an already damaged organisation. Rahul Gandhi resigned as party president on May 25. And for three months thereafter, the party remained headless till his mother, Sonia Gandhi, became interim party president on August 10 in an old guard-driven coup, barely weeks before elections were due in Maharashtra and Haryana. No effort was made to introspect on why the Congress had fared so poorly in the Lok Sabha election nor was there any attempt to rebuild the organisation. In fact, even for these two State elections, a high-level coordination committee was set up barely 10 days ahead of polling day.

The fact that the party won a respectable number of seats in these elections — State heavyweights took the lead while the Gandhi family took a back seat — therefore, sends out a message to the party as a whole. Rahul Gandhi was absent for much of the campaigning period, confining himself to a handful of rallies. Mrs Gandhi, who has been doing a holding job, did not address any rally; neither did her daughter and party general secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra.

In Maharashtra, party State chief Balasaheb Thorat and Congress legislative party (CLP)leader K.C. Padavi, who were appointed only in July, have little clout. At any other time, these appointments could have been read as an attempt to build a new leadership, but not months short of State elections. Meanwhile, the Mumbai Regional Congress Committee (MRCC) remained headless between July and September even as Mr. Gandhi did little to check acolyte and former MRCC chief Sanjay Nirupam from attacking the party leadership publicly.

The old guard still matters

In Haryana, the party had to wait till September for Mrs Gandhi — after being nudged on by party veterans Ghulam Nabi Azad and Ahmed Patel — to name former State Chief Minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda as Congress Legislature Party leader, and replace Ashok Tanwar, a favourite of Mr Gandhi, with former Union Minister Kumari Selja, as State chief. A miffed Mr. Tanwar subsequently quit the party.

The changes in Haryana clearly made a difference. It helped create a social coalition of Jats, Dalits and Muslims on the ground. The dominant Jat community, unhappy with Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar’s anti-Jat politics, turned out in Mr. Hooda’s strongholds to vote for Congress candidates (just as they voted for the Dushyant Chautala-led Jannayak Janta Party’s nominees in his core areas). The goodwill that Ms. Selja enjoys pulled in Dalit votes. In the process, the Congress tally went from 15 to 31 MLAs. Clearly, if this team had been created after the Lok Sabha election, the party might just have wrested the State from the BJP.

Meanwhile, when it became clear that Mr. Gandhi’s resignation was not going to galvanise the party, his personal team — in a bid to make him stay on — reportedly spread the word that everyone needed to take sides in an approaching showdown between the younger leadership and the old Guard. But the results, as leaders, young and old, are now saying, have only spotlighted Mr. Gandhi’s “dispensability”. With Mrs Gandhi return as party president, her consensual style is back: “With Sonia Gandhi at the helm, there is a greater sense of camaraderie across different age groups. Most people in the party respond better to her than to him [Mr. Gandhi],” a young leader said, while another added, “The Old Guard still remains relevant — look at Hooda’s inspired fightback.”

And Mr. Hooda is not the only one. In 2017, Captain Amarinder Singh had to fight to be named the party’s chief ministerial face in Punjab — he won the State back for the Congress after a 10-year gap, maintained the party’s strength in the Lok Sabha election this year, as well as presided over by-poll victories more recently. In 2018, party veteran Kamal Nath, as State chief, led the party to victory in Madhya Pradesh.

The Congress needs to take a cue from Mr. Pawar — at a few months shy of 79, afflicted with health issues, hounded by the government’s investigative agencies, and leading a party demoralised by enforcement raids on its members, he is still leading from the front. The striking image of the Maratha strongman, addressing an election rally in blinding rain in Satara says it all: fight back.

Smita Gupta is a Delhi-based journalist

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Printable version | Feb 28, 2021 4:34:42 AM |

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