As Congress stares at possible defeat in Maharashtra, experts blame high command's 'insipid' campaigning, lack of will to even fight
In an election dominated by muscular nationalism, the central leadership of the Congress failed to even show up, let alone canvassing hard to turn the narrative back to local issues.
Hemmed in by the crisis triggered by the resignation of Rahul as the party president, the Congress no longer looks like a truly national party.
That the Congress' two biggest leaders in Mumbai, Sanjay Nirupam and Milind Deora, don't see eye to eye is also no secret
The string of resignations by sitting MLAs and leaders weakened the organisational structure of the Congress at the grassroots levels and rebels fighting over ticket distribution were not reined in.
It is as if the Gandhis had lost interest, both in party matters and electoral policies, at least for the time being
To no one's surprise, exit polls by various news channels predicted a saffron sweep in the Haryana and Maharashtra Assembly elections. The television debates lacked the usual cacophony; Opposition spokespersons' assertions looked half-hearted, and the usual word of caution on exit polls' accuracy was cast aside in print and digital media articles.
However, the party that has had the longest run in power in India was not reduced to this state in a day; the signs of decay were long coming since the party lost out to BJP in 2014 Lok Sabha polls and could not even muster the strength needed to lead the Opposition in the Parliament. It had mixed fortunes electorally, losing more states and local body polls than it managed to save. But something more seems to have crumbled since after the second-consecutive route in general elections. Congress appears to have lost the will to even put up a fight.
Sources within the party say that the maha aghadi (as the Congress-NCP alliance is known in Maharashtra) is presently disjointed. Further, Congress workers say that campaigning wasn't even half as hectic as it used to be even until Lok Sabha elections.
Vashishtha Badhe, a functionary of the party in Beed accepts that Congress party workers had little to do during campaigning in the district as the party had conceded all seats to its regional ally NCP. However, on being questioned specifically about transferring votes to alliance candidate, Badhe said, "Yes, we worked for the NCP candidate."
Responding to allegations of a lacklustre campaign, Badhe defended the party leadership and blamed the media for ignoring their leaders' rallies. "This is not true. The Congress held more than 108 rallies. Various leaders, including Rahul ji, the Rajasthan deputy chief minister (Sachin Pilot) and former Karnataka chief minister(Siddaramaiah) came for canvassing. But the media didn't cover their rallies."
On being asked on whether he thinks the Congress made a half-hearted attempt at the elections this time, he says, "All this is not true and just a perception created by media."
However, by and large, the first family of the Congress was conspicuously missing on the Maharashtra poll trail. The Opposition's campaign was largely lacklustre, with the exception of a handful of rallies addressed by Rahul Gandhi who highlighted issues like the economic slowdown, unemployment, "failure" of the demonetisation exercise and GST rollout.
While the Congress had faced a rout in the Lok Sabha elections, Rahul's zeal to canvass for his party was not very different from that of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Rahul, who was then the Congress president, travelled 1,23,466 kilometres across the country, addressing 115 rallies in 105 constituencies. In comparison, Modi travelled for 1,33,329 kilometres across the country, holding 142 rallies across 140 constituencies.
However, now, hemmed in by the crisis triggered by the resignation of Rahul as the party president, the Congress no longer looks like a national party. That the Congress' two biggest leaders in Mumbai — Sanjay Nirupam and Milind Deora — don't see eye to eye is also no secret. The string of resignations by party’s sitting MLAs and leaders weakened the Congress’ organisational structure at the grassroots level and rebels fighting over ticket distribution were not reined in on time.
The mass desertions did not just include politicians switching over to the winning side for personal gains. The list also had the likes of Priyanka Chaturvedi, who was one of the most vocal Congress spokespersons but quit after she was caught up in internal politics. The central leadership was too busy (or uninterested) to intervene or pay heed. Another loss to the party was Urmila Matondkar's resignation, who quit simply because she too was tired of the "petty in-house politics." And a divided house cannot fight a battle unless united behind a strong leader.
Political observer and communication strategist Daniel Francis said,"The reason behind everything is the lack of an organisation at the central level. In a centralised party such as Congress, when the house in Delhi is in order, everything else in every other state falls in order,"
"I wouldn't want to blame the state leadership or the local discontent for a poor show at all. They were bickering, there were groups fighting but that happens in all parties. But the central leadership cracks its whip from the top. Congress did not even try to do this in Maharashtra. The Congress failed to even put up a fight in such a politically important state," he added.
Francis, who has worked closely as a communication strategist with the Congress party during the party's Lok Sabha campaign, doesn't expect much for the Congress, given their insipid campaign. And he blames the central leadership for all that has befallen the Congress party.
"There is simply no one from the national level who can fill in for the lack of strong leadership in Maharashtra. As you could see, Modi travelled extensively through the state in addition to the canvassing by the BJP's regional satraps. But in Congress, there was no one interested in doing that. For a national party, the presence of a national face definitely lends credence to the party's campaign and the Congress lost out on that big time."
In Maharashtra, the BJP's high-voltage election campaigning aggressively raised the nationalism plank by focusing on the government's scrapping of Jammu and Kashmir's special status in early August and targeting the Opposition on national security and corruption. The party has pledged to work towards making the state drought-free. Exit polls have predicted a huge BJP win in Haryana too, where its main Opposition, the Congress party, could face near decimation.
On the other hand, Modi and the top brass of the BJP raised Article 370 and the Opposition's "objection" to withdrawing the special status of Jammu and Kashmir. Modi also spoke about the "corrupt" leadership of the Opposition. For its part, the Opposition camp raised the issues of economic slowdown and joblessness but appeared lacking in projecting itself as a strong alternative to the BJP narrative.
In an election dominated by muscular nationalism, the Congress' central leadership failed to even show up, let alone canvassing hard to turn the narrative back to local issues; its local leaders toiled alone, putting an unconvincing act in front of an increasingly polarised electorate.
The Congress’ campaign had been listless from the beginning. Rahul was in Cambodia when the BJP had launched its massive campaign. Rahul only began addressing rallies when the campaign was halfway over. Even then, Rahul held a mere six rallies for a 288-member Maharashtra Assembly and just two in Haryana, which has 90 seats. Sonia Gandhi and Priyanka Vadra completely stayed away from the campaign, the former cancelling her lone Haryana rally at the last moment, while the latter cited preoccupation with organisational duties in Uttar Pradesh, a state which does not go to polls for at least two years.
In contrast, Modi addressed nine rallies across Maharashtra, aided by a galaxy of BJP's national leaders and Union ministers including Amit Shah, Rajnath Singh and Smriti Irani. The BJP's Hema Malini, Sunny Deol and Gautam Gambhir also canvassed for the party.
Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Fadnavis has been the only leader who has campaigned extensively across the state. As part of his 4,000 kilometre-long campaign tour "Mahajanadesh Yatra" and also in the run-up to the Assembly polls, Fadnaavis covered 220 of the 288 constituencies across the state.
From the Shiv Sena, both its president Uddhav and Yuva Sena leader Aaditya Thackeray addressed 50 rallies each.
Sharad Pawar's NCP did a better job at canvassing than Congress. In fact, for the Opposition, NCP leader Sharad Pawar seemed to be the only saving grace who, at the age of 79, addressed a number of rallies in which he attacked Modi and BJP on a string of issues. A picture of him drenched in pounding rainfall, and addressing a rally in Satara went viral on social media, as netizens lauded the septuagenarian's undying appetite for a tough fight. However, the Congress disappointed on this front too as it failed to hold even a single joint rally with NCP, in contrast to the joint rally held by the prime minister and Shiv Sena president Uddhav Thackeray in Mumbai on 18 October.
Pawar has trashed the reports calling Congress campaign weak and has been quoted as saying, "I don't think so. The Congress is well-organised at the ground-level in Maharashtra. I have seen at several places that Congress workers are working aggressively."
"The only difference is the prime minister, the Union home minister...theirs is a tall leadership. The Congress' national leadership doesn't belong to the state (Maharashtra)...there is no Congress leader working at the national level from Maharashtra. But that doesn't mean the Congress is weak," Pawar said.
But the sense of disillusionment is unmistakable. When all exit poll results predicted a better than before performance for the BJP-Shiv Sena alliance, senior NCP leader Majeed Memon could not hide his dissatisfaction. He minced no words in criticising ally Congress and blamed the grand old party for the anticipated unfavourable results.
"Congress leaders didn’t work hard enough during the campaign in Maharashtra. Congress leaders didn't even attend Rahul's rallies. So if we don’t get success, then the Congress will be responsible," he said.
Daniel Francis shares Memon's views on this. "I won't be surprised if NCP performs better than Congress in these elections - the latter party was far removed from the ground."
NCP chief spokesperson Nawab Malik tried to douse the fire by downplaying the statement as Memon's "personal views" but ground workers too are miffed at the Congress' below par performance. Malik also questioned the exit poll figures. "What is the sample size of the surveys? Sometimes exit poll surveys depict right picture, while sometimes they are incorrect. So, the true picture will be known on 24 October," Malik said.
But apart from being absent from ground zero, Gandhis appeared to have lost all interest in the campaign in general.
There have been precedents in the past when a regional satrap has led the Congress charge in a state, and still delivered a win, but the party's national leadership has never abandoned the fort like this.
Even if the Gandhis wanted to give the regional leaders a free hand in the campaign, the Delhi leadership needed to at least decide the campaign pitch and the party's direction. But party leaders were seen sending confusing signals. On one hand, Rahul and Sonia have always held a very critical view on Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, former prime minister Manmohan Singh appeared to be toning down their attack on the BJP. This was in the aftermath of the saffron party's poll promise that it would confer Bharat Ratna on the Hindutva ideologue. Savarkar, who holds a lot of emotive value in Maharashtra, was attacked, and then the party redacted its statement realising the repercussions due to the controversy's proximity to the polls.
In sum, the Congress in Maharashtra put forward an unconvincing act, and the local leadership was left confused on which line to toe when they face the electorate.
Rahul Gandhi's attack on the prime minister came a day after Modi, referring to the Agnipath scheme for military recruitment
The ED probe pertains to alleged financial irregularities in the Congress-promoted Young Indian Private Limited, which owns the National Herald newspaper
The Congress president had been summoned by ED for questioning in a money laundering case related to the National Herald newspaper on 23 June