Just when epitaphs were being written for India's grand old party, the Indian National Congress, it has somehow clawed its way back into the nation's political narrative. However, the one marked difference this time around is that it was the old-guard regional satraps that breathed fresh air into the Opposition's performance, and the hallowed Gandhi clan had little to no role to play, at least in the foreground of the election battle.
Any victories that the party has delivered since Narendra Modi's ascent to power in 2014 is largely because of its local leadership; the Gandhis have simply failed to influence the outcome of elections since. This trend came into focus in December last year, when the Congress rode over the BJP in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. This year, Bhupinder Singh Hooda-led Congress in Haryana gave BJP a run for its money — Haryana mandate was fractured and the BJP had to struggle to reach majority mark.
Even in Punjab — the lone Congress governed state in north — during the Assembly elections old-timer and tried-and-tested warhorse Captain Amarinder Singh was told to take charge of the party and Congress recaptured the state from Shiromani Akali Dal-BJP alliance. Singh took charge of the state well before elections were held in February 2017.
The story of Maharashtra and Haryana election results further cements this theory because this was the first time the central leadership was conspiciously missing from pre-poll action on the ground. Party's interim chief and high command Sonia cancelled her lone rally in Haryana's Mahendragarh at the last moment, while Priyanka Gandhi Vadra stayed completely away from the campaign trail; former president Rahul Gandhi held merely six rallies across the two politically-important northern states, that collectively had close to 400 Assembly constituencies.
For the sake of convenience, and to discuss the very different challenge the two states threw up for the Opposition, let's look at the Haryana and Maharashtra outcomes separately.
In Haryana, Bhupinder Singh Hooda, a two-time chief minister and four-time MP, led the charge from the front, aggressively sidelining party workers who, he felt were obstructing his path, while also taking the BJP head on. The Congress may be far away from the halfway mark in Haryana; it may not form the government despite a hung House as it certainly lacks the money and power that the BJP has to woo allies. But the party's ability to stop BJP's celebrations in its tracks when nobody was expecting it to, is no mean feat, and this has what made the former chief minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda the man of the hour in Haryana.
After his party lost power in Haryana in the 2014 elections, the 72-year-old satrap had nothing going in his favour. The ruling BJP at the Centre had made alleged irregularities in the land deals during his tenure a major issue and the Congress veteran was grappling with the cases against him.
He remained at loggerheads with the party's state unit chief Ashok Tanwar, who quit days after he was replaced by Kumari Selja, weeks ahead of the polls.
Hooda, who had virtually threatened to snap ties with the Congress, too, was accommodated and made state legislature party leader, weeks before the elections, which some state leaders admit to be a delayed move.
"However, both Hooda and Selja aggressively picked up on the issues like unemployment, law and order, agrarian crisis, those relating to economy, employees issues which resonated with the people. Then the party came out with a manifesto, which promised loan waiver to farmers and had something for other sections as well and this helped the party," a state unit leader said.
"Had the party high command given charge to Hooda and Selja a few months before the polls, Congress's performance would have been even better," he said.
Notably, Hooda retained his stronghold Garhi Sampla-Kiloi in Rohtak with a comfortable margin. With this win, Hooda now has nine victories under his belt, including one against former deputy prime minister Devi Lal in the Lok Sabha elections.
This time, the BJP fielded Satish Nandal against him, a former Rohtak district unit president of the INLD, who switched sides earlier this year. Hooda had defeated Nandal twice, in 2009 and 2014 from the constituency, and now he inflicted a third shot. In its sweeping Lok Sabha victory earlier this year, the BJP had breached the traditional bastions of its opponents. Both Hooda, who fought from Sonipat, and his son Deepender, a three-time MP who contested from Rohtak, lost.
However, in the Assembly elections, when the field was down to the local players, Hooda managed to protect his stronghold as BJP failed to make inroads in the Jat-dominated Deswali belt of Rohtak, Jhajjar and Sonipat districts.
Nationalist Congress Party patriarch and chief Sharad Pawar has won many hearts this election season. That his party, battered by multiple desertions just ahead of the Assembly elections, managed to improve its performance from the 2014 decimation shows that Pawar is the consummate politician who may be down but has just told the political world that he refuses to be out.
In an election expected to be a one-sided affair with a BJP-Shiv Sena sweep, the NCP gathered enough seats to push BJP in the hands of an extremely demanding Shiv Sena. Today, NCP (54), the junior partner in Maha-aghadi alliance, has a count that is within touching distance of Shiv Sena (56), and decidedly better than its own major ally Congress(44).
The icing on the cake was the NCP's win in the Satara Lok Sabha bypoll, with the party's candidate Shriniwas Patil defeating the BJP's Udayanraje Bhosale, who had left the NCP to join the saffron party.
The credit for pulling out the party from the depths of an existential crisis goes to the doughty 79-year-old, who has five decades in politics behind him and has proved once again that he is made of sterner political mettle than his detractors would give him credit for, insiders said.
With several NCP leaders jumping the ship ahead of the Assembly polls, the never-say-die NCP patriarch went about reviving its prospects by going on a whirlwind tour of the constituencies it contested.
Frail in health, he took on the BJP's leadership, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, party president Amit Shah and Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis, on key issues like the agrarian crisis and Article 370.
The fact that the Congress too managed to improve its tally (44) marginally also demands that some credit be given to local leaders of the state. Secondly, the Congress organisation is terribly weakened at the ground level over the years. While the NCP commands control in the Sugar belt, BJP boasts of an army of ground workers in urban seats. In 2014, the Congress had won 42 assembly seats.
The main difference between Haryana and Maharashtra for the Congress was the lack of a clear and decided leader like Hooda. The Gandhis did not even appear to have tried to rein in rebellion and boost the morale of the disheartened cadre. Therefore, the fruits of the performance is all for the local leadership to claim, who managed to prevail despite severe infighting, which arguably was a trickle down effect of the leadership lacunae at the Centre.
But despite all odds, late Congress leader Vilasrao Deshmukh's sons, Dhiraj and Amit, have emerged victorious from Latur Rural and Latur City assembly constituencies, respectively. In Marathwada's Jalna, Kailas Gorantyal of the Congress defeated Minister of State for Textile Arjun Khotkar of Shiv Sena. Former Chief Minister Ashok Chavan won from his traditional seat of Bhokar in Nanded district. He defeated Shrinivas alias Bapusaheb Gorthekar of the BJP. Chavan had won the Nanded Lok Sabha, of which Bhokar is a part, in 2014, but was defeated in 2019.
Congress insiders say the "surprisingly well" verdict, especially in Haryana where it changed the leadership at the last moment, gave a clear message to the party leadership to refocus on regional satraps.
Had the party, they say, lent full support to Hooda, the verdict could have swung in Congress's favour in Haryana. However, the verdict appears to have given the Congress the message that it is the "old guard" which has delivered and brought it back to power in some states, despite intensifying resistance to their claims of influence among voters from the younger generation of leaders.
The Congress won 46 seats in Maharashtra, against 42 in 2014 elections, and 31 seats in Haryana against only 15 in the last election.
While it won a vote share of 28.1 per cent with 35.15 lakh votes in Haryana, the Congress is set to win 44 seats in Maharashtra, with a vote share of 15.8 per cent and a total of around 86.78 lakh votes.
Congress workers, whose morale had been low ever since the drubbing the Congress suffered in last several elections, barring Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, feel Haryana and Maharashtra results would prove to be a stimulus to regain strength and fight.
With inputs from agencies
Updated Date: Oct 25, 2019 21:03:47 IST