President's Rule in Maharashtra: A dithering, vacillating Congress blew up a chance and handed initiative back to the BJP

  • With just 44 out of 288 seats in bag, Congress is fourth in pecking order and in no position to form a government either on its own or with alliance partner NCP (54) but delusions of grandeur still hasn't left party that lies in a near-comatose state

  • By focusing on rebuilding the party in the state, addressing structural lacunas and investing in a charismatic young leader, the Congress could have increased its political capital in one of India's richest states

  • The Sena and the Congress had presumably both misread or underestimated the craftiness of Shard Pawar, who seems to have got a second wind after NCP's good show though the party's prospects were virtually written off prior to the polls

The confusing muddle in Maharashtra, that seems to have taken a decisive turn on Tuesday afternoon with the governor recommending President's Rule, has brought the sad state of Congress again to the fore. That President's Rule was the only viable solution out of the deadlock was becoming increasingly clear since the Shiv Sena on Monday night failed to produce letters of support to back its claim of forming a government.

But the suspense that was generated since Monday over whether Congress and NCP may back a Sena-led government in the state owes a large extent to the indecision within Congress that was torn between the lure of power, the necessity to keep BJP out and its own ground realities.

 Presidents Rule in Maharashtra: A dithering, vacillating Congress blew up a chance and handed initiative back to the BJP

Mallikarjun Kharge with Maharashtra Congress leaders at 10 Janpath after meeting with Congress President Sonia Gandhi on Tuesday. Getty Images

With just 44 out of 288 seats in bag, Congress is fourth in pecking order and in no position to form a government either on its own or with alliance partner NCP (54) but delusions of grandeur still hasn't left party that lies in a near-comatose state. It toyed with the idea of playing kingmaker, went into rounds and rounds of discussions and in the end — as Congress leader Prithviraj Chavan, former Maharashtra chief minister, put it — after prolonged discussions, the party decided to have more discussions.

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This wasn't needed, really. Since the Congress has neither the power nor the opportunity to form a government on its own or with pre-election partner NCP, all that the grand old party needed to do was to spell out its stand clearly — whether it will support a grand coalition of NCP-Congress-Shiv Sena (modalities could have been fixed later) or whether it will steer clear of any such formation and prefer to sit in the Opposition. It had to essentially decide between taking the plunge — crossing an ideological barrier in aligning with Sena to keep the BJP out of power, or staying away from the game of thrones to fix internal issues and concentrate on putting own house in order.

After all, Maharashtra is a state where Congress had long been in power, still enjoys a reasonable clout and is not entirely devoid of a committed voter base. By focusing on rebuilding the party in the state, addressing structural lacunas and investing in a charismatic young leader, the Congress could have increased its political capital in one of India's richest states.

Instead, the dithering that we were witness to points to an acute lack of leadership in Congress. Faced with ideological compulsions, pulled in different directions by the party Kerala lobby (that wanted nothing to do with Shiv Sena) and own Maharashtra MLAs (who wanted a share of the power), the party decided to play the guessing game and the waiting game. The end result is a stalemate that, if anything, hands the advantage back to the BJP and does nothing to salvage Congress' plummeting fortune or reputation.

It would be wrong to lay the blame of what happened in Maharashtra entirely at Congress's door - the state doesn't have a government even 20 days after the Assembly election results due to the souring of relation and lack of trust between allies BJP and Shiv Sena who received the mandate to govern. Yet it is a little naïve to think that Congress and NCP played no role in Sena's overarching ambition. If Uddhav Thackeray severed ties with BJP and staked claim to form a government with just 56 MLAs in a 288-member House, it is difficult to imagine that he received no signals from the NCP and Congress in making such an audacious move. It is reasonable to assume that in the increasing parleys between Sena and NCP as the stalemate continued in the state, the wily Sharad Pawar gave at least an implicit suggestion to Thackeray that he will persuade the Congress in holding the ladder so that the Sena chief may fulfil his chief ministerial ambition. And here's where not only the Sena, but also Congress was outfoxed by the crafty old fox of Indian politics.

The Sena and the Congress had presumably both misread or underestimated the craftiness of Shard Pawar, who seems to have got a second wind after NCP's good show though the party's prospects were virtually written off prior to the polls. Pawar himself was on backfoot, fighting allegations of corruption. He may have goaded Sena on and dangled the carrot only to withdraw it later. And his machinations may have caught even the Congress off guard.

Media reports indicate that Congress president Sonia Gandhi in consultation with her close aides and MLAs from Maharashtra came round to backing the idea of a Sena-led coalition government. She also received a call in the evening from Sena chief Thackeray who presumably didn't just inquire about the weather in Delhi.

According to a report in India Today, following the telephonic conversation with Thackeray, consultations with senior party leaders such as Ahmed Patel, KC Venugopal, AK Antony and Mallikarjun Kharge as well as discussions with MLAs from Maharashtra, Sonia called up Pawar, who reportedly told the Congress chief "that at that point nothing was clear and he had not received a response from Uddhav Thackeray about the contours of government formation. Sources said Sharad Pawar also told the Congress chief that he will be discussing details with the Shiv Sena and only then can he share them."

If true, this represents an astonishing turn of events and change in Pawar's stance who had earlier reportedly been canvassing for Congress's support for Sena. Other media reports indicate that it was Congress that prevaricated on issuing the letter of support to the Sena and wanted an NCP-led government which obviously would be unacceptable to Sena since it cut off ties with the BJP only on the question of rotational chief ministership.

Congress's dilemma is understandable because on the one hand it wants to keep the BJP out, squeeze into the power-sharing equation and yet is wary of backing the Sena fearing loss of its ideological plank. The stakes are lower for NCP, a regional outfit, that needs only be in news and inch back in contention in the state.

The Congress, however, could have utilized this opportunity in making a statement. It failed to do so. Had it taken a categorical stance that it won't be part of horse-trading or join hands with a political and ideological rival, it would have shown integrity and commitment to its cause that would have increased its moral and political capital. Or it should have gone ahead and backed a Sena-led government, rode roughshod over ideological commitment but at least succeeded in its mission to keep the BJP out. Instead, in trying to be too clever by half, it has handed the initiative right back to the BJP.

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Updated Date: Nov 12, 2019 20:15:47 IST