There is no end to the litany of woes for the crisis-ridden Congress party. Still soaking in the shock of its rout in the recent polls for five state assemblies and desperately searching for an actionable revival blueprint, on April 5, a delegation of 25 Congress MLAs from Maharashtra met interim party president Sonia Gandhi in New Delhi to red-flag serious concerns they have against functioning of the party’s ministers in the Uddhav Thackeray-led Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi (MVA).
The same day, nearly 30 Congress leaders, including several MLAs, from Jharkhand also held discussions with the party’s in-charge for the state, Avinash Pande, where disssention and disaffection within the ranks, and against Pande, were palpable.
Strife within the Congress fold aside, sources say the discussions with Sonia and Pande also saw party leaders raise concerns over attempts by senior allies – Hemant Soren’s Jharkhand Mukti Morcha in Jharkhand and Sharad Pawar’s Nationalist Congress Party and Thackeray’s Shiv Sena in Maharashtra – at systematically usurping the Congress’s political space.
Trouble in Maharashtra
“A wide range of issues were discussed with the Congress president as we had not been able to meet her for the past two years due to the pandemic. There are several problems that we have been facing despite being part of the government in Maharashtra and we raised these with Madam Gandhi,” Kunal Patil, Congress MLA from the Dhule Rural seat, told The Federal.
Patil refrained from going into details of specific problems that the MLAs raised. He, however, conceded that the “distribution of funds under various schemes to constituencies that have Congress MLAs has been uneven” and hinted that MLAs from the Shiv Sena and NCP were getting more funds than their Congress counterparts.
Another party MLA told The Federal that several lawmakers complained that most Congress members in the Thackeray-led council of ministers neglected the legitimate demands of Congress MLAs and party workers. Among the ministers against whom complaints were made to Sonia were former chief minister Ashok Chavan, who currently holds the important PWD portfolio, CLP leader and revenue minister Balasaheb Thorat, energy minister Nitin Raut, medical education minister Amit Deshmukh and backward castes welfare minister Vijay Wadettiwar.
“Though we did not specifically ask for any minister to be replaced, the general sense was that the party needs a fresh set of faces, preferably younger and more assertive MLAs, to be made ministers as the current lot does not raise our concerns with the CM effectively… we have been working against great odds as on the one hand we have to fight against a powerful adversary like the BJP and on the other there are clear attempts by our senior allies to starve Congress-led assembly constituencies of development so that the voters in these segments shift away from our party,” the MLA said.
Rahul to visit Mumbai
Suresh Dhanorkar, the Congress’s lone Lok Sabha MP from Maharashtra, who had accompanied the party MLAs to the meeting with Sonia, also said that disaffection within the party had been on the ascendant over the way the MVA government, including Congress ministers, had been functioning for the past several months. Dhanorkar said while the Congress president assured the delegation of raising their concerns with Pawar and Thackeray as well as with the party’s Maharashtra ministers, former party president Rahul Gandhi will “very soon” visit Mumbai to “speak collectively and individually to MLAs and senior leaders” on the correctives that need to be applied within the party in the state.
The discussions that Pande had with Congress leaders from Jharkhand, say sources, were more acrimonious; perhaps because several of those present had disagreements with Pande, too. As reported by The Federal earlier this week, the Congress’s lawmakers in Jharkhand have been getting increasingly restless over “poor performance” of the party’s ministers in the Hemant Soren-led government and have been persistently raising an alarm with the high command of the JMM’s “concerted attempts at undermining the Congress” and making in-roads in the party’s electoral bastions in the state.
Pande, who has his own problems with Soren and has been unable to meet the CM on two recent visits to Ranchi, has directed the Congress ministers and MLAs to “not speak to the CM for the next two months”. Pane’s unconventional and evidently irrational advice, say sources in the Jharkhand Congress, has not gone down well with most party leaders. At least two of the party’s four ministers in the Soren cabinet have reportedly told Pande that if the party doesn’t want even ministers to communicate with the CM then “it is better for us to quit the government”.
Though these fresh rumblings in Maharashtra and Jharkhand can be attributed to the failure of the Congress’s state leadership and ministers, a conspicuous import of the developments also is that the party’s allies in these states have shown no inclination to accommodate the Grand Old Party’s concerns. Thus, while the Congress high command may still have some control over the ministers from its party in different states, it can do little to rein in allies.
A senior Congress leader from Jharkhand said that when Pande’s missive to Congress lawmakers to not speak to Soren was carried to the CM, his immediate reaction was ‘if they have a problem with me, they are free to withdraw from the government’. This hardline approach by Soren is despite the fact that the JMM, with 30 MLAs in the 81-member Jharkhand assembly, does not enjoy a majority on its own in the state
“The Shiv Sena is a new ally and it is no secret that the MVA was a union of convenience and compulsion because the Sena did not want to be in business with the BJP if it did not get the CM’s post. The NCP, however, is an old ally as is the JMM or, for that matter, the RJD in Bihar. While we have had problems with these allies in the past, sometimes even parted ways with them after bitter exchanges, the problems would eventually sort out because these regional parties knew that they can’t be in power without the Congress’s support,” a senior AICC general secretary told The Federal.
The general secretary added, “this situation has changed now because we have been losing one election after the other. In Maharashtra, we are now the junior-most partner in the alliance though we were always the senior partner in the past. In Bihar, our poor performance cost Tejashwi Yadav his shot at returning to power. In Jharkhand and Tamil Nadu we did well not because of our strength but only because of the alliances. These are the new ground realities and they have changed the way our allies treat us.”
The Congress’s repeated decimation at the hustings – both nationally and in assembly polls – has also swiftly eroded the confidence within the party and amongst its allies, of the Gandhi family’s ability to put the atrophying Grand Old Party on the glide-path to electoral recovery.
This loss of faith in the ability of the Gandhis to revitalise the Congress and make it battle-ready against the BJP has also led to both overt and covert attempts by the Congress’s old allies to displace the party from its centrality in the anti-BJP Opposition front.
Simultaneously, the AAP’s landslide victory in Punjab has also given Arvind Kejriwal the confidence and aggression he needed to expand his party to other states where the Congress is weak. As such, the coterie of contenders – Sharad Pawar, Mamata Banerjee, K Chandrasekhar Rao, MK Stalin – for usurping the space presently held by the Congress and the Gandhis has become more crowded with AAP’s Punjab win and expansion plans for Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Haryana, Jharkhand, et al.
A senior minister from the Congress conceded to this reporter that there is “some truth” to allegations that Congress ministers in Maharashtra’s MVA coalition are unable to aggressively demand what is due to the party and its MLAs. The minister, however, said that he and his colleagues were also in a precarious situation, something that his MLA colleagues fail to recognise.
“What do we do? Our political future is now dependent on our allies. The past 8-10 years have proven our inability to win elections on our own and there is as yet no sign of things changing for the better for us… be it Maharashtra, Jharkhand or Tamil Nadu, senior partners in our alliances know we can’t antagonise them. For those of us who can’t go to the BJP, there are two options – we stay in the Congress and do whatever best we can, given the present ground realities, or we quit and join our allies. Till the time the party gets its act together – and the central leadership has to make that happen – things will stay as they are; we can be made the scapegoats but that won’t help the party, will it?” the minister said.
With Parliament’s budget session now over, the Congress Working Committee is expected to meet soon to discuss – as resolved in its last meeting of March 13 – convening a chintan shivir (brainstorming session) where a revival blueprint for the party is likely to be discussed. The recent developments in Maharashtra and Jharkhand have added more challenges for Congress president Sonia Gandhi and her party to ponder over.