Maharashtra should teach cagey Cong to buck up and strategise better

Gandhis
Congress president Sonia Gandhi seems to have handled the political situation in Maharashtra more sensibly than her son and former party chief Rahul Gandhi handled the Karnataka crisis. Photo: PTI

Less than expected, the results of the Maharashtra assembly elections might have caused headache and embarrassment to the top brass of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), but it is the Congress leadership that needs to deal with a chronic migraine and uncertain future.

The BJP leadership after playing hardball with the Shiv Sena may or may not end up sharing power equitably with its alliance partner, but for the Congress party alarm bells should have started ringing now louder than ever as it still does not have a cogent strategy in place after its crippling defeat in 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

Unlike its past role in Karnataka, the Congress has decided not to meddle in government formation in Maharashtra. Though it had an opportunity to partner with the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and back the Shiv Sena, it has decided against it. The duo of Sonia Gandhi-Sharad Pawar have displayed political maturity. The contrast is evident as Rahul Gandhi was helming the Karnataka crisis as opposed to his mother now. The Congress under Sonia’s leadership seems to have decided to prefer ideological sanctity over political expediency. But is it sustainable?

Also read: In Maharashtra, the BJP is learning the dangers of riding a ‘tiger’

Congress’ lack of internal discipline

To begin with, the Congress had given up on the Maharashtra and Haryana assembly elections even before the dates were announced. A demoralised Congress leadership more or less stayed away from the campaigning. Party president Sonia Gandhi did not address a single rally, her son Rahul delivered a few speeches where he thoughtlessly repeated his Rafael allegations. He and alliance partner Sharad Pawar did not share the stage even once.

In the run-up to the polls, several Congress and NCP leaders had jumped ship to join the BJP in hordes. This made party chief Amit Shah mock at his rivals. Addressing a rally in Solapur he said, “If BJP opens its doors fully, no one would be left in Congress and NCP”.

In Mumbai, senior Congress leaders were at each other’s throat. They were publicly calling names and accusing one another of “destroying the Congress party”. A few leaders decided to withdraw from the campaigning process while others reluctantly dragged along.

In Haryana, Congress state party chief Ashok Tanwar and former chief minister Bhupendra Singh Hooda were openly quarrelling. In a last-minute manoeuvre, party president Sonia Gandhi removed Tanwar and replaced him with Kumari Selja who is seen close to Hooda. Tanwar immediately quit the party and hit the streets, further embarrassing the leadership in Delhi.

The Congress party, finding itself cornered and unable to conjure up a fresh new strategy, chose to soft-peddle the Hindutva issue. Addressing a press conference in Mumbai, former prime minister Manmohan Singh made an inexplicable statement in which he claimed that his party had backed the repeal of Article 370 in Parliament. He claimed that a commemorative stamp on Veer Savarkar, the controversial Hindutva icon, was issued by Indira Gandhi when she was in power.

The party perhaps chose this line as it was rattled by conflicting views within its own rank and file over the Kashmir issue. Leaders such as Jyotiraditya Scindia and Janardan Dwivedi defying the then prevailing party stand had supported the abrogation.

Pitted against a ‘pragmatic’ BJP 

The BJP, on the other hand, was marching confidently. Incumbent chief minister Devendra Fadnavis was crisscrossing the state after declaring himself a winner with an unprecedented majority. Though the BJP had tied up with the Shiv Sena, it had begun to imagine that it can win a majority on its own without the support of its ally. The Shiv Sena which had once given the BJP a foothold in Maharashtra politics was finding itself reduced to the status of a junior partner.

Everyone was on a retreat except the BJP. The Shiv Sena announced Aditya Thackeray as a candidate. This was for the first time that anyone from the Thackeray family was contesting the state elections. This led to speculations that perhaps the party had seen the writing on the wall and was trying to save its legacy. Aditya’s projection as the chief ministerial aspirant was mocked at by a few television channels. The hype created by a BJP-friendly media reinforced the invincibility of the saffron party. Opinion polls and exit polls unabashedly declared overwhelming majority for the ruling party.

All this changed after the results. In Haryana, the BJP had to eat humble pie. After loud social media protests, it had to junk Gopal Goyal Kanda, a businessman-turned-politician accused of abetting suicide of an air hostess and her mother. The party was earlier planning to take his support to form a government. Instead, it turned to Dushyant Chautala, great-grandson of Jat leader and former deputy prime minister Devi Lal. The BJP had to swallow its pride for the second time because, in the run-up to the elections, top party honchos had boasted of ending “one caste domination” (read Jat) in Haryana. In a “pragmatic approach,” it not only tied up with Dushyant’s Jannayak Janata Party but also had to agree to his terms and accepted him as deputy chief minister.

Also read: Priyanka would need more than Indira’s looks to revive a worn-out Cong in UP

In Maharashtra, however, the BJP is finding it difficult to accept the main demand of the Shiv Sena that the chief minister’s post is rotated between the two partners. Since Sharad Pawar has made it clear that he may not be supporting the Sena, Thackeray may go for its own dose of “pragmatism” and tie-up with the BJP. In such a scenario, the BJP may have to devise a mechanism where the Sena gets a face-saving. What if the Shiv Sena continues to play hardball? Will the BJP be accommodative? If no decision is arrived at the state by Monday, it may go for a short stint of President’s rule.

The BJP and the Shiv Sena in the past have demonstrated their ability to change their positions and make adjustments in electoral politics to keep their support base intact. This is because they have been otherwise steadfast in maintaining their positions on their core values of Hindutva and nationalism.

Hindutva, Congress’ trump card in distress

And that is where the Congress gets hurt most. It hasn’t managed to take a firm position on several contentious issues and has been running with the hare and hunting with the hound. In 1985 its then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi tried to appease conservative Muslims by siding with them on the Shah Bano alimony case. When it failed miserably, it tried to play the Hindu card by allowing symbolic “Shilanyas” (foundation laying ceremony) at the Babri Masjid-Ram Janmabhoomi site. Later when the whole structure was brought down by fanatic Hindutva supporters, the then Congress Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao turned a blind eye on the issue.

During the 2017 Gujarat assembly elections, the Congress tried to play its soft Hindu card once again. It was claimed on behalf of Rahul Gandhi that he was a “janaevu-dhari” (one who wears a sacred thread) devotee of Lord Shiva. The party of late has stopped seeking minority votes overtly as it fears, inviting charges of minority appeasement by the BJP.

Interestingly, now the Congress party has chosen to keep out of government formation in Maharashtra as Sharad Pawar won’t be extending any kind of support to the Shiv Sena. There were apprehensions within the Congress and the NCP leadership that the BJP may break its legislative party and take away its MLAs the way it has done in Karnataka and therefore taking a shot at government formation would have been a more “pragmatic” approach.

For the moment the Congress seems to have resisted temptations to try to prop a Sena government minus the BJP. Clearly the mandate is not in their favour. But the party’s migraine is likely to continue as it has done well beyond its own expectations in the state without any effort, raising questions over its sustainability. Rather than looking for shortcuts, the party would do well in drawing a clear-cut strategy to wriggle itself out of the difficult situation it finds itself in.