No Con­test Elec­tions?

Ma­ha­rash­tra and Haryana poll cam­paigns show why Congress needs to rein­vent it­self

The Times of India (New Delhi edition) - - An Ecstasy Of Ideas - Nalin Me­hta

Ma­ha­rash­tra and Haryana will be vot­ing in ten days. At this point in the poll cy­cle the air is usu­ally thick with po­lit­i­cal spec­u­la­tion, gos­sip and de­li­cious im­pon­der­ables that de­fine an In­dian elec­tion. Yet, in both these two states, which un­til 2014 were Congress citadels, the most strik­ing thing about the cur­rent po­lit­i­cal dis­course is a vis­i­ble lack of en­thu­si­asm or ex­cite­ment among non-par­ti­san vot­ers.

This dis­in­ter­est and sense of en­nui is an out­come of the dis­ar­ray and public churn­ing of in­ter­nal dis­con­tent that seems to have en­gulfed Congress, the prin­ci­pal op­po­si­tion party. Less than a year ago, Congress looked like it was get­ting its act back to­gether with an al­ter­na­tive nar­ra­tive of change, tak­ing the fight to BJP by wrest­ing back con­trol over ma­jor Hindi heart­land states like Mad­hya Pradesh, Ra­jasthan and Ch­hat­tis­garh. Now, five months af­ter its com­pre­hen­sive elec­toral rout in the Lok Sabha elec­tions, the party has gone into a tail­spin with a lead­er­ship vac­uum at the top.

Each day seems to bring with it a new head­line about in­ter­nal dis­sen­sion, de­fec­tions or un­happy public soulsearch­ing by top lead­ers. The lat­est salvo is from Sal­man Khur­shid who said the “big­gest prob­lem” is that Rahul Gandhi “walked away” af­ter the Lok Sabha de­feat, which “left a vac­uum”. This was closely fol­lowed by Mad­hya Pradesh satrap and young gun Jy­oti­ra­ditya Scin­dia also call­ing for an “in­tro­spec­tion”. Khur­shid’s com­ments re­fo­cused at­ten­tion on the Gandhi scion again trav­el­ling out of the coun­try on a pri­vate visit as his party is gear­ing up for cru­cial elec­tions.

With a di­rec­tion­less drift at the top, Congress has also been en­gulfed by dis­sen­sions in the elec­tion states. In Mum­bai, Congress leader and for­mer leader of op­po­si­tion Rad­hakr­ishna Vikhe Patil de­fected, for­mer state home min­is­ter Kripa Shankar Singh quit and Sanjay Niru­pam is un­happy. In Haryana, the party has been ham­strung by sev­eral fac­tions: for­mer CM Bhupin­der Singh Hooda, Ku­mari Selja, Ran­deep Singh Sur­je­w­ala, for­mer state unit chief Ashok Tan­war (who has quit) and Kuldeep Bish­noi. In­stead of unit­ing to chal­lenge in­cum­bent BJP gov­ern­ments, Congress state units in both Haryana and Ma­ha­rash­tra have been fo­cused on lo­cal fix­ing of scores and turf pro­tec­tion.

Con­trast this to BJP’s tar­geted and struc­tured cam­paign on the other side of the po­lit­i­cal aisle. While So­nia Gandhi and Rahul are likely to start their cam­paign ral­lies this week­end, BJP pres­i­dent Amit Shah sounded the poll bu­gle on Dussehra in Ma­ha­rash­tra and Haryana. At his Dussehra rally in Marath­wada’s Beed, for in­stance, he was wel­comed by the sym­bol­ism of 370 can­non shots and 370 flags be­ing waved as BJP puts the nul­li­fi­ca­tion of Ar­ti­cle 370 at the cen­ter stage of its po­lit­i­cal cam­paign.

Ide­ol­ogy aside, the con­trast be­tween the ground game of both par­ties is strik­ing, with Congress strug­gling to con­struct a vi­able nar­ra­tive of change or re­newal.

While Ma­ha­rash­tra and Haryana are very dif­fer­ent in their pol­i­tics, sim­i­lar pat­terns are emerg­ing in both states.

In­stead of unit­ing to chal­lenge in­cum­bent BJP gov­ern­ments, Congress state units in both Haryana and Ma­ha­rash­tra have been fo­cused on lo­cal fix­ing of scores and turf pro­tec­tion

First, both states were Congress bas­tions un­til just five years ago. In Haryana, BJP barely ex­isted till 2009 when it won just 9 of 90 as­sem­bly seats with a 9.1% vote share. Yet, it al­most quadru­pled its vote share to 33.2% in 2014, riding on the first Modi wave; ris­ing there­after to an as­tound­ing 58% vote share in the 2019 Lok Sabha elec­tions. Un­der a non-Jat chief min­is­ter, BJP has con­structed a new so­cial coali­tion in Haryana, up­end­ing tra­di­tional as­sump­tions about Jat vs non-Jat pol­i­tics in the state. De­spite Congress hav­ing ruled Haryana for a decade be­fore BJP’s Manohar Lal Khat­tar emerged as chief min­is­ter, it has a huge vote gap to sur­mount.

Some­what sim­i­larly, in Ma­ha­rash­tra, BJP was al­ways a ju­nior part­ner to its ally Shiv Sena un­til 2014. It had never won more than 65 seats in the 288 mem­ber Ma­ha­rash­tra as­sem­bly af­ter 1995 – mostly hov­er­ing at the 45-56 seat-mark. By go­ing it alone in 2014 and win­ning 122/288 seats (27.8% votes), com­pared to Shiv Sena’s 63 (19.3% votes), Amit Shah up­ended the state’s tra­di­tional po­lit­i­cal cal­cu­lus.

BJP will now be con­test­ing 164 seats com­pared to Shiv Sena’s 124. In a telling sig­nal of the power shift, many BJP can­di­dates will be con­test­ing from erst­while Sena stronghold­s in places like Mum­bai and Pune. Like in Haryana, BJP went against con­ven­tional po­lit­i­cal wis­dom in Mum­bai with a non-Maratha chief min­is­ter in Deven­dra Fad­navis. As in Haryana, elec­toral data from the Lokniti-CSDS sur­veys shows that in Ma­ha­rash­tra too BJP has been build­ing a new so­cial coali­tion, eat­ing into the Maratha base of the NCP-Congress al­liance as well as sig­nif­i­cantly im­prov­ing in SC/ST ar­eas.

Sec­ond, in both states, BJP has ben­e­fited from op­po­si­tion dis­unity. In Haryana, the col­lapse of In­dian Na­tional Lok Dal (INLD) di­rectly con­trib­uted to a BJP surge. INLD it­self is now split: Jan­nayak Janta Party (JJP) led by Dushyant Chau­tala is aligned with AAP, while a weak­ened INLD has aligned with Shi­ro­mani Akali Dal. In Ma­ha­rash­tra, BJP made se­ri­ous in­roads into NCP stronghold­s of Vi­darbha and Marath­wada. It also ben­e­fited from the now­bro­ken al­liance be­tween Asadud­din Owaisi’s AIMIM and Prakash Ambed­kar’s VBA which split anti-BJP votes.

Third, in both states, op­po­si­tion lead­ers have been de­fect­ing in droves to BJP. In Haryana, 19 op­po­si­tion MLAs (about 21%) have de­fected to BJP. In Ma­ha­rash­tra too, BJP’s can­di­date list is full of turn­coats from NCP and Congress. The party has also de­nied tick­ets to sev­eral sit­ting MLAs, en­hanc­ing the in­ter­nal au­thor­ity of its sit­ting chief min­is­ters.

With BJP build­ing a po­lit­i­cal dom­i­nance not seen since Nehru’s Congress in the 1950s, Congress clearly needs a re­boot. Sim­ply re­ly­ing on a glo­ri­ous past will be a griev­ous mis­take. In the in­ter­est of In­dian democ­racy, Congress needs rad­i­cal surgery to be­come a ro­bust op­po­si­tion.

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