No Contest Elections?
Maharashtra and Haryana poll campaigns show why Congress needs to reinvent itself
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.