It was in 1999 when Sharad Pawar quit the Congress over the issue of foreign origin of the then Congress president Sonia Gandhi. On June 10, 1999, Pawar formed the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) as an alternative to the Congress in Maharashtra.
Within four months of its formation, Pawar’s party tasted success, performing exceedingly well in the Maharashtra assembly elections. But with the polls throwing up a hung verdict, the NCP joined hands with the Congress to form the government. Since then, the two parties shared power in the state till 2014.
In the 1999 elections, the party had mainly ridden on the support in rural belts to come to power. Twenty years later, the NCP is still struggling to connect with the upwardly mobile voters in urban neighbourhoods.
For instance, in the commercial capital of Mumbai, the NCP has failed to garner even 10 per cent of the vote in four municipality elections it has contested so far. In the 227-member general body of the municipality, the party has never managed to send more than 14 members.
On Monday, just as the party was celebrating its 20th anniversary, Pawar himself brought up the party’s failure to create a space for itself among the upwardly mobile voters in urban belts. “We need to expand the party’s organisation in Mumbai and other urban areas. The NCP is perceived as a party with rural backing. While there is nothing wrong with that, one must be mindful of the rising pace of urbanisation across the state. Today, 50 per cent of Maharashtra is urban. We must be seen taking up issues concerning urbanisation and fight for the cause of the urban local,” said Pawar.
The party’s goal in the upcoming election will be to better its strike rate in urban belts, a senior leader said. Ironically in its formative years, the party had wooed the Marathi-speaking young voters in Mumbai most aggressively, but the advent of the Raj Thackeray-led Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS), which appealed to the same segment, put paid to these efforts. Statistics show that in the 2007 and 2012 polls, the Raj Thackeray-led party dented NCP’s vote share the most. Later, the Shiv Sena consolidated itself in this voter segment when the MNS clout declined. “The party never really made a sustained efforts to connect with urban voters,” admitted a senior party leader.
Pawar also spoke of the need to promote more youth faces. “When the party first rode to power, a lot of young faces were promoted. Most of them are not so young today. We need to think about giving opportunity to new faces,” he said.
With some of its senior leaders facing allegations of wrongdoing, the NCP also faces an inescapable perception that the party is tainted by corruption and blithely tolerates it. “The canard spread against some of our leaders has impacted the party’s popularity.” Since the BJP rode to power in 2014, the NCP has also been hit by a mass exodus, with several senior leaders deserting the party.
As part of its election strategy, the NCP has also decided to rope in various community influencers, who owe allegiance or sympathise with the party, for the election campaign in urban belts. “We find that some of our loyal voter communities, who consistently support us in rural belts, have turned away from us in Mumbai. We feel that engaging such influencers will help us reconnect with them,” said a party strategist, requesting anonymity.
Targeting the ruling saffron combine on water scarcity issue, the NCP on Monday staged ‘Jaldindis’ (water marches) in several parts of the state. Party’s state president Jayant Patil told workers that they should not be demoralised by the Lok Sabha election defeat and work aggressively to ensure the party’s wins the upcoming poll.