In the third general elections held in 1962, the Congress had won a staggering 41 seats of the 44 seats it contested on its own in Maharashtra. Fifty years later, the grand old party of Indian politics has nosedived to its historic low as it could win only one seat out of the 26 it contested.
The party could not even cling on to the two seats it won five years ago. Even before the campaigning started, the murmurs had grown louder than the 2019 election would prove Congress’ nadir and it lived up its expectations.
When Congress leader Anand Sharma was asked why the party was heading towards its worst performance in Maharashtra, he simply evaded the question. Congress probably has no answers to the debacle. But here are the five reasons why the Congress has slid once again in Maharashtra with its future looking even more bleak ahead of the assembly elections later this year.
Congress the last choice for voters
In 2014, Congress had received 88.30 lakh votes collectively in 48 seats of Maharashtra. In 2019 elections, the voter count has come down to 88 lakh. This means, it not only failed to add new voters but even those who were with the party in 2014, turned their backs on it. In contrast, Shiv Sena, a party which abhors secularism and propagates Hindutva ideology, has added a staggering 25 lakh voters to its tally.
In 2014, the Shiv Sena had polled one crore votes. And in 2019, it has polled 1.25 crore votes, an increase of 25 per cent in its voter base. Even Congress’ alliance partner, NCP, has done better this time. From 77 lakh votes it received in 2014, the count has gone up to 80 lakh votes.
Similarly, BJP had received 1.33 crore votes in 2014, which went up to 1.50 crore in this election. The figures clearly indicate that new voters are no more interested in Congress and even the existing ones are going away from the party. Congress leader Ramesh Iyers says BJP-Sena succeeded in consolidating Hindutva voters while minority voters like Dalits, Muslims and Christians seemed to have preferred the Vanchit Bahujan Agadhi.
Shunning Prakash Ambedkar’s VBA, MNS proved costly
During alliance seat discussions, Sharad Pawar-led NCP was insisting that Raj Thackeray-led MNS should be taken on board. Congress rejected the idea, arguing that ideologically MNS does not fit into its scheme of things. However, when MNS chief Raj Thackeray started addressing rallies here he attacked Modi-Shah duo, Congress welcomed it openly.
Similarly, Prakash Ambedkar who heads the Vanchit Bahujan Agadhi kept repeatedly saying that he would have discussions only with Rahul Gandhi and not with any other state leader. Rahul never gave him an appointment.
Instead, the Congress accused Prakash Ambedkar of playing into BJP’s hands which further angered Ambedkar who went all out. VBA ate into Congress-NCP alliance votes, resulting in defeat for the alliance in at least seven seats including the seat of Congress state chief Ashok Chavan.
In hindsight, Congress and NCP could have supported VBA and MNS candidates like it did for some other alliance partners. “Rahul Gandhi, Sharad Pawar, Prakash Ambedkar, Raj Thackeray and Raju Shetty in one platform would have certainly caused tremors in BJP-Sena,” says an NCP leader.
Over the years, the Congress’ success has depended on a leader who led the party from the front, was the face of the party and was high on popularity quotient.
The likes of Yashwantrao Chavan, Vasantdada Patil, Shankarrao Chavan, Sharad Pawar and Vilasrao Chavan were popular among the masses and extricated the party from its worst crisis. Except for Sharad Pawar, all other leaders have passed away leaving the party in the hands of the likes of Ashok Chavan and Prithviraj Chavan.
Both of them are not even popular in their own backyard. For instance, Ashok Chavan lost badly in Nanded in this election while Prithviraj Chavan huffed and puffed before winning the Karad assembly seat in 2019 elections by a close margin.
Both of them are apparently not on talking terms. Senior leaders like Sushil Kumar Shinde lost to first-timers in the second consecutive elections in Solapur and is retiring from active politics. Sharad Pawar left Congress 20 years back to form the Nationalist Congress Party.
“It is true that Congress party has no mass leader who could influence the voters and inspire party cadres. After the death of Vilasrao Deshmukh, the party has not found an effective leader,” said senior Congress leader Ulhas Pawar.
He said there was nobody who could guide or help a candidate to plan strategy during campaigning. “Candidates were left on their own. MPCC chief Ashok Chavan was himself contesting and so was party campaign chief Sushilkumar Shinde,” said Ulas Pawar.
No crowd puller
BJP had dime a dozen crowd pullers led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi who not only made their presence felt but generated enough heat in Maharashtra through their one-liners and verbal assaults on Sharad Pawar and Rahul Gandhi.
Prime Minister Modi himself held seven rallies, each of them drawing the crowd in the range of five lakh to 10 lakhs. Even after his rallies were over, the crowd was seen still coming in. After he left a rally venue, next two days, Maharashtra was gripped by his “quotable quotes.” At his every rally, Modi kept the crowd interested.
He started his speeches in Marathi, thereby instantly stirring the crowd which apparently did not mind one of the worst summers in the state’s history. In contrast, nobody remembers when Congress’ star campaigner Rahul Gandhi arrived and left Maharashtra. His rallies failed to make any noise. He mostly spoke in Hindi and liberally used English words.
The rural folks in Maharashtra failed to understand his language. Modi instead spoke the language the people in Maharashtra understood. “Hum unko ghar may gusker marange…” one of his favourite lines that drew the loudest cheer. In one of its rallies at Shirdi, Rahul arrived just 20 minutes before the deadline for campaigning and forgot the names of NCP leaders onstage.
Since both Chavans are not considered crowd pullers, party candidates and senior leader like Sushilkumar Shinde had to desperately seek the help of old-time friends like Sharad Pawar. The NCP chief made at least five trips to Solapur to campaign for Shinde. The party’s plight could be seen from the fact on its list of star campaigner for Maharashtra, it had listed the name of Amita Chavan, wife of Ashok Chavan. No rally of Priyanka Gandhi was scheduled nor did not stars like Siddhu touched base in Maharashtra.
Candidates herded in
For months, Congress did nothing, neither ahead of the elections nor before. It did not identify potential candidates neither asked a group of leaders to prepare themselves for a particular constituency. As a result, it struggled to pick the right candidates.
The party’s strategy to pick candidates at the last minute, meaning a day or couple of days before the filing of nominations caused utter confusion among party rank and file and gave less time for them to campaign.
For instance, Pune candidate Mohan Joshi’s name was announced just a day before the filing of nomination papers. BJP candidate Girish Bapat said, “My campaigning is over and Congress has not even announced its candidate.”
Bapat won the election registering record margin of victory in Pune’s history. Similarly, there were no speculations of Urmila Matondkar being fielded in Mumbai. She popped up out of nowhere and then struggled to plan her strategy.
She lost by the highest margin of votes in Maharashtra. The party also failed to act decisive leaders like Radhakrishan Vikhe-Patil and Abdul Sattar who openly campaigned against alliance candidates.