The Congress is yet to come out of the shock and disappointment of the Lok Sabha election debacle. The situation of its ally NCP is no better. The elections in Maharashtra and Haryana, to be held even as the economy is slowing, will be the first big challenge for the demoralised opposition.
The BJP government at the Centre has over the last fortnight made a slew of announcements to revive growth, signalling a realisation that the economic situation is less than comfortable. It is no doubt an uphill battle for the Congress and NCP — routed in Haryana and Maharashtra just four months ago —- but both parties are hoping to raise issues of the slowdown and job losses, and at the same time keep the Assembly elections local as the BJP faces re-election as incumbent in both the states for the first time.
On the surface, the Congress appears listless when it comes to countering the BJP’s election machine. Top leaders admit the Assembly elections will be a very difficult challenge, especially after the Modi government’s decisions on J&K which they feel have found popular support. In Haryana, the party hopes that former CM Bhupinder Singh Hooda’s support for scrapping special status will neutralise the BJP campaign on the issue.
A major worry for the Congress and NCP in Maharashtra is defections, but unlike in 2014 the two parties are fighting the elections together. They have decided to contest 125 seats each, leaving 38 seats to friendly parties like the SP and Left. But Prakash Ambedkar’s VBA remains out of their fold, and thus a worry.
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The Congress high command has decided to field top leaders to oversee polls in Maharashtra. It has divided the state into five zones —- putting top AICC office-bearers like Mukul Wasnik, Rajni Patil, Avinash Pandey, R C Khuntia and Rajeev Satav as election in-charges.
In Haryana, the Congress is yet to tide over the factional feud despite the change of guard. Both Ashok Tanwar and Kiran Chaudhary have not reconciled to their ouster as PCC chief and CLP leader respectively, but the larger issue is finding the right caste combination in ticket distribution. Many in the party fear that handing the reins to Hooda could polarise the election into a Jat-versus-non-Jat battle. In both the states, the Congress’s only hope is local anti-incumbency.
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The other big question is whether Rahul Gandhi, who led the party from the front in the Lok Sabha elections and has since resigned as party chief owning responsibility for the defeat, will plunge full throttle into electioneering. Ever since 2014, he has been the Congress’s most visible campaigner in Assembly elections. Sonia Gandhi, who is back as Congress president, has not campaigned much in Assembly elections recently. But with her back at the helm, the other big question is whether she will campaign. All eyes are on Priyanka Gandhi Vadra too. She had campaigned outside UP for the first time in the Lok Sabha elections. It remains to be seen whether she will campaign in a seemingly difficult election.