Having been wiped out from the city in the 2014 Lok Sabha poll and restricted to just five segments in the subsequent Assembly election, the Congress leadership was banking on the Maharashtra civic election for rebuilding the party’s base. Instead, stunned by its worst electoral defeat in a civic poll in Mumbai and losses across the state, the Congress was fumbling for an answer as it clutched at a familiar alibi: infighting.
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But even as Mumbai Congress chief Sanjay Nirupam and AICC general secretary Gurudas Kamat blamed each other, top party leaders pointed to deeper problems — the absence of a “new narrative post-2014”, “disconnect” with voters and organisational issues.
The party was relegated to third position in the BMC polls on Thursday, down from 52 seats in 2012 to just 31 seats. In 2012, the Congress had come second, after the Shiv Sena (75), while the BJP was third (31). The party had won 71 seats in 2007, 61 in 2002, and 49 in 1998.
Top leaders said factionalism is not the only reason behind the defeat. “It is not only local. It is a national picture also, to be honest. There is little acceptability for the party after the 2014 elections. We have not given a new narrative,” a former Union Minister told The Indian Express.
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“In a city like Mumbai, where voters are aware and aspirational, we should have given a strong counter-narrative post-2014,” he added.
“There seems to be some disconnect in our communication. Maybe we are not saying the right things which matter to the people, or we are not saying it the right way,” said another senior leader.
Nirupam owned up responsibility for the debacle saying he had offered to resign from his post. But there were clear indications that the infighting may intensify. As the results came in, former Maharashtra Chief Minister and Konkan strongman Narayan Rane targeted Nirupam. “He (Nirupam) is to be blamed for the poor result. Nirupam did nothing to win the election for us,” said Rane.
Earlier Rane had stayed away from the initial leg of the Congress’s Mumbai poll campaign citing differences with Nirupam, only to join the campaign in the last leg. Although sulking, Nirupam was quick to hit back. “While I own up responsibility for the debacle as the party’s Mumbai chief, the party must introspect and act against leaders who openly campaigned against the party. You must ask Rane whether he owns up responsibility for the defeat of all 10 candidates who were nominated on the basis of recommendation,” Nirupam said.
Responding to his criticism, Nirupam said, “I have done all I could. But one man alone can’t do much. While I was moving across the city campaigning for candidates, other former MPs were largely contained in their own election districts. That did not help the party cause. Also there was a deliberate attempt to convey that the party was not behind me. This smear campaign hurt the party’s poll prospects.” While Nirupam didn’t name anyone, his barb appeared aimed at Kamat who has been Nirupam’s most vocal critic. “I’ve already sent a report in this regard to the party high command,” Nirupam said.
Another former Union Minister Milind Deora blamed the infighting and the Congress’s ineffective poll campaign for the debacle. “Sadly, @INCIndia failed to halt infighting, play up local issues, expose Shiv Sena-BJP’s backdoor alliance & inspire Mumbai to vote 4 change,” he tweeted. “Appeal to @INCIndia’s elected Municipal Councillors to play the role of an active, responsible opposition & ensure that Mumbai gets her due,” he further wrote.
Insiders said that the party’s failure to resonate with the non-minority middle-class voter is especially worrying. “Most of our wins this time are in segments dominated by the minority or the backward class. We need to reach out more to the other voter segments,” said a senior leader. In the run-up to the election campaign, the party had also been hit by defections. Incidentally, some of them ended up on the winning side.
Nirupam was appointed by Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi.
Speaking to The Indian Express, Nirupam said: “Some senior leaders deliberately gave statements against the party and defamed it. They tweeted, gave interviews and, in several places, systematically tried to ensure the defeat of the Congress candidates. They did not attend any Congress programme so that the disunity in the leadership was noticed by the public and the media.”
Asked to identify these leaders, he said, “The whole country knows that one gentleman, who is a CWC member and general secretary, tweeted against the AICC general secretary and the Mumbai Congress president. And no action was taken against that gentleman.” That was an obvious reference to Kamat.
Hitting back, Kamat said: “I have been a dedicated Congressman for the last 45 years with never a charge of anti-party activity levelled against me. I don’t need lessons in discipline from a former Shiv Sainik who joined the party 10 years ago, who is known more for his scurrilous writings… how can a party be defeated on the basis of some tweets.”
“Grassroots-level workers were humiliated by Nirupam. He would talk so arrogantly to them. Ticket distribution was a major scam. The lowest count the Congress could have ever achieved has been achieved by Nirupam… we feel sad, but all the senior leaders had alerted that this would happen,” he said.
Kamat claimed that Nirupam had gone against the District Congress Committees’ recommendations while selecting candidates, even going against the directions of the high command. Some of the sitting corporators were also denied tickets, he said.