The resignation of Ashish Deshmukh as the Maharashtra Congress general secretary on Tuesday was perhaps the most extreme step in the wake of the party’s Rajya Sabha nominations which have left disgruntled leaders across states. In Maharashtra, the resignation was also reflective of the deep discontent within the state unit over the way the party is being run.
In his letter of resignation, marked to Congress president Sonia Gandhi, Deshmukh wrote: “The imposition of an outsider, Imran Pratapgarhi (who is an Uttar Pradesh leader), as a Rajya Sabha member from the Maharashtra quota is demoralizing. Such a decision does not help in the growth of the state organisation. It is unjust to party workers in the state.”
Party leaders feel the Rajya Sabha decision was par for the course given how the Congress is being run, with the leadership crisis at the centre impacting units down the ranks. From leaders who have been with the Congress for years, to those in the junior-most ranks like youth activists, everybody talks of the “terrible gaps” in party functioning.
As a consequence of the lack of teamwork, a senior leader said, “Every individual who is holding an important post or power in the party or the government is working in isolation. Each of these prominent ministers or party leaders network at individual levels with the AICC to ensure their own interests are intact.”
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The leader added that this need not have been the situation in the state. “Maharashtra probably has one of the finest Congress leaders and workers. There is no dearth of talent or experience. But there is no mechanism of channelling it for the expansion of the organisation.”
Till 2009, the Congress was the leading political party in Maharashtra. The only exception was the 1995-99 period, when in the elections held post-Babri Masjid demolition and the Bombay riots and blasts, the Congress was unseated by the Shiv Sena-BJP coalition government. In 1999, while Sharad Pawar parted ways from the Congress to form the NCP, the setback had been short lived. After the 1999 Assembly elections, the NCP had joined hands with the Congress for a coalition government.
The results of the 2009 Assembly polls, the same year as the UPA government led by Manmohan Singh was voted back to power at the Centre, reflected the Congress dominance in Maharashtra then: Congress 82 seats, NCP 62, BJP 46, and Shiv Sena 45.
By 2014, when the BJP had started to rise and Narendra Modi to take charge, the Congress slide had begun. In that year’s Assembly results in Maharashtra, the Congress got 42 seats, NCP 41, BJP 122 and Shiv Sena 63. The BJP and Sena formed a coalition government.
In the 2019 Assembly results, the Congress got a few more seats, 44, but its position was sealed at the fourth spot, after the NCP’s 54, the BJP’s 105, and the Shiv Sena’s 56. It was talks going down to the wire, and Pawar’s acumen, that had helped stitch up the Congress, NCP and Sena together in an unlikely alliance to form the government.
Since then, as much as the Congress’s lowest numbers, the way the party is being run has kept it as the partner with the least say in the alliance.
A former Union minister from the state said, “We are appalled at the state of affairs. Even a simple thing like constituting a team of seniors who can guide on policies both within the party and the state government has not been considered in the last three years.”
As recently as Monday, a team of elected members was denied an appointment with the high command to raise these very issues.
Ashish Deshmukh, 48, hails from a prominent political family of the state. His father is former MPCC president Ranjit Deshmukh, and his uncle ex-NCP home minister Anil Deshmukh (who is currently in jail in a money laundering case).
In 2014, Ashish had switched sides from the Congress to the BJP and contested from Katol Assembly constituency against uncle Anil, defeating him. Upset at not being made a minister in the Shiv Sena-BJP coalition government, Ashish had hung around and finally quit in 2018, citing the pending demand of separate statehood for Vidarbha.
Ahead of the 2019 elections, he had returned to the Congress, picking up the gauntlet for the party by contesting against then chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis from Nagpur South West Assembly constituency. His loss was no surprise.
Maharashtra Congress president Nana Patole plays down the unrest. However, if the aggressive Patole is almost single-handedly taking the battle to the BJP from the Congress side, it is not to any loud cheers within the Congress. Having left the Congress for the BJP, only to return ahead of the 2019 polls, he is treated as an “outsider” by many party leaders.
Even allies Shiv Sena and NCP have been at the receiving end of Patole’s bluntness in furthering the Congress cause. Last week, he slammed the NCP for “backstabbing the Congress by entering into an alliance with the BJP for the Bhandara-Gondia zila parishad polls”. In elections such as these, party loyalties are known to be fluid.
Other Congress leaders too talk of “repeatedly drawing attention of the high command towards the Shiv Sena and NCPs high handedness in running the state government”. A Congress minister from Vidarbha said, “We have written letters to the AICC. We brought it to state leaders’ notice how the Congress is neither consulted on policies, nor do its leaders get adequate allocation for projects in their respective constituencies.”
The Sena and NCP have so far turned a blind eye, knowing that the Congress has few options, and can hardly give up power in a state like Maharashtra.
Unlike the state of affairs in the Congress, the Sena and NCP are tightly controlled parties, centred in Maharashtra politics. Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray is from the Shiv Sena, while Pawar takes a keen interest in the functioning of the state, as does Deputy CM Ajit Pawar of the NCP,
A senior party functionary said, “If the Sena and NCP have an upper hand in the coalition, it is their shrewd politics. If we are on the backfoot, it reflects our failure. We have to set our own house in order, so as to ensure that others take us seriously.”
One of the first steps, party leaders feel, is a major overhaul, beginning at the top. Unless the central leadership is firm and decided, why would alliance partners empower the state Congress, they ask.
For the Congress, another test is coming in the form of BMC polls. For now, the Sena and BJP have succeeded in projecting the contest as one between them, with the others relegated to the side. Meanwhile, the Mumbai Congress led by Bhai Jagtap is also waiting for cues from the Centre on the BMC.
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