Relegated to fourth spot in Maharashtra, fear of mass exodus grips Congress

Ashok Chavan has offered to resign as state Congress chief accepting moral responsibility for the defeat.

RELEGATED TO the fourth position in a state once regarded as its loyal bastion, the Congress on Thursday fell to a record low of winning just one Lok Sabha seat in Maharashtra. Its worst tally in the state so far was two seats in the last polls. Moreover, from the voting patterns in Dalit and Muslim dominated pockets, the party seemed to have failed to avoid a division of its own support base in several Assembly segments.

In its weakest position ever in the state, Congress now faces an uphill task of reversing its fortunes in time before the state polls in October. “These are tough times,” said former state minister Suresh Shetty. “There is a need for some serious introspection.”

Another former minister said the immediate concern is to “prevent a mass exodus from the party”.

Shetty also agreed. “We will have to manage aspirations of local leaders and workers well. Senior leaders would need to handle workers with much more care,” he said.

Both Congress and ally NCP, which only fared marginally better winning four seats, were hit by several defections even during the Lok Sabha poll campaign. NCP, too, faces a similar dilemma.

“It was not as much the ideological moorings but the glue of power that had kept Congress and NCP leaders and workers together. When they see that the power has changed hands, many of them are vulnerable to the allurement for deserting the party,” said political journalist Anant Dixit, who Dixit has closely tracked the Congress for over two decades.

Incidentally, if party insiders are to be believed, the Modi factor is only a part of the story. Former state chief minister Prithiviraj Chavan admitted to a “need to strengthen the organisational structure at various levels”.

Some of the candidates also complained of mismanagement and paucity of funds. One candidate in north Maharashtra said he couldn’t even pay for the volunteers’ food, and his team shrunk as the campaign progressed. Then there is the issue of matching the BJP’s star campaigners. The party faces a dearth of mass leaders at the state level, who can community effectively.

Knives are also out against state party president Ashok Chavan following the crushing defeat. Chavan, who had successfully withstood the Modi wave in the 2014, lost his own seat, Nanded, this time around.

“In rural Maharashtra, things were so right for the Congress-led Opposition alliance to capitalise on. The state is facing a severe drought, and the agrarian distress has intensified. There is anger against the government. But we still failed to connect with the voters,” a former minister said.

Dixit said that the party is “riddled with factionalism and groupism”.

“The party lacked political perspective. It has to stop engaged in reactive politics to be relevant,” he added.

The state Congress unit, the district-level committees and the various cells are no longer a network of grassroots activists connected to various constituency groups — farmers, traders, artisans and students.

Leadership positions in this matrix are not only the source of much bad blood, but these disputes and their opaque handling have left the party riven by factionalism.

Possibly misled by the party hanging on to power in the state, a series of high-profile chief ministers and state party chiefs appear to have failed to notice the gradual decline of the Congress’s support in the state. Not just seats, the party has also seen a continuing dip in vote share since the 1970s, decreasing every single election, barring the resurgence of 1980.

While Ashok Chavan has offered to resign accepting moral responsibility for the defeat, party leaders said there was a need to go back to the drawing board, and induct farmers and youngsters in the party fold. If Congress has to get out of the dark tunnel it is in, it has no option but to bite the bullet.

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