Why Congress looks headed for a poll rout in Maharashtra and Haryana

The BJP-Shiv Sena coalition along with its smaller partners could win as many as 220-240 seats. In Haryana, the BJP alone could get 70-plus seats.

 |  5-minute read |   18-10-2019
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As campaigning for the Maharashtra and Haryana Assembly elections draws to a close this weekend, the Congress finds itself in utter disarray.

Voting is on October 21, counting on October 24. Congress leaders in Maharashtra concede privately that the party will be lucky to win 20 seats in the 288-seat Assembly.

congress-690_101819111104.jpgMany believe the Congress won't win morethan 20 seats in the 288-seat Maharashtra Assembly. (Photo: Reuters)

For a party that dominated Maharashtra politics since the state's foundation on May 1, 1960, the fall from grace will reverberate nationally.

An identity crisis

The sight of a hapless Sonia Gandhi being forced out of semi-retirement to lead the party is a measure of the Congress' electoral plight in both Maharashtra and Haryana. The party faces not so much of an existential crisis as an identity crisis. Does it stand for secularism or soft Hindutva? Is Rahul Gandhi's abdication as full-time leader a sign that the grip of the party's First Family has loosened? Does the internecine battle between the old guard and young Turks signal a long-running feud that could damage the Congress further?

The BJP is set to sweep Maharashtra in alliance with its curmudgeonly ally Shiv Sena. The BJP-Shiv Sena coalition along with its smaller partners could win as many as 220-240 seats. Consider the electoral math. In the 2014 Assembly election, fighting separately, the BJP won 122 seats (27.81 per cent vote share) and the Shiv Sena 63 seats (19.35 per cent vote share). The Congress picked up 42 seats (17.95 per cent vote share) and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) 41 seats (17.24 per cent vote share). On October 21, the saffron combine's electoral arithmetic is likely to prove irresistible. Even accounting for vote cannibalisation, the BJP-Shiv Sena coalition could collar over 60 per cent combined vote share, leading to a landslide victory in Maharashtra.

Five factors have contributed to what even Congress and NCP workers on the ground are calling a no-contest election. First, vicious infighting within the Maharashtra Congress between the Sanjay Nirupam and Milind Deora factions has disrupted the party's electoral strategy. Second, a steady stream of defections from the Congress and NCP to the BJP and Shiv Sena has demoralised the Congress-NCP cadre.

deora-690_101819111452.jpgInfighting within the Maharashtra Congress between the Sanjay Nirupam and Milind Deora factions will cost the party dear. (Source: Reuters)

Third, offering 12 per cent reservation to Marathas will draw a significant section of the powerful 31 per cent Maratha vote towards the BJP. The issue of reservation for Marathas is currently before the Supreme Court since it breaches the 50 per cent reservations limit set by the Supreme Court. But the very promise of reservations has weaned Marathas away from the Congress and NCP which for long had a lock on the Maratha vote.Fourth, the revocation of Jammu and Kashmir's special status has further coalesced the Hindu vote around the BJP and Shiv Sena. Fifth, a good monsoon has helped relieve farmer distress. Maharashtra was reeling under years of drought. Now, reservoirs across the state are full.

The water table has risen, giving hope to farmers of higher crop yields.

Demotivated cadre

Leaving nothing to chance, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP president Amit Shah have addressed a flurry of rallies across the state. Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Fadnavis has handled the BJP's irascible ally Shiv Sena deftly, though rancour continues between the two parties' cadres. Aaditya Thackeray's electoral debut will be watched carefully by the BJP. In Haryana, the familiar spectacle of Congress infighting has allowed chief minister Manohar Lal Khattar to predict that the BJP will win 78 of the Assembly's 90 seats.

With the Opposition vote sharply divided, Congress leaders in both Haryana and Maharashtra appear resigned to an inevitable rout. What do these two states tell us about important Assembly elections coming up in Jharkhand, Delhi and, most crucially, Bihar in 2020? The message for the BJP is: resist complacency. Delhi, especially, could prove more difficult than the BJP imagines with a greatly mellowed Aam Aadmi Party making voter inroads with its heathcare and education initiatives.

Internal fueds

Bihar presents its own set of peculiar problems for the BJP with chief minister Nitish Kumar increasingly at odds with the BJP's policies, including on Triple Talaq and Ayodhya. Nitish, though, has nowhere else to go. But a disgruntled ally (and this applies to the Shiv Sena as well in Maharashtra) can be more dangerous than a demoralised opponent like the Congress.

To revive itself, the Congress will have to reconcile three issues: One, will it be Rahul or will it be Priyanka who will lead the Congress once Sonia retires for good? Two, will younger leaders be allowed to develop their regional strongholds or will they live forever under the shadow of the Gandhis? Three, how quickly will the infighting within the Congress be controlled? If it is not, the Jyotiraditya Scindia-Kamal Nath battle in Madhya Pradesh and the Sachin Pilot-Ashok Gehlot tussle in Rajasthan will damage the Congress in the same way as infighting with ally JD(S) allowed Karnataka to slip into the BJP's grasp.

Next week's results in Maharashtra, in particular, will count. It is India's richest state and the second largest. What Bengal thinks today, India does tomorrow no longer holds. How Maharashtra votes today though, could signal how India votes tomorrow.

Also read: From 1999 to 2019: This is what has changed for me in Maharashtra's bitterly contested polls

Writer

Minhaz Merchant Minhaz Merchant @minhazmerchant

Biographer of Rajiv Gandhi and Aditya Birla. Ex-TOI & India Today. Media group chairman and editor. Author: The New Clash of Civilizations

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