The Congress wins by default

By Amulya Ganguli,

It’s been a lucky break for the Congress. The party must be thankful that, but for a hopelessly divided opposition, it might not have made it to the winning post in two of the three states which went to the polls.

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As much is clear in both Maharashtra and Haryana. In Arunachal Pradesh, of course, it faced no challenge. But the outcome in the distant northeastern state is not expected to have much of an impact on national politics.

The Congress’ performance in the two other states, however, is bound to cause some concern despite the formal victories. The reason is that the party cannot ignore the disconcerting fact that in the western Indian state, the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS), which helped it to win the parliamentary polls by splitting the Shiv Sena-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) vote, has rendered the same service again.

Even then, the Congress had to struggle to reach the halfway mark evidently because the anti-incumbency factor was working against it. Nor is this surprising considering that drought, price rise, farmers’ suicide, the terror attack in Mumbai last November, a lacklustre state leadership, the uneasy relations between the Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) were among the issues affecting the ruling group’s chances.

What saved the Congress and the NCP was not only the role of the spoiler played by the MNS, but also the absence of credible leaders in both the Shiv Sena and the BJP. While the Sena supremo, Bal Thackeray, is no longer his old fiery self, the hole left in the BJP by Pramod Mahajan’s untimely death is yet to be fulfilled.

Neither Gopinath Munde nor Nitin Gadkari seems capable of arresting the slide in the BJP’s fortunes in the state. The uncertainty in the party about the fate of its central leaders like L.K. Advani and Rajnath Singh must have also undermined its prospects. To make matters worse, its ally, the Shiv Sena, has lost its sectarian plank to the MNS, whose leader Raj Thackeray has been described by NCP leader Sharad Pawar as more charismatic than the Sena’s working president Uddhav Thackeray.

For the Congress, the combination of these negative factors was a godsend. But its opportunistic dependence on the MNS means that it is living dangerously. The Congress, of course, is not unused to such cynical tactics. It bolstered Bal Thackeray in the 1960s to undermine the communist trade unions in Mumbai. But it cannot be unaware that such expediency does not enhance its prestige, especially among the middle classes.

Besides, its unspoken links with the MNS implies that the state government will have to go slow in the matter of booking offences against Raj Thackeray if and when he indulges in his customary anti-north Indian violence. That, too, will expose the Congress to criticism.

If the Maharashtra results have brought some of the unpalatable features of Congress politics to the fore, the Haryana outcome has exposed the fallacies of overconfidence. When Chief Minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda called for the elections a year ahead of schedule, he was sure of overwhelming success.

For one, the Congress had swept the parliamentary polls last May by winning nine of the 10 seats. For another, the opposition was in worse disarray, at least on the surface, than even in Maharashtra.