The appointment of Nana Patole in command of its Maharashtra unit, featuring younger, fresh faces after Friday’s organisational rejig, is reflective of the Congress’s desperation and determination to regain its position as the state’s once pre-eminent political force having somehow managed to survive and remain relevant despite a steady decline in its electoral fortunes over the years.
Patole quit as Speaker of Maharashtra Legislative Assembly on Thursday after meeting top party bosses, including Rahul Gandhi, in Delhi. There was strong opposition to his appointment from party seniors and loyalists, reflective of the Congress’s old predicament in Maharashtra, as elsewhere in the country – too many claimants with a bloated sense of political entitlement.
But the way events have unfolded in Maharashtra during the past year or so, the Congress’s discomfort at playing the junior partner in a tri-party alliance was evident. Patole has his task cut out – to revive the sagging spirit of the grand old party and ensure its relevance in Maharashtra politics.
That’s a tall order but 57-year-old Patole, who hails from Vidarbha, perhaps fits the bill and not merely because of his imposing physique or reputation as a straight-talker. A four-time MLA who made his electoral debut in 1999, Patole had switched to the BJP in 2009 and was elected MP in 2014 defeating former Union minister Praful Patel of the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) in his stronghold Gondia. But he did not last long in the BJP and quit in 2017 after defying prime minister Narendra Modi by raising farmers' issues at a meeting of MPs in New Delhi.
Patole was welcomed back to the Congress by Rahul Gandhi at a function in Gujarat and made the president of the Akhil Bharatiya Kisan Congress. In 2019, he unsuccessfully contested the parliamentary elections against Union minister Nitin Gadkari in Nagpur but later went on to win the Assembly elections from his pocket borough, Sakoli.
“I have submitted my resignation as directed by my leaders. I am free now and will be working for the party… Bringing Congress back on top is my priority,” Patole said appearing oblivious to the political consequences of his resignation and subsequent appointment as Congress state chief.
Saamana, the Shiv Sena mouthpiece edited by Rajya Sabha MP Sanjay Raut, carried an editorial on Saturday that said the post of Speaker had been allotted to the Congress for five years, and not one year. While recognizing the Congress’s right to choose its office-bearers, the editorial though underlined that such decisions shouldn’t impact the government’s functioning or position in the state Assembly.
NCP president Sharad Pawar reportedly told mediapersons in Delhi that the Speaker’s post had now fallen ‘open’ and the ruling Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) partners would discuss and decide the future course. This raised many eyebrows with the media portraying it a subtle hint from Pawar that the Congress may not get back the important post easily with a fresh reallocation of posts within the alliance partners on the cards.
The three unlikely partners ruling Maharashtra came together to prevent the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) from forming a government after emerging the single largest party with 105 MLAs in the 2019 Assembly contest. The mutually agreed power sharing formula saw the Sena grabbing the chief minister’s post while the NCP cornered the deputy chief minister's slot, leaving the Congress with the Speaker’s post, given their strength in the Legislature of 56, 54 and 44 respectively.
It seems neither Pawar nor the Sena top leadership, who initially stitched together the difficult alliance before inviting the Congress onboard, are happy with the unilateral and ill-timed move ahead of the State Assembly’s budgetary session scheduled on March 1. The resultant political scenario could lead up to a keen tussle on the floor causing anxious moments, if not an actual threat, for the Uddhav Thackeray-led dispensation.
The BJP will be eyeing the 29 MLAs who belong to smaller parties or were independents to give the ruling alliance sleepless nights in the coming days. The early morning swearing-in ceremony of Devendra Fadnavis and Ajit Pawar is still fresh in the nation’s memory. “It is time for Ajit Pawar to go incommunicado,” a senior BJP functionary close to Fadnavis said recalling how the deputy CM and nephew of NCP chief had gone missing after switching off cell phones on the night before dramatically emerging at the Raj Bhavan to take oath as the sun rose on November 23, 2019.
“Why Ajit Pawar, our party is capable of causing bigger earthquakes of the political kind,” another BJP leader in Pune said, hinting at an exodus of disgruntled MLAs from the ruling alliance. The speculations apart, there were indeed rumours in October 2020 that Sonia Gandhi was upset with the MVA government’s functioning but was somehow persuaded that it was still a better option to be part of the government rather than letting the BJP form the government.
Congressmen too were prone to frequent outburst against their alliance partners, alleging step-brotherly treatment from the Sena and NCP. The ministers complained that their departments were not sanctioned requisite funds, while the MLAs said they were denied sanctions for development works in their constituencies. Even party cadre put up posters in places like Thane and Ahmednagar districts alleging the party was not getting its rightful dues as an equal partner in the alliance.
This may be true but the stated reasons for the latest move have more to do with the Congress internal state of affairs than its weak position within the alliance. The change in guard at the party’s Maharashtra unit was necessitated by internal complaints against the concentration of too many powers vested in the current state chief Balasaheb Thorat, who held the lucrative revenue portfolio while also heading the party’s legislature unit. He was unable to do justice to either of posts he held, his detractors alleged.
This was apparent ever since the 2019 parliamentary elections, where the Congress struggled to maintain its 2014 tally of two wins. Its lone MP came from Vidarbha’s Chandrapur constituency in the form of Shiv Sena defector Suresh Dhanorkar, who switched sides days before filing of nominations. The biggest upsets were former chief ministers Ashok Chavan in Nanded and Sushilkumar Shinde in Solapur, while it was a complete rout in Mumbai with Milind Deora, Priya Dutt and Urmila Matondkar biting the dust.
The casualness and apathy of Congress state leadership continued unabated during the Assembly hustings that followed with Shinde openly admitting to being exhausted by the rough and tumble of electoral politics. The former Union home minister stirred a storm when he revealed that his supporters often wondered how he or Pawar were still fighting elections.
As it turned out, the Congress could’ve been relegated to a corner of the state polity but for the Sena and Nationalist Congress Party’s clever manoeuvres following the 2019 Assembly results. Even the party cadres were surprised by the Sena-NCP’s moves, which seemed audacious by the standards of their own leaders’ defeatist attitude and inactivity.
Today it’s difficult, even for the die-hard Congressmen, to believe that their party once enjoyed a formidable pole position, both in India and in Maharashtra, where it has failed to nurture a strong leadership since Pawar left in 1999. The remaining leaders seem incapable of getting over their acquiescence of the high command.
The BJP may have suffered a setback in 2019 with the Sena, its oldest ally, abandoning the saffron alliance over the issue of chief ministership. But it will sooner than later up the ante, for so far as western India is concerned, the neighbouring states of Rajasthan, Gujarat and Goa are already known BJP strongholds.
“Gujarat became invincible when the support base of the Congress there depleted fast. Rajasthan, on the other hand, has still been able to maintain a somewhat competitive two-party system. After two consecutive victories of the BJP–Shiv Sena alliance, Maharashtra presents yet another variety of BJP dominance in the western region,” political scientists Rajeshwari Deshpande and Nitin Birmal wrote in the August 2019 issue of Economic and Political Weekly (EPW).
The authors also referred to how the tentative nature of social coalitions and the element of competitiveness in the regional party system in Maharashtra kept the BJP’s aspirations to acquire a dominant role in Maharashtra’s politics in check.
For too long, politics in Maharashtra has been about the Congress as a dominant party with the Marathas serving as its dominant caste support base. The state stood by the Congress even when it faced setbacks nationally, in the sixties and seventies.
With the Congress and its Maratha vote base lying fragmented and scattered, the state’s political stewardship is clearly up for grabs. Unless the Congress decides to act, going beyond the cosmetic act of changing leadership.
The change in state leadership and reshuffling of posts, within the party or government, could do little to prevent the imminent demise of a once famed but much dilapidated Congress domination of the state’s politics.