Sujay Vikhe Patil, son of senior Congress leader and Opposition leader in the Maharashtra Assembly, Radhakrishna Vikhe Patil, defected to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) last week. I don’t think it surprised his father. Sujay had been making his ambitions public for the past six months. Obviously, his first choice to contest the general elections was Congress. But during the negotiations between Congress and Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), his South Ahmednagar constituency was assigned to Sharad Pawar’s NCP. Sujay’s father pleaded with Sonia Gandhi to reconsider, but in vain. Pawar didn’t adjust for Vikhe Patil’s son either. In fact, he reminded the media of his decade-old family feud with the Vikhe Patils and said, “I am not here to pamper family members of other leaders.”
Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis was quick to latch on to the opportunity and exacted a body blow of a perception war ahead of the election campaign. Social media immediately began raising questions that if the Opposition leader couldn’t convince his son, how would he convince voters. Radhakrishna Vikhe, too, fell into this trap, and announced that he would not campaign against his son.
Worse was the reaction of the senior leadership of Maharashtra Congress. Not a single leader came to the rescue of Vikhe Patil. State Congress President Ashok Chavan refused to make a statement on these developments. Another Congress leader Balasaheb Thorat, Vikhe’s contemporary in the Ahmednagar sugar belt, raised questions about Vikhe Patil’s stand instead of helping him. Congress workers felt totally demoralised.
This is the story of Congress in the second most important state (48 seats) in this Lok Sabha election. The party is divided into few satraps who control sugar cooperatives, banks, cotton mills and other money-minting institutions in their respective regions. In fact, these leaders are not able to cope with the changing face of politics after the emergence of Narendra Modi on the national scene. They have hardly worked hard to galvanise rural distress or other people-centric issues in the past five years. Most of them are hoping that voters will get fed up of Modi, and choose Congress as a default option.
The quotient of mistrust between these leaders is very high. State Congress President Chavan has failed to inspire party workers. He did organise a few rallies against the Modi government. But it failed to create a wave and ended up being more of a formality. Even though the sentiment in rural Maharashtra is averse to Modi, people are not ready to trust the Congress.
A Congress leader from Western Maharashtra told me, “BJP can raid our cooperative institutions and put us in jail. We cannot afford to take them on.” Fadnavis has often used this fear amongst Congress-NCP leaders to engineer defections. Former Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan is the only Congress leader who enjoys clean image, but he has no support in the party.
NCP: Credibility Issues
Sharad Pawar’s NCP is no better. If we go through the list of their Lok Sabha candidates, we see lack of new faces. The only noticeable new entrant is Parth Pawar, grandson of Sharad Pawar, and son of Ajit Pawar. Sharad Pawar withdrew his own candidature for Parth. But it sent a wrong signal to a section of the electorate that has a distaste for dynastic politics and is drawn toward Modi. NCP has money and muscle power, but its credibility is as low as it was five years ago. They can match BJP in media management and publicity, but voters are not ready to trust these constipated faces accused of mammoth corruption.
The Congress-NCP alliance in Maharashtra is also suffering from arrogance. By finalising the alliance, they have only looked at arithmetic, but ignored chemistry. Prakash Ambedkar-Asaduddin Owaisi’s Vanchit Bahujan Aaghadi has challenged their traditional politics. After their negotiations failed, and this new front of Dalit-Muslims-Other Backward Classes decided to fight on all 48 seats, it is sure make the alliance nervous. Prakash Ambedkar may not be able to win a single seat independently, but he can damage Congress-NCP, at least on six seats, which could be a major setback in an election where every seat is worth its weight in gold for Congress. Meanwhile, VBA is facing its share of internal differences. Owaisi’s All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul-Muslimeen (AIMIM) is not happy with ticket distribution and VBA’s senior leader B. G. Kolse Patil has deserted the party on the issue of failed alliance with Congress.
Moreover, the Left is also likely to eat into the vote share of Congress-NCP. The Left Front had demanded a single seat in the adivasi belt of Dindori, but Congress-NCP refused. They are set to fight independently, and they have their pockets of influence in Nasik and Thane districts, which we saw during the Kisan Long March. Farm leader Raju Shetti, too, had left the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance a few months ago, and Congress-NCP has still been unable to finalise a deal with him.
BJP-Sena Alliance, a Contrast
In contrast, the BJP-Shiv Sena, in spite of being at each other’s throats for four years, have settled their alliance. BJP president Amit Shah understood the need of the hour. And the fact that Fadnavis and Sena leader Uddhav Thackeray share a good equation helped to a large extent. There are some differences at the local level, but the leaders are confident of sorting them out before the candidates are announced. While Congress-NCP leaders massage their egos, BJP-SS leaders oil their party machinery.
In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP-SS won 41 seats. In the absence of a Modi wave, nobody expects BJP-SS to repeat this performance. But at the beginning of this election season, Congress-NCP had a promising prospect. It was in a position to significantly dent the NDA. But internal contradictions have allowed the momentum to slip away. If the situation persists, Maharashtra Lok Sabha election could be a walkover for the BJP-SS.
The writer is a senior journalist. The views are personal.