Chief of India's ruling Congress party Sonia Gandhi gestures on her way to file nomination of her son Rahul for upcoming general elections in Sultanpur

Congress caught in Jai Ho syndrome

Sonia must re-think poll strategy

Neerja Chowdhury | New Delhi | 26 October 2009 |

The chorus of its Jai Ho slogan in May, 2009, seems to be fast fading. The Congress party needs to introspect and not depend on mere rhetoric.

Lady luck continues to be with the Congress with the party all set to be in power again in the three states that went to polls recently – Maharashtra, Haryana and Arunachal Pradesh. But the Assembly verdict 2009 has also come as a chastening experience for the party, unable to hit the halfway mark in Haryana where the Congress was expecting to sweep. The recent by-election defeats in Uttarakhand, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat has ground the party after having been in cloud nine for a while. It is time the party sits up and takes note, lest it slips up.

In recent years, Sonia Gandhi has been wary of the Congress becoming a victim of the ‘Shining India’ syndrome whenever state leaders tried to paint a rosy picture about party prospects. But this time round, the Congress President seemed to have fallen for the Hooda hymn (that of a clean sweep) and was given a freehand in the distribution of tickets – insiders claim he had his way in 70 out of 90 tickets – with the complete backing of the High Command.

In Maharashtra, the Congress did better than expected but this had more to do with the rise of Raj Thackeray – a new star on Maharashtra’s political firmament who managed to attract young voters with his aggressive brand of politics – than an increment in its own strength.

The question that the Congress will have to face now relates to the stance it is going to adopt towards the MNS now. It is hardly a secret that Congress leaders had lent their tacit support to the MNS in the run-up to the elections. By denting the Shiv Sena vote and consequently pushing both the north Indians and Muslims to consolidate behind the Congress, the MNS came to the aid of the Congress.

The Congress had encouraged the Shiv Sena in the sixties to finish the Communists in Mumbai. Today history is repeating itself with the MNS.

The NCP has more or less recovered the ground it had lost in the Lok Sabha polls, by notching up 62 seats with 10 of its rebels having won. Even as the Congress is planning to renegotiate the allotment of key portfolios from a position of strength, the party knows it will have to hang together with the NCP to retain a key state like Maharashtra.

Theoretically speaking, as numbers go, the NCP, with its 62 seats, if it were to join hands with the Shiv Sena (44) and the BJP (46), can form an alternative government in Maharashtra. Though it goes without saying such a scenario is nowhere near the horizon at this juncture. But the situation is not one where the Congress will have a free hand, unmindful of the sensibilities of its ally. With a weak Uddhav Thackeray and a weaker Sena, whose cadre is now going to look at the MNS with new found respect, the Shiv Sena may be willing to be part of a government headed by the NCP in order to be in power and remain relevant.

The interesting outcome this time – and one which caused an upset – was Haryana or the “abode of gods” (according to its name), for all the aya rams gaya rams of politics that the state has spawned over the years. Pollsters, surveys, media and politicians were giving Bhupinder Singh Hooda anything from 60-70 seats, and the CM of Haryana who had consolidated his hold over the state in the last five years had appeared even more invincible than before.

For the Congress High Command the Haryana outcome may come as a blessing in disguise. It has reined in Bhupinder Singh Hooda. The rise of powerful state satraps is a double edged sword for the party. They help to revive the party – as in Delhi with Sheila Dixit in her third term or YS Rajasekhar Reddy or Ashok Gehlot in Rajasthan or Hooda. YSR had decimated any opposition to him in the party and the campaign mounted by his son to be made CM after his father’s death left the High Command feeling quite helpless for several weeks.

In fact, there are many analogies between Andhra and Haryana. YSR too was given a free hand in the distribution of tickets. Hooda, like YSR, contended with a divided opposition with the INLD breaking up with the BJP before the Assembly polls and the Haryana Janhit Congress’s short lived attempt to go with them. Had the opposition stayed together, the Congress would have faced defeat in Haryana. YSR’s vote share had also come down by eight per cent much like Hooda’s 7.5 per cent, but the Andhra strongman managed to increase his Lok Sabha seats and kept the Opposition at bay in the Assembly. Hooda on the other hand ran into trouble.

This despite the fact that the INLD surprisingly lost a percentage point of its vote share, even as it jumped from nine seats to a whopping 31. The gap between the Congress and the INLD was as much as around eight per cent points which in normal circumstances should have ensured a comfortable win for the Congress.

There are several explanations for what happened in Haryana. The Jats got divided and a chunk went back to Om Prakash Chautala’s INLD, a process which had started during the Lok Sabha polls. Hooda’s opponents were critical of him concentrating all resources in his fiefdom of Rohtak and even went as afar as calling him the chief minister of Rohtak. He was accused of concentrating too much on the national capital region (NCR) and its vicinity. Though 66 SEZ’s have been cleared, no work has started nor land returned to the farmers. And so on.

However, what may really have been Hooda’s undoing was his inability to take along the party. Unlike YSR, Hooda’s plan to marginalize his rivals in the party and come back to power with a majority of Hoodaites came unstuck.

Clearly there was a Congress Vs Congress phenomenon at work on Haryana which did the Congress in. Those denied tickets stood as Independents against Congress nominees. But Hooda also reportedly put his weight behind defeating those who were not with him. The defeat of Chaudhury Birendra Singh, grandson of legendary Sir Chotu Ram, was a case in point. Many believe that in an attempt to enjoy unfettered leadership in his second stint and confident that he was going to make it comfortably, Hooda may have gone overboard in his opposition to rivals and things spun out of control, bringing him down to a figure of 40.

There is another message from Haryana – too loud to be missed – that the opposition parties will have to close ranks if they are to stop the Congress from growing. It remains to be seen if this happens: And whether this leads to the unity of the Eighties when the BJP was part of the non-Congress front. But for this to happen, the BJP too would have to move away from its Hindutva agenda to more moderate politics – this does not seem to be on BJP’s cards at this stage. Or, will it be a unity of the Nineties, which had brought together the non-Congress and the non-BJP forces on a common platform?

Clearly, the poll outcomes in Haryana and Maharashtra have triggered off a larger political process which may reflect beyond the two states.