No more rabbits left in Cong’s hat?

I am, frankly speaking, stunned at the poor showing of the Congress in Maharashtra at the recently concluded Lok Sabha elections. Ashok Chavan was Rahul Gandhi’s most trusted lieutenant in Maharashtra and expected to deliver the state to the Congress in full measure. But his story in the last four and a half years is one of fear, compromise, inaction and a lack of confidence in his own ability to win the polls.

Chavan was made the chief minister of Maharashtra after 26/11, despite the claims of Narayan Rane and Balasaheb Vikhe Patil, the father of Radhakrishna Vikhe Patil, the leader of the Opposition in the Maharashtra Legislative Assembly. Coincidently, Dr Sujay Vikhe Patil, Radhakrishna’s son recently contested and won from Ahmednagar on a BJP ticket.

I am now beginning to wonder if it is a mere coincidence that Rane is now out of the party and Radhakrishna is virtually halfway out the door as Chavan clearly manipulated Rane’s exit and did not work hard enough to persuade the NCP to switch the Ahmednagar seat to accommodate Sujay.

They could have been real fighters — and indeed financiers — for the Congress at a time when Chavan was so terrified of punitive action in the Adarsh scam.

I always wondered why he acted as though he was the sole person named in the scam when it was clear that other Congress leaders and even those in the BJP had perhaps bigger roles to play.

However, that fear has kept Chavan, who was trusted enough by Rahul Gandhi despite Adarsh, to be made Pradesh Congress Committee chief after the 2014 polls (where he won one of the only two seats for the Congress), completely under the radar.

I can only contrast him with Ranjit Deshmukh, former PCC president during the Shiv Sena-BJP regime in 1995-99, who fearlessly rubbed the noses of the ruling party out of joint by not allowing a single opportunity to pass by without comment. There were regular press conferences and public meetings to put them on the mat – Chavan, by contrast, sat back and allowed every opportunity to slip from his hands, ceding the Opposition space to Uddhav Thackeray of the Shiv Sena, who continuously tormented the BJP and Narendra Modi despite being a partner in their government for five years. Deshmukh’s relentless pursuit of the parties in power rewarded the Congress with a return to government in five years. Chavan’s frozen attitude, by contrast, has lost his party a government, not just at the Centre in some measure, but most certainly in the state, six months hence when elections to the state Assembly are due again.

Sadly, Deshmukh was side-lined and forced out of the party and ever since there has really been no PCC president of equal mettle. It didn’t quite matter when Congress was in power for 15 years, until 2014. But in the past five years when the Congress leadership was expecting Maharashtra to return to the party, that its trusted choice should let it down so badly, is a sorry tale of not just inaction but also self-betrayal.

I had described Chavan in my recent book on Maharashtra (Maharashtra Maximus) as the last man standing for the Congress along with Sharad Pawar of the NCP. However, now I am saddened that both leaders may have destroyed their parties over one-upmanship – for example, even Pawar had reason to side-line the Vikhe-Patils and show no generosity towards them.

They, however, proved equal to the task of turning the tables on the duo. A desire to run their family members at these elections – Pawar his grand-nephew, and Chavan his wife – also got in the way of their better judgment as Chavan was torpedoed by Rahul Gandhi and Pawar by his own family members who were bickering with each other before the polls.

I believe neither did Pawar work hard for the grand-nephew, who lost the elections, nor Chavan for even himself as his sense of betrayal by his party leadership, who gave in to bullying by other dynasts within the party but not him was stronger than his own instinct for survival.

While Pawar will live to fight another day, I am now not so sure about Chavan and the Congress. It was the responsibility of both leaders to make sure Maharashtra was restored to its original Phule-Shahu- Ambedkar ethos at these elections. In failing to live up to those expectations, they may have lost the state and country forever.

First Published:
May 29, 2019 00:25 IST

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