A Lacklustre Visit

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Shorn of train rides or meals with Dalits, Rahul Gandhi’s recent trip was as subdued as it was ineffective

MUMBAI ~ It was a visit sans any fizz or high-profile drama. No rides in the crowded suburban trains of Mumbai, no visits to widows of Vidharba farmers who committed suicide, no meals with Dalit families, and no interactions with collegians. Congress leader Rahul Gandhi’s recent visit to Maharashtra was on a much more sober scale than his previous sojourns in the state. Perhaps it was the state of his party in Maharashtra, which is going through a phase of public disconnect, that set the low-key tone of the visit.

It is also possible that the Congress’ recent debacle in Uttar Pradesh had a bearing on Rahul’s Maharashtra visit. The Gandhi scion wore a serious look through the two days that he was in the state. His interactions with people were subdued and lacked the spontaneity that he had displayed in UP. All in all, Congressmen who should have been fired after the much awaited visit seemed far from it. A mood of desolation has descended on the party, not a good indication in a state that goes to the polls in 2014. It appears that the first leg of Rahul’s Mission Maharashtra has been a failure.

If Rahul harbours the notion that putting the Congress’ house in order in Maharashtra will be easier than in the cow belt, he is wrong. Usually, the mood in the party after a Rahul visit is buoyant. Not this time. Factionalism still sears the party, as it did before the visit, and chief ministerial aspirants continue to conspire to overthrow current Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan.

As far as every other problem that plagues the party is concerned, it is status quo. Which is why local Congress sources say they have failed to understand the point of Rahul’s visit to the state.

For a state unit of the Congress in which factionalism rules and mistrust is the dominant sentiment, an electoral revival would be a daunting task. In the decade since 2000, when the party assumed power in the state, aspirations have grown manifold. The frustration of the party’s senior leadership has now turned into loathing, and no opportunity is wasted to show the High Command that its decisions on Maharashtra have not always come good. The cascading effect of this was evident in elections to municipal corporations, municipal councils, zila parishads and panchayat samitis in Maharashtra that took place earlier this year. Some Congress workers had worked to defeat their own party candidates, thus giving added force to Deputy Chief Minister (and NCP leader) Ajit Pawar’s aggressive posturing against the Congress.

When this was brought to Rahul’s notice by partymen during his address to the Congress’ youth brigade, Rahul’s sarcastic reply that the party did not need the BJP to defeat it because Congressmen were doing the job well enough, summed up the party’s most serious affliction. This is not something that can be wished away, nor will it go away on its own. The slow response on the High Command’s part in addressing the mounting woes of Congress activists is a key factor in the party’s declining fortunes in the state.

A 2014 victory in Maharashtra looks more elusive by the day. A vast majority in the Congress, including leaders of reckoning, feel that only a defeat will make the High Command sit up and take notice of the party’s problems. “When you are winning, no one wants to scratch the surface to see what lies beneath. So let us see how the central leadership feels about losing in Maharashtra, as we did in UP,” says a senior leader who has been a contender for the CM’s post for a very long time.

“Rahulji himself is sowing the seeds of frustration when he says that more youth will be given a chance. There are leaders who are not comfortable with Rahulji’s style of working. They will not say it aloud, but will let him know their feelings by having official candidates of the party defeated,” says a senior Maharashtra Pradesh Congress Committee functionary.

If Rahul’s visit failed to instil any hope in the Congress’ state unit, it was because he dealt with no problems. He came, he saw and failed to act upon what he saw. Well-wishers say that the party needs a sense of urgency in arresting the party’s decline, and only this will send the rank and file a message that all is not lost.

The leadership crisis in Maharashtra is mostly the party’s own creation, say critics, since the High Command has failed to promote new leaders. The corrupt, they gripe, have received more than their due, and those loyal to the party have been sidelined. Rahul will have to work harder on Maharashtra if the Congress is to retain a vital base of support.