Exit polls signal Congress' near collapse amid a leadership crisis
Instead of fighting as a unit in the run-up to crucial assembly polls, the Congress campaign was all about high-command indifference and defections.
The exit polls released on Monday are unanimous that the BJP is set to sweep both Maharashtra and Haryana, two states that voted hours before the exit poll results hit the media.
While such polls don't always capture voters' mood, there is little doubt that the ruling party, the BJP, is poised to win both states with ease.
One major reason is that the Congress, instead of deciding to fight back after its defeat in the Lok Sabha polls, seems reconciled to its decline as a political force.
For decades, the party had a high command structure -- a setting that was put in place by Indira Gandhi soon after she became Prime Minister and continued almost uninterrupted, except in the Narasimha Rao-Sitaram Kesari years -- and would take its cues from the Nehru-Gandhi family.
This arrangement has collapsed with no alternative in sight. On account of her poor health, Congress interim president Sonia Gandhi could not campaign in the two states. Her son and former party chief Rahul Gandhi was also erratic in his efforts, addressing just six rallies in Maharashtra and two in Haryana. In the midst of the election campaign, he disappeared to Cambodia on a four-day meditation camp.
This apart, Priyanka Gandhi -- who was launched with much fanfare early this year as party general secretary in-charge of eastern Uttar Pradesh -- chose not to campaign in the two states, purportedly to focus on "rebuilding" the party organisation in UP. This insistence on her part has been strange, to say the least. Instead of focusing on regions where the party has a chance of coming to power, Priyanka has been adamant on a UP revival, as if it was some lost family citadel to be recaptured. In the last Lok Sabha election, this effort backfired so badly that even her brother lost from the family stronghold of Amethi, with Smriti Irani defeating him with a comfortable margin. The fact remains that the Congress has no social base in UP -- not among upper castes, nor among OBCs, Muslims or Dalits -- and would do well to focus on states that are still within its fast-slipping grip.
With the leadership crisis at the apex, the patron-client relations built by the top leadership are also in jeopardy.
Just before elections in Haryana, the Congress lost its former state president and young Dalit leader Ashok Tanwar, who was considered close to Rahul Gandhi. Tanwar was unceremoniously removed from the post of party chief in the state once Rahul Gandhi left, to be replaced by Kumari Selja. Tanwar's bete noire in the state Bhupinder Singh Hooda was made in-charge of the election campaign and he is believed to have ensured that none close to Tanwar was fielded for the elections. Tanwar protested in front of Sonia Gandhi's residence and left the party in a huff.
Ironically, the Congress chose to offer a veto to one of its factions in Haryana, pushing the other out completely at a time when it needed to be united. The party is expected to be decimated in the state when results come out.
The story isn't limited to Haryana alone. In Jharkhand, former state party chief Ajoy Kumar quit the party -- alleging an internal conspiracy against him -- and joined the Aam Admi Party. This was an example of the Congress losing its top state leadership in another poll-bound state.
There is a perception among young Congress workers this writer talked to that Rahul Gandhi's exit has led to an attempted takeover of the party by the old guard, which may be lacking the energy or ideas to take on BJP 2.0 under Narendra Modi and Amit Shah.
The Congress' meltdown has transformed even state assembly elections into something akin to Lok Sabha polls. Economic hardships notwithstanding, the BJP -- riding on a tide of aggressive nationalism after the abrogation of Article 370 that gave special status to Kashmir -- seems to the common voter in large parts of India as the only available option.
To cast one's vote is increasingly becoming the same as voting for the BJP, at least for significant sections of Hindus.
The Congress seems to have neither the ideas nor the desire to buck the trend. And it is also choosing to speak in different voices to make things worse. So, if Manish Tewari attacked the demand for a Bharat Ratna for Hindutva ideologue VD Savarkar days back, another Congress leader Abhishek Manu Singhvi has tweeted that he considered Savarkar a patriot, even if he disagreed with the views of the former Hindu Mahasabha leader.
The Congress is on the verge of implosion, something that is likely to make it easier for the BJP to sweep elections in the immediate future. What's more, no alternative to the Congress at the national level is anywhere in sight.