As the campaign season rolls around in Maharashtra for the Assembly election, scheduled for October 21, the Congress is looking to fight for survival. At the last election in 2014, the grand old party arrived as the incumbent, about to complete a decade in power in alliance with the Nationalist Congress Party, only to be defeated by the Hindutva coalition of the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Shiv Sena. The defeat didn’t just remove the Congress from power, it accelerated the party’s decline in a state which had long been one of its strongholds. In the five years since, the party has seen a steady stream of leaders, and workers, leave for its rivals, or fade into political obscurity, hollowing out the grassroots organisation. Not surprisingly then, the party appears adrift as it hits the campaign trail.
Nowhere is this more visible than in Pune. Of the 18 Assembly seats in Pune district, the Congress won only Bhor in 2014. In the parliamentary election earlier that year, the party had lost Pune by over three lakh votes. It did no better in 2019.
“There was a time when our party, in coalition with the NCP, used to win 13-14 seats in Pune district,” said Uttam Bhumkar, 80, a lifelong Congressman. “In fact, until 2004, four out of the eight Assembly seats in Pune city were with the Congress-NCP. Now we don’t have a single seat in the city, and a solitary seat in the entire district.”
Bhumkar was one of a handful of people at Congress Bhawan, the party’s headquarters in Pune, on an early September noon. He had arrived at 9 am, as he does every weekday. Bhumkar joined the Congress in 1957, starting out in the grassroots affiliate Seva Dal and moving to work fulltime for the party in 1980.
Not until very long ago, Bhumkar said, Congress Bhawan was always brimming with people. Now, most days it’s nearly deserted. How did it come to this?
“It is because of groupism in the party, in both the city and the rural areas,” he responded. “Another factor is that some local leaders held their personal grudges to be above the party’s interests. Leave Pune, even leaders at the Centre have to change their attitude, it’s a shame they haven’t allowed an excellent leader like Rahul Gandhi to work freely.”
Pune’s Congress Bhawan, established in 1939, is one of the party’s oldest offices in India. Its dedication by Mahatma Gandhi reads, ‘Let this place be an abode to true workers.’
Bhumkar traces the beginning of his party’s decline in Pune to a specific event: the suspension of Suresh Kalmadi in April 2011. Kalmadi ran the Pune Congress like his fief until he was arrested for alleged corruption in the 2010 Commonwealth Games, which he was responsible for organising as head of the Indian Olympic Association.
“Presently, the Congress doesn’t have a leader of the stature of Kalmadi Sahab in Pune,” Bhumkar explained. “He used to communicate with the party workers daily. He also had access to the high command in Delhi as well as in the state. Under his leadership, all Congress leaders in the city worked together but now the party is divided. The leaders of different factions are busy destroying each other instead of working for the party.”
He insisted that the party had made a mistake by removing Kalmadi. “The party shouldn’t have discredited him,” he said. “Look at the BJP, many of their leaders are facing corruption charges but it hasn’t removed them.”
Uttam Bhumkar at the Congress Bhawan in Pune.
Bhumkar conceded, though, that the problem runs much deeper. “When the Congress was in power, our leaders and ministers were busy helping their businesses of educational institutions and sugar factories. They would use money to win elections rather than work for the masses and maintain a good rapport with party workers. After becoming MLAs and MLCs, they would appoint their relatives to plump positions. They disconnected from the masses and the party workers because of which our people gravitated towards the BJP. Congress workers have lost faith in the party because of selfish leaders.”
It shows in the party’s electoral performance. In 1995, the Congress took eight of Pune’s 18 Assembly seats. In 1999, the grand old party was reduced to two seats after Sharad Pawar left to float the Nationalist Congress Party, which swept the rural areas, winning seven seats. But because no party won a majority, the Congress and the NCP formed a coalition government led by Vilasrao Deshmukh. In 2004, the two parties fought in alliance and gained a seat each. Five years later — when three Assembly segments were added to Pune district, taking the total to 21 — the Congress added one more seat while the NCP dropped one.
In 2014, the Congress and the NCP fought separately, and paid for it. While the Congress was reduced to the solitary seat of Bhor, the NCP won Ambegaon, Indapur and Baramati. All four seats are in rural Pune. The Congress didn’t win a single seat in its supposed stronghold of Pune city, with the BJP taking all eight of them.
“We have not focused on urban and semi-urban areas,” Pranay Jadhav, a Youth Congress worker, explained the 2014 result. “We kept our focus on rural areas even though 40 per cent of the Assembly seats in Maharashtra fall in urban and semi-urban areas, where the BJP has made inroads.”
A key reason for the party bleeding support is the loss of “resourceful leaders”. “Generally, Congress leaders are established names, so when they leave, they create a vacuum,” Manas Pagar, general secretary, Maharashtra Youth Congress, explained. “Such leaders are also resourceful, they own sugar factories or educational institutions. When they leave, the people working for them too shift their allegiances. In recent years, many such leaders have left for the BJP as the government has come down heavily on their moneymaking ventures. This has weakened the party in Pune and across the state.”
One such leader is Harshwardhan Patil, who joined the BJP last month. He held the rural Indapur constituency for three consecutive terms until 2009, when he won it for the Congress and was made a minister. In the last election, he lost to the NCP’s Dattatray Bharne by a margin of around 14,000 votes.
Harshwardhan was reportedly worried that since the Congress and the NCP are fighting the upcoming election together, it would be Bharne rather than him who would get the ticket to contest from Indapur. Newslaundry contacted him for a comment on his switch to the BJP, but he didn’t respond.
This sword cuts both ways, however. Some Pune Congressmen blame inward rather than outward defections for weakening their party. “In the last 15 years, the state Congress has given preference to defectors from other parties such as Narayan Rane, demoralising our workers,” argued Ulhas Pawar, a senior Congress leader who made news in February 2019 when he wrote to Rahul Gandhi complaining about the party’s “critical condition” in Maharashtra. “Kalmadi was a good organiser but even he never gave due respect to the workers and monopolised power because of which no other leader could develop a base. So, after his ouster, the party was finished in Pune.”
Party workers at the Congress Bhawan.
Then there are senior Congress leaders who have resisted the lure of greener pastures, yet have been pushed to the margins, by either electoral setbacks or the apathy of their own party.
Take Chandrakant Shivarkar. He won three Assembly elections until 2009, when he was defeated by Shiv Sena’s Mahadeo Babar, and served as the state’s minister for the Public Works Department. He fought again in 2014, but lost to the BJP’s Yogesh Tilekar. He is done now. “I will stay with the Congress as long as I am alive, but I don’t have any interest in contesting elections anymore. The Congress should never have allied with the NCP because they have always tried to hurt us. It is because of them that our organisation has become weaker.”
Others locate the problem within. “Groupism has caused the fall of the Congress party in Pune, yet even senior state leaders are least worried about it,” complained Ramesh Bagwe, former Maharashtra home minister and now chief of the Pune City Congress. “If we all come together, we can definitely win at least three seats in the city.”
Indrajeet Takawane, general secretary of the Pune City Congress, agreed: “The party can’t regain its stature unless we overcome groupism. The BJP did not destroy the Congress, some rogue elements within our party who promoted groupism for political gain did.”
The only Congressman to win in Pune district five years ago, Sangram Thopte, said his party still boasted a grassroots organisation “but the need of the hour is to reactivate the leadership”.
Sanjay Jagtap, president of the Pune District Congress, agreed. “In the last 15 years, the Congress in rural Pune has been totally ignored by our senior leaders,” complained Jagtap, who lost the last election in Purandar, a Shiv Sena stronghold, by just around 8,000 votes. “We still have a significant presence in the rural areas. We have over 70 corporators and hold the position of president in five Nagar Palikas. There are many people who support the Congress in rural areas but Congressmen don’t visit them. The party has weakened because the leadership has neglected the organisation and focused only on some preferred individuals.”
The sentiment was echoed by Mukari Shetty Algude, the Congress’s former deputy mayor of Pune. “Had the party not become a victim of factionalism, it would not have been possible for the BJP to make inroads in the region,” he argued. “Sincere workers have left the party because of groupism. There was a time when all of Pune’s MPs, legislators, corporators used to be from the Congress. Now, Congressmen are working against each other.”
Avinash Bagwe, Ramesh Bagwe’s son and a party leader in the city, added, “Pune is the second most important city in Maharashtra. The party which controls Pune plays a significant role in the state politics, yet our leadership is not focusing on Pune.”
Avinash Bagwe complains that the Congress party’s state leadership is not focussing on Pune.
Another problem besetting the Congress, several partymen told Newslaundry, is nepotism. “Decentralisation has not happened,” complained Shashank Patil, a Youth Congress leader. “Power was kept limited to certain political families, the rest who were ignored are now joining the BJP. Some leaders of the Congress are destroying the party for their selfish motives; they even work with rivals to defeat our candidates.”
Algude added: “Nepotism has ruined the party. The Congress ignored the leaders who actually did the work and favored a few who are now showing their true colours by joining the BJP and other parties.”
Takawane said as much, “The Congress is being run as a private company, driven by nepotism. Dedicated workers are being sidelined.”
Then, because of its association with Kalmadi, there is the taint of corruption that the Congress has struggled to wash off. “The party acted quickly against leaders accused of corruption. This created a negative image of the party whether the allegations were true or not,” said Pagar.
Youth Congress workers who are part of the party’s social media team.
Suhas Kulkarni, a political analyst in Pune, blamed Kalmadi for much more than just bringing a bad name to the party. “There was no syndicate culture in Congress, but that changed when Kalmadi came into the picture. He was friends with Sanjay and Rajiv Gandhi, and he knew Pune’s top businessmen. So, from Delhi to Pune he had a network of contacts which he used to monopolise power; the Congress in Pune became synonymous with Kalmadi. Congress Bhawan became irrelevant as people started going to Kamladi’s home to attend his darbar. When he was removed, this whole network collapsed, and with it the Congress in Pune.”
Indeed, Hemant Kanade, 58, a voter in Shivaji Nagar in Pune city, cited corruption as the main reason for switching from the Congress to the BJP in the last election. “The Congress would not have been in this state if they hadn’t indulged in large-scale corruption. In the past, people voted for the Congress but its leaders never worked for them. That is not the case with the BJP, they help us even with small problems. Congress leaders only help people known to them.”
Bhaga Ram, 52, in Wadar Wadi, had a similar story. “I always vote for the Congress until 10 years ago when I chose the BJP. Congressmen are always busy with their own work and never help common people. We had to make repeated requests to them to get our work done. BJP leaders do our work without asking. There is a huge difference in their working styles.”
If there is some hope for the Congress, it is pinned on voters such as Sachin Gaikwad, 31, who seem to have grown disenchanted with the BJP’s rule. Gaikwad comes from “a traditional Congress family” but voted for the BJP five years ago. “They came out with a very good manifesto. They seemed more motivated to work for the betterment of people as compared to the Congress,” he said by way of an explanation. “This time, I won’t support them because they have promoted a lot of extremism and polarisation in the last five years.”
All photographs by Prateek Goyal.
This is the first story in a series on the Congress party’s troubles in Maharashtra.