Caught between a rock and a hard place: Congress legislative party in Maharashtra

The NCP and Congress ministers in the Uddhav Thackeray led MVA government in Maharashtra have in recent days been complaining that the Chief Minister is giving a lot of leverage to the bureaucracy and in the process they bureaucrats are ignoring the ministers. The Delhi based journalist of Zee’s Marathi news channel “Zee 24 Taas” (taas means hours in Marathi) Ramraje Shinde has mentioned the incident of Maharashtra Food and Civil supplies minister Chhagan Bhujbal of NCP (the same guy who was in jail for 2 years on charges in multiple scams) getting riled up when the secretary for his department presented a proposal in a cabinet meeting. Apparently Bhujbal did not know of the proposal till it was presented to the cabinet. Bhujbal got into a rage and told the CM that if the bureaucracy is going to do everything, then he would better sit at home rather than attend cabinet meetings.

The other ministers from the Congress and NCP are simmering with discontent as Uddhav is being manipulated by the wily bureaucrats, in their reckoning. Remember the ministers come and go but the bureaucrats stick around. The worst they face is a transfer but they survive nonetheless. The Sena ministers don’t have the option of speaking against Uddhav. The NCP ministers have the shoulder of Sharad Pawar to cry on. But the Congress ministers are orphans in that sense. They cannot go and cry in front of Sonia Gandhi. TheMaharashtra Congress state unit begged her to let them join the government with an ideological enemy (Sena) to keep BJP out of power and for Congress to enjoy power in the state. Nor can they cry before Rahul baba, who was opposed from day one on the issue of supporting the Sena led government. His supporters like Sanjay Nirupam, Prithviraj Chavan and Milind Deora keep on making statements to that effect.

Congress in a corner

The Congress state unit’s voice is not getting heard in the MVA government. They make up the numbers in what is essentially as Sena-NCP government. Except one or two top leaders like Balasaheb Thorat, the other Congress ministers have got inconsequential ministries. Infact the percentage of the state budget allocated to Congress held ministries is not more than 5-10%. The Congress has a much lesser voice in this MVA government. The recent case of the Vidhan Parishad (upper house) polls in the state were quite revealing. Out of the 9 vacant seats in the Parishad, the BJP staked claim for 4 seats and put up 4 candidates. The Sena and NCP put up 2 each and left 1 seat for the Congress. The Congress revolted by nominating two candidates, but were made to withdraw one candidate by the Sena and the NCP.

Seems Uddhav had struck a deal with the BJP to have an uncontested election viz. 9 candidates for 9 vacant seats. Uddhav himself was contesting for one of the seat to become a MLA, before the six month deadline to become a MLA ended in late May 2020. The MVA could have fought for the ninth seat and helped Congress win a second seat, but they didn’t. Ashok Chavan while speaking to Indian Express here is lamenting that the need to keep the BJP out of power should not be seen as Congress’s weakness.

It seems the Sena and the NCP have taken the Congress for granted in Maharashtra. The Congress which ruled the state for 15 years between 1999-2014, has been reduced to a pitiable condition nationally and in the state. Congress used to be the number one party in terms of seats won in Mahrashtra since 1999, exception being 2004 when the NCP managed one more seat than the Congress. But the Congress national and state leadership successfully pressured Pawar to leave the CM post for the Congress. Though the wily Pawar took up every other powerful ministry in return. But post 2014, the Congress has been the worst affected in Mahrashtra. In the 2019 assembly election, the Congress finished as the number four party behind BJP, Sena, NCP with just 44 seats. In the 2019 assembly election, the Congress fought under the leadership of Sharad Pawar, as national leaders including Rahul Gandhi stayed away from the campaign.

If the UPA had emerged to the biggest coalition and won enough seats for a shot at power, Sharad Pawar would have ensured a NCP chief minister. Such was the condition of the Congress. The Congress could gain a sizeable amount of seats in Vidarbha, due to discontent against the BJP (BJP went down from 44 seats in 2014 to 29 seats in 2019 in it’s bastion of Vidarbha. Also Congress benefitted from the Sharad Pawar jaggernaut in Western Maharashtra. In all other regions of Maharashtra, the Congress lost badly. Even in Mumbai, which has been a decent hunting ground for the Congress the downfall was seen. From winning 17 seats in Mumbai (courtesy the MNS) in the 2009 assembly polls, the Congress has been reduced to 5 seats in 2014 and 4 seats in 2019.

A look at the 4 Congress winners in Mumbai will reveal the real reason for the downfall. Three of the winners are from the Muslim community and one is from the neo Buddhist community. Furthermore, two of the four are dynasts (though one of them is a multiple time winner and can win on her own). Three of the four Congress party MLAs won on their own goodwill and performance, rather than because of the Congress. The Congress has acquired an anti Hindu image and the Hindu community in Mumbai (true for MMR region as well) has stopped voting for it. It’s even worst in the Thane and Palghar districts (24 seats) where the Congress has drawn a blank in the 2014 and 2019 assembly polls. The downfall continued in the Konkan region (15 seats), where the Congress lost the lone seat it held (Nitesh Rane who joined and won on the BJP ticket in 2019) in 2014. In the 2019 assembly election, Congress won 5 in North Maharashtra, 15 seats in Vidarbha, 8 in Marathwada,  4 in MMR and 12 in Western Maharashtra to get a grand total of 44 seats.

With falling electoral prospects, a party loses the respect of it’s allies and opponents alike. So it was natural that the Congress had no handle on Pawar or Uddhav and both of them would treat the Congress with disdain. The Congress ministers can cry aloud, but they dont have the power to withdraw support from the government. There is a remote chance that the BJP may back the Sena, if the Congress-NCP backout from the current MVA government. Also the Congress-NCP do not want to face fresh elections in the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic. Because the real problem will start if they win and form the government. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced the country to go into a lockdown and has resulted in both the centre and states finances going for a toss.

Maharashtra was the top GST generating state in the country. The state generated between 15,000 to 17,000 crore of GST on a monthly basic, in the pre COVID-19 era. This translates to an average SGST earning of 8000 crore per month (average of 7,500 and 8,500 crore). Maharashtra earned 2000 crore on a monthly basis through taxes on liquor and approximately 5,000 crore through taxes on petrol/ diesel and real estate (stamp duty and VAT on real estate transaction). If we don’t consider the 42% tax revenue from centre’s share transferred to the state, the Maharashtra state government earned approximately 15,000 crore from taxes on a monthly basis. Since, the state budget was in deficit, we can assume that the expenditure (on salaries, administrative cost, infra projects, social welfare schemes run by the state) was more than 15,000 crore per month.

Now in a post COVID-19 pandemic scenario (with the lockdown being relaxed), the Maharashtra state government is earning 4,000-5,000 crore on a monthly basis currently. This tax collection will go up as the lockdown gets relaxed progressively.  However, the government expenditure remains the same (except reduction in administrative spending and infra projects which can be put on hold)  as costs like employee salaries, basic administrative spending and basic spending on social welfare schemes cannot be put off. The only option for the state is to borrow money, as the centre cannot help in a meaningful way with it’s own revenue having being hit badly. This implies increased interest payment by the state government. In such a situation, it is unlikely that the Congress-NCP want a government of their own. It is a nightmarish situation for them where there is no malai (cream) to be had and the increased fear of anti incumbency due to cut in expenditure on social schemes and infra projects.

So if it cannot withdraw support to the government and face fresh election, what option does the Congress have. It is to stay in the Uddhav Thackeray government and accept the status of being the number three party in the government. Congress does not have malaidar ministries like PWD, finance, urban development or home to strengthen their party base. Soon the Congress’s remaining votebase will be attacked from all sides by it’s allies and opponents (Prakash Ambedkar’s VBA, AIMIM and the BJP). The muslim votes in Mumbai are likely to be attracted towards the Sena, as it is increasingly vocal against the BJP. Some of Sena’s elected representatives have already started celebrating Tipu Sultan jayanti/ punyatithi. The AIMIM is already targetting the muslim votebank of the Congress in MMR, Marathwada and North Maharashtra.

The BJP has already gobbled up the Hindi speaking Hindu votebank of the Congress in the MMR. The rise of Modi (who is a MP from Uttar Pradesh) and Yogi (as the CM of Uttar Pradesh) and the return of Nitish to the NDA flock has pushed these voters towards the BJP. It won’t be long before the BJP repairs the damage in Vidarbha and wins back it’s distraught voters. The inability of the MVA government to provide funds to Vidarbha (already low on the pecking order of the MVA government) will further hurt the Congress and help the BJP. It is a known fact that the Sena would ensure funds are first spent on MMR and Konkan regions and the NCP would ensure that it’s bastion the Western Mahrashtra region is well oiled with funds. In a revenue shortfall situation being faced now, the overall pie of development funds has reduced. It is unlikely that Marathwada, Vidarbha and North Maharashtra will get substantive development funds from the MVA government. Such a situation is ripe for the opposition especially the BJP that can get the Central funds channelized there. Hence, of all the parties the Congress seems to be the most disadvantaged at the moment.

The Congress future at the national level seems bleak (even for 2024) and the Central leadership is unable to effectively work in states like Maharashtra to strengthen the party. The cold war between the Rahul and Priyanka camps is also not helping the party.  The allies in Maharashtra have taken the Congress for granted as both Pawar and Uddhav know that they Congress has no option other than staying the MVA government. The Congress cannot pull the rug from beneath the MVA government as it is in not condition to face fresh elections, especially on it’s own. Congress cannot ally with the BJP, it’s national level rival.

On the other hand, either of the Sena or the NCP could potentially ally with the BJP. Sena and NCP have no fixed ideology other than staying in power. Many of the Congress MLAs are dynasts and Nehru-Gandhi family loyalists, so leaving the Congress for the BJP is hardly an option for them. But the Congress runs a risk of losing it’s MLAs in Vidarbha and North Maharashtra to the BJP, if the current situation goes on for the next 12 months.

The only question that remains to be answered is whether the Congress can rejuvenate itself in Maharashtra or would it be reduced to condition of state like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu; where the Congress is a marginal party of few seats, where the local strongmen win on their own aided by an alliance with a regional party. The next 12-18 months will reveal the answer to this question.

About the author

%d bloggers like this: