With most of its icons hijacked by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the Congress must be desperately praying to every god it believes in -- or does not believe in -- for a miracle that would prove wrong the exit polls predicting another party rout, this time in Maharashtra and Haryana.
That is the only straw despairing Congress workers can presently clutch when votes are counted on 19 October as they appear to have been abandoned both by party presidentSonia Gandhi and her son and party vice-chief Rahul Gandhi during the campaign.
But the key question is what will happen to and within the Congress if the exit polls predicting a party rout are borne out on October 19.
On the face of it, there are at least six major signals that could emerge out of an out-an-out Congress defeat forecast in the assembly polls in Maharashtra and Haryana.
One, it would rob the party of the explanation that after three and two terms respectively, it was but natural for the party to lose. The explanation would have cut ice any other time but not after the debacle of the Lok Sabha polls or in the face of the BJP’s successive victories since 2003 in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh or retaining its own government in Assam since 2001. Even the Congress’s Sheila Dixit in Delhi had been in power for three terms until she was done in by allegations of corruption, policy paralysis and price rise that the Congress-led Manmohan Singh government at the Centre failed to check.
But an electoral defeat no matter how disappointing and shocking is not enough to sap the party of its energy. And this brings the focus on the second factor. In the case of the Congress, the twin defeats would show up the Congress top leadership as weak and inept, afraid of acting or taking risks and paralysed by the fear of being hit by another Modi wave. And this would be far more dangerous for the Congress as it is this faith in the leadership that holds a party together.
The fact that there has been no urgent repair undertaken after the party suffered the humiliation of getting only 44 seats of the 543 elective seats in the Lok Sabha and drawing a blank in as many as 19 states and UTs has only compounded the party’s woes.
There has been no brainstorming session and no large scale changes even as the battle rages between the sulking old guard and the team that Rahul wants to build for himself. Even their hope in Sonia is shrinking, even though she had turned the fortunes of the Congress around by bringing it to power twice, as the head of a coalition government at the Centre.
"In choosing between the party and Rahul, she has thrown in her lot with her son," lamented a Congress leader who urged anonymity.
Sonia-Rahul combo leaves workers in a lurch
Indeed, after the Lok Sabha debacle, Sonia offered to step down in order to save Rahul from a political assault by her own workers for his uninspiring leadership and lacklustre election campaign that paled into insignificance in the face of the BJP’s then prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi. She did it again this time so that he is not held responsible for the party’s anticipated loss of Maharashtra and Haryana.
Unlike Modi, who despite the BJP’s losses in the by-polls in 13 states put his reputation at stake by turning the recent assembly polls as a battle between him and the rest, both Sonia and Rahul shied away from leading from the front. An ageing and not-too-healthy Sonia made a token appearance during the campaign. And she made sure that Rahul too addressed only a couple of rallies so that the electoral contest in Maharashtra or Haryana is not turned into a Modi vs Rahul faceoff as it did during the Lok Sabha elections, and any defeat is ascribed to Prithviraj Chavan who was chief minister until the NCP snapped its 15 year alliance with the Congress in Maharashtra or to Haryana chief minister BS Hooda. But the signal that went out was of a national leadership that was burrowing itself in fear and unwilling to take any risks.
It is another matter that the candidates weighed down by the 15-year and 10-year incumbency in Maharashtra and Haryana respectively were keen, at best, to have Sonia only as a campaigner. They did not want Rahul who wasn’t seen as a vote-catcher. As for former prime minister Manmohan Singh, he suffered the same treatment that was meted out to BJP veterans like LK Advani and MM Joshi and was not even given the honour of making a token presence as a campaigner, not even in the FINANCIAL capital of Mumbai where he was once hailed as a beacon of economic hope.
Will the workers wait for ache din?
Three, depending on the poll outcome, there could lead be massive desertions of ground level workers and leaders for whom politics is their bread and butter and future. More so, since the Congress president has shown no inclination to change the status quo, in which Rahul continues to play the dominant role.
Faced with a bleak future in UP and Bihar, workers had migrated to other parties in droves. As a result the Congress has been unable to make a comeback there for more than two decades. It is a similar story in Tamil Nadu and West Bengal. Andhra Pradesh is now in the same list. And if the party comes a cropper in its bastion in Maharashtra, which has so far given only one term to the Shiv Sena-BJP combine, it may well have to sit out for a long time if its workers desert the party. Many of them are confused and do not know whether they should be singing sayonara or honge kamyaab ek din. After all, for how long can they wait for -- as Modi’s catchphrase puts it -- , acche din? As it is, some of their leaders like Birender Chaudhary in Haryana have quit to join the BJP and others like Shashi Tharoor have not hesitated to praise Modi.
Congress Mukt Bharat?
Four, if Maharashtra, which is under President’s Rule, and Haryana also get out of the Congress’s orbit, the party would be reduced to a marginal regional outfit ruling in small states like in the northeast or Himachal and Uttarakhand. Karnataka and Kerala, with 28 and 20 Lok Sabha seats, would the biggest in its kitty as the BJP tries to become the new Congress by increasing its footprints and turning its slogan of a Congress Mukt Bharat into a reality.
Besides Karnataka and Kerala, the Congress is in power in Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Himachal Pradesh, Manipur, Mizoram, Meghalaya and Uttarakhand and is part of the JMM government in Jharkhand and J&K where the ruling National Conference has decided to contest separately from the Congress in the forthcoming assembly elections in the state.
The Congress should be getting worried once its geographic presence shrinks, even the Northeastern states may get out of its sphere of influence and gravitate towards the party that rules at the Centre. At present, it is in power in five of the seven states in the northeast.
The fifth factor is more personalized and impacts the Gandhi family which is already battling allegations of misusing FUNDS in the National Herald case. The defeat in Haryana could open up a Pandora’s Box and put the land deals of Sonia’s son-in-lawRobert Vadra into sharp focus.
The sixth factor impinges on the party’s coffers. If the party loses the resource and wealth rich Maharashtra, it might lose out on the cash inflow to run the party. The next assembly elections are due in Bihar in 2015 and West Bengal and Tamil Nadu in 2016 none of which, by any stretch of imagination, are states where the Congress is a major factor in the polls.
Given that the stakes for the Congress were so high in Maharashtra and Haryana, it is remarkable that the top leadership went into the electoral battle half-heartedly. And if it loses these states many would think that it deserved its fate for not even trying to make a fight of it.