The Congress leadership may have given up even before single shot was fired but its internal assessors have spied a late surge in Maharashtra and a desperate struggle in Haryana that go to polls on Monday.
The assessment paints a picture less grim than the complete washout that the Congress had initially braced for. Several foot soldiers in the field are now ruing that the leadership did not rise to the occasion and cash in on voter discontent.
The feedback from both the states suggests dissatisfaction among the people with the BJP-run state governments has brought the Opposition into contest despite the lack of self-belief in the Congress, a poor campaign hobbled by the disinterest of the central leadership and a severe funds crunch.
But central and state leaders now see a contest, dismissing the general perception of a cakewalk for the BJP.
Surprisingly, Congress sources claim the BJP is much better-placed in Haryana in spite of the purported unpopularity of chief minister Manoharlal Khattar.
The Congress sources forecast a stiff fight in Maharashtra where the popularity of chief minister Devendra Fadnavis is perceived to be high. While rebellion in at least 60 constituencies against the official BJP-Sena candidates has lifted the Opposition prospects in Maharashtra, poor candidate selection by the Congress has pulled it down in Haryana.
Although the Congress leaders concede the BJP an edge in both the states, a veteran told The Telegraph: “Even our leaders said Congress-NCP tally will be less than 40 in the House of 288. We were almost psyched up for a disaster. But Sharad Pawar waged a fierce battle and the general discontent among farmers and youth is ensuring a contest. We are also helped by frightening issues like the PMC bank crisis and rebellion in the BJP-Shiv Sena.”
A senior leader from Maharashtra said: “We set out without any hope because of the leadership crisis caused by Rahul Gandhi’s exit. But we should have swiftly changed gear as the 78-year-old Pawar saheb intensified the battle. What is Priyanka Gandhi doing? If we have to confront the BJP head-on, she should be in western Maharashtra and Vidarbha. Even Rahul’s rallies could have been planned better. We saw a ray of hope and we will regret it on the polling day for not responding to the situation.”
On Sunday, PTI reported that the mouthpiece of the Shiv Sena, a BJP ally, published a column that said: “The chief minister has been asserting that the Opposition ‘does not exist’ any more…. The question then arises about the motive behind some 10 rallies of Modi, 30 of Amit Shah, and Fadnavis himself holding 100 rallies across Maharashtra.”
In Haryana, while the leadership structure was formed barely a month before the campaign started, the high command failed to stand up to the blackmail of Bhupinder Singh Hooda who cornered almost 60 tickets for his candidates. “In a small Assembly of 90 seats, at least 10 Congress candidate are so bad that they will either come fourth or fifth. That was suicidal and it happened because of the abnormal factional pressures. It is high time the central leadership invented a robust mechanism for candidate selection.”
Another state leader said: “Those who were working among the people for five years were ignored and tickets were given to some who hadn’t even applied. Nobody wants Khattar to return as chief minister; even BJP supporters know he has been a disaster. But we spoiled our chances in factional feuds instead of forging unity to put up our best fight. Rahul wanted to strike a balance — of factions and castes — but somebody decided to put all the eggs into Hooda’s basket.”
Asked if the slogan given by BJP chief Amit Shah — “Abki baar, 75 par” — will fructify, this leader said: “The ground reality doesn’t indicate that. People, especially women, are angry. But we were not ready to capitalise on the discontent. Still, the result will show a much closer contest than what is being projected.”
Another leader said: “Our main problem is perception management; we entered the battle without creating an impression of a serious contest.”
The grim electoral backdrop offered little hope for the Congress-NCP in Maharashtra. While the Congress won only one of the 48 Lok Sabha seats in the state with a vote-share of merely 16.27 per cent, the NCP won four seats. The BJP-Sena vote-share was a whopping 50.88 per vent.
In Haryana, the Congress got 28.42 per cent against the BJP’s over 58 per cent in the parliamentary election five months ago. That’s where the fear of another massacre originated from.