A day before former Maharashtra chief minister Ashok Chavan abruptly announced his resignation from the Congress party on February 12, he was seen at the Tilak Bhavan, the Maharashtra Pradesh Congress Committee (MPCC) headquarters. Ramesh Chennithala, the All-India Congress Committee (AICC) state in-charge, had been in Maharashtra for a couple of days, and a slew of deliberations were scheduled for the day. According to Congress leaders present there, Chavan did not betray any sense of his next move, and the news of his exit — on the back of Milind Deora and Baba Siddique’s — came as a huge shock to them.
A story about Chavan joining the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) bandwagon had done the rounds in 2022, but it was long forgotten after the subsequent splitting of the Shiv Sena and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP). Although Chavan hasn’t announced his future plans yet, it isn’t hard to fathom where he is headed, with rumours abounding of his securing a Rajya Sabha seat from the saffron party. There are also indications that Chavan’s daughter Shrijaya could get the BJP ticket from Nanded.
The Curious Case Of Ashok Chavan
Ashok Chavan took over as chief minister under difficult circumstances in 2008 — when Vilasrao Deshmukh put in his papers taking responsibility for the 26/11 Mumbai terror attack — and led the party to a record third term in the elections that followed a year later. In 2010, however, when the Adarsh Housing Society scam hogged the headlines, where his relatives were found to have apartments in a building exclusively meant for war veterans, Chavan was asked to make way. Chavan would later lament to his inner circle that he wasn’t the only Congress leader with a conflict of interest in the case.
Chavan’s initiation into electoral politics at the age of 29 coincided with his father Shankarrao Chavan’s second term as chief minister. Chavan junior was fielded to retain the Nanded seat vacated by his father, and although he went on to win handsomely, a loss followed in the Janata Dal wave of 1989. Chavan later became a regular fixture in the Congress-NCP governments from 1999 holding various portfolios under Vilasrao Deshmukh and Sushil Kumar Shinde, until he assumed chief ministership in 2008.
A Crisis Of Leadership
Even as Rahul Gandhi’s ill-timed Bharat Jodo Nyay Yatra has coincided with the unravelling of the I.N.D.I.A bloc, Congress is putting pressure on its senior leaders to contest the Lok Sabha elections as a desperate measure. The idea is to deploy veterans to try and bridge the gap with the BJP. The strategy is not a novel one.
Flashback to 2019: Six former Congress chief ministers bit the dust, which included Chavan himself (losing narrowly) from the family bastion of Nanded that he managed to win at the height of the Modi wave in 2014. Among the high-profile losers for Congress included veteran Digvijaya Singh, who lost to the controversial Pragya Thakur from Bhopal; and Jyotiraditya Scindia, who lost to his former aide Krishna Pal in Guna.
What became evident was that unlike the assembly polls, it was a different ballgame altogether in the Lok Sabha with Modi on the ticket — even against lightweights. Essentially, it boiled down to Rahul versus Modi. It should come as no surprise then that many of these veterans have developed cold feet and would rather choose to stay relevant through the Rajya Sabha route. It is already being rumoured that Kamal Nath and Vivek Tankha could follow suit in the days to come, and their concerns aren’t too different.
The Elephant In The Room
Following the debacle in 2019, when Rahul Gandhi stepped down as Congress president, he had reportedly made his displeasure of the veteran leaders known on account of their unwillingness to go the whole hog on the ‘Chowkidar Chor Hai’ campaign. With their ears to the ground, unlike Gandhi and his coterie (who were being led on by strategist Praveen Chakravarty), no wonder they cut their losses.
What many of these leaders admit in private (but cannot speak out publicly) is the lack of Gandhi’s connect with the voter in the Hindi belt. The coterie around Gandhi — who worry more about their leader’s image management than the prospects of the party — are equally responsible for the sorry state of affairs. In the final analysis, Gandhi’s decision to contest from Wayanad in 2019 proved decisive and these veterans have no hesitation in rooting for Priyanka Vadra or Sachin Pilot at the helm post 2024.
The Maharashtra Matrix For 2024
Just last week, the BJP came up with a ‘white paper’ on the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government’s decade (2004-14) in power, where the Adarsh Housing Society scam found prominent mention. In an election season where the BJP is coming up with innovative methods such as conferring the ‘Bharat Ratna’ on leaders of prospective allies as a bait, that would be a trivial aside.
The CVoter ‘Mood of the Nation’ survey that came out in the interim gave a thumping win to the BJP nationwide, but had the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) trailing in Maharashtra. The poll showed the Congress-led alliance leading the NDA by five percentage points — in a state with the maximum number of Lok Sabha seats after Uttar Pradesh. No wonder the BJP went in for the kill.
Why Chavan’s Exit Matters
In 2019, I was in the Parbhani district in the Marathwada region where a lot of people spoke about their emotional connect with the late Shankarrao Chavan. In fact, the Chavan family’s sphere of influence extends well beyond Nanded, Parbhani and Hingoli, and that is how the Maratha leader becomes a prized catch for the BJP.
Chavan had ensured a massive turnout of tens of thousands for the first leg of the Bharat Jodo Yatra when it traversed through Nanded. Thus, Chavan’s desertion may hit the Congress hard. Chavan’s quitting also makes the impending Rajya Sabha poll a tricky one for the Congress in Maharashtra.
The author is a senior journalist and political columnist.
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