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Published in the 1-15 Nov 2004 print edition of MG; send me the print edition


Maharashtra Assembly elections - a Pyrrhic victory for Congress

It was a cliffhanger of an election. Widely believed to be a major test of the return of Congress to the mainstream of politics, after being routed by BJP post-Babri, for a brief moment of Congress PM Narasimha Rao’s blunder on Babri Masjid protection and his complete insensitivity towards nation-wide riots against protesting Muslims. 

The heartburns over the results of the elections in Maharashtra are exceptionally hurting and there is some uneasiness in various quarters that might result in some very disturbing developments, especially in relation to law and order situation under Congress watch. The calm after the stormy elections may turn into calm before the storm. 

The suspense in Saffron quarters was built up by famous astrologer Lachhman Das Madan’s prophecy of the fall of Congress government around September end. After Prime Minister Manmohan Singh successfully managed the Communist challenge on the appointment of World Bank advisers on the Planning Commission panels, the next test for Congress was the coming Maharashtra assembly election. Congress alliance had nothing to show for its 5-year term, which was rocked by 100 communal riots, ballooning of the state debt, drought and suicides, scandals of corruptions, specially the Telgi affair in which Congress ally’s very ambitious Home minister, the ex-Shiv Sena rabble-rouser, is believed to be one of those involved. 

On the ground level, the Maharashtra assembly elections were litmus test, if Congress can survive the crucial incumbency test, after losing Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan over its lackluster governance record. Keenly fought, hugely staked and minutely observed, Maharashtra election baffled the observers till the end and even beyond. The big imponderables were the rebellious mood of the party incumbents who were denied tickets this time around. The rebels were everywhere, from Congress to NCP, to Shiv Sena and BJP. The other confusing element was the strong interest shown by both Mulayam Singh’s Samajwadi Party and Mayawati’s BSP, in the aftermath of Shiv Sena’s outrageous outpourings against Uttar Bharatis, who now form a good chunk of voters in Mumbai constituencies. 

Thus the result was once again a big surprise to all, including the winners, Congress and Sharad Pawar’s National Congress Party. The deciding factor, once again, was the Muslim vote. In his first strong reaction, the loser Bal Thackerey, according to Times of India headline, declared: Muslims to blame for the loss. He warned Congress not to rely on Muslims, whose terrorists might cause Sonia and children to run to Italy. He added:’Congress which has benefited from the Muslim vote, had failed to realise that such short-sighted policy would eventually boomerang. In a typically BJP stronghold, Congress won the seat after 25 years, mainly on the basis of solid votes of 16000 Muslim voters. That is bound to hurt Congress opponents. But Congress/NCP are not in a mood to ‘appease’ Muslims.

In the event, both Congress and Sharad Pawar’s NCP underplayed Muslim votes, forcing Ulama Council, Milli Council, Jamaate Islami and Jamiatul Ulama, to first time come out openly against endorsing Congress/NCP as the party of choice, usually citing imminent disaster if Shiv-Sena/BJP took advantage of divided Muslim vote not helping the Congress/NCP alliance. This time other members of Third Front in the secular polity, specially Samajwadi Party, were openly mentioned as a pressure strategy for Congress/NCP to accede to their demands and redress their widely neglected grievances. At the fag end, Congress observer, former Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister, Digvijay Singh did make a ‘historic’ visit to heavily Muslim area of Bhindi Bazar to hear frank and robust criticism of cross sections of Ulama and social activists. But that was just a last minute election exercise. Congress/NCP stuck to their soft-Hindutva policy, repeating its performance after Gujarat, when they refuse to identify with Muslim concerns, at the dread of Hindu backlash. 

The biggest threat of Muslim revolt against Congress/NCP appeared in the person of Samajwadi Party’s Mumbai President Abu Asim Azmi, who has acquired a cult status among the Muslims, and is being widely seen as Muslims reply to Bal Thackerey’s Hindu extremist outpourings. Abu Asim’s speeches delighted Muslim audiences, as a voice of a courageous Muslim leader, who is not bought out by political establishments, and who himself suffered incarceration against trumped up charges under TADA, was all out exposing the Brahmin duplicity of the so-called ‘secular’ Congress and NCP. He had the distinction of taking on the Bal Thackerey himself, when he dragged Thackerey into court over his unsubstantiated personal attack on Abu Asim. For Muslims, who are deeply demoralised by arbitrary arrests and detentions, by Congress/NCP, especially under the arch Muslim-baiter ex-Shiv Sainik, Chhagan Bhujbal heading the Home portfolio in the state, he is a reliable leader.

Abu Asim Azmi, an SP member of Rajya Sabha, faced immense opposition from Muslim religious leaders, who had traditionally sided with Congress/NCP, and was able to convince them only at the fag end of the campaign. However, old-timer Congress/NCP, with host of dirty tricks at their command, honed after 57 years of electioneering, had resolutely decided to nick this ‘menace’ in bud. Observers believe lot of spurious money changed hands to buy ‘loyalties’. Elections are not merely democratic exercise, as majority of Indian people believe. It is now a full-fledged business and it is extremely difficult for newcomer to make a dent in the closed industry, unless he takes big risks, both of the financial and physical kind.

Abu Asim stood as a Samajwadi candidate in Bhiwandi, the handloom center, where Muslims have a clear 65% majority status. A traditional Congress stronghold where a Muslim candidate was their major concession to Muslims. Bhiwandi had witnessed one of worst riots under Congress watch back in 1970. Its economic mainstay of power loom industry is beset with chronic problem, mostly inflicted by the government of the day. This time, Congress seems to have a grand plan to defeat Muslim voters of Bhiwandi, by siding with its Hindu opposition and delivering a huge combined success to Shiv Sena. Congress denied its ticket to the incumbent Congress MLA Rashid Momin, who chose to stand as independent against both the new Congress candidate Shujauddin and SP’s Abu Asim Azmi. 

Abu Asim secured the highest number of votes for any Muslim candidate in Bhiwandi history. However, on the other side, the Shiv Sena that never had seen its tally beyond 40,000 votes, this time clocked over one lakh votes. Heavy spurious voting is supposed to be allowed with full complicity with the local authorities, mainly to defeat the ‘Muslim Hriday Samraat’, (contrasting with Bal Thackerey’s title of Hindu Hriday Samrat) that had become the biggest threat to Congress/NCP’s Muslim vote bank.

Jyoti Punwani, a left-liberal freelance journalist, who had been a crusading human rights activist and had defied all odds to oppose oppressors in all political hues, writing in an editorial page opinion article in The Times of India, termed Abu Asim defeat as ‘a tragedy and a relief’. Relief because if he had won, his claim of being messiah of the Mumbai’s Muslims would have gained strength, despite his doing little other than resorting to Thackerey-style rhetoric. A tragedy because his defeat, despite his closeness to the ulema and a public endorsement by two mainstream Muslim organisations, represents the failure of the elusive “Third Force”, so desperately sought by Muslims sick of Congress-NCP.

Meanwhile Times Of India, as the major English-language newspaper of Mumbai, had played a very controversial role in the coverage of Muslim affairs. The recent Triple Talaq hoopla and a serious face-off between Muslim ‘fundamentalist’ and ‘Muslim progressives’ was triggered by Time of India’s tongue in cheek reporting. S. Balakrishnan, its longtime seasoned chief reporter, had been going after Muslim candidate of Samajwadi Party, Dr. Khalil Memon, who was pitted against a former Samajwadi Party deserter, Bashir Patel. Balakrishnan ‘exposed’ Memon as a relative of Dawood Ibrahim and pointedly remarked the large number of election workers available to him in his Dongri election office. That mention of the boys in TOI report, was picked up by the Mumbai police, who dutifully picked all 49 of them before and on Election Day, as ‘precautionary measure’ and left the candidate running around trying to get their release. 

In general, Balakrishnan reports if read between the lines, followed the brief of Sharad Pawar, who virtually runs Maharashtra’s ‘secular establishment’ and did come out with top counts, besting even the Congress. It is mind-boggling how some media people are not only able to report which way the wind is blowing, but have been able to force the wind to blow in whichever directions they point. 

Another correspondent in the news about Maharashtra Assembly elections was none other than the suave and articulate NDTV’s glamour boy, Rajdeep Sardesai. His quick analytical mind and incisive repartee had given cold sweat to many on his line of relentless firings. But this election time, he was on the wrong side of Shiv Sena chief, Bal Thackerey. Thoroughly upset with his party’s thrashing in the election, Thackerey spilled his spleen on Rajdeep, using some very unparliamantary and rude language in an ‘explative laden’ 800-word editorial in his Saamna mouthpiece. 

The heartburns over the results of the elections in Maharashtra are exceptionally hurting and there is some uneasiness in various quarters that might result in some very disturbing developments, especially in relation to law and order situation under Congress watch. The calm after the stormy elections may turn into calm before the storm. Congress’s successes may be pyrrhic and may unleash widespread disaffection in so many quarters, that peace, democracy and secularism all may suffer the anointing of Congress over so many disgruntled detractors. It will be extremely difficult for Sonia Gandhi to convince her adversaries that hers was a well-deserved victory. The coming back of Advani at the helm of BJP is just the beginning. Sonia will have to resort to unleashing her celebrated charms to win friends all around, so that the ship of state may sail in calmer waters.


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