In and around the luxury hotel abutting the picturesque Powai Lake in suburban Mumbai, dramatic scenes unfolded throughout Wednesday. The 12 rebel MLAs from Karnataka were holed up there for two previous nights, and had presumably written a letter to Mumbai’s Police Commissioner that they “feared a threat” to their lives from Congress leader DK Shivakumar, who may come there.

When the pugnacious leader arrived, a posse of policemen stopped him from entering the plush hotel, ignored that he had a reservation in there, and detained him.

This transpired before 8:30 AM. The cops then read out Section 144 of the Indian Penal Code, prohibiting an assembly of people at the site.

For the next few hours, Shivakumar sat on an impromptu dharna, communicated with friends back home, and spoke to television cameras. Not one Congress leader from Mumbai or Maharashtra came to the Powai hotel to show solidarity and offer support.

What Snub To Milind Deora Says About The State Of The Congress

Milind Deora, son of the late Murli Deora and junior minister in the Manmohan Singh government who lost the prestigious Mumbai (South) Lok Sabha seat for the second time in a row in the general election this May, and stepped down as Mumbai unit chief, drove in well past 1:30 PM. Then his predecessor, Sanjay Nirupam, came by; former state minister Arif Naseem Khan dropped in, as did a motley group of Congress workers. Here’s the nub – Deora attempted to negotiate a way out for Shivakumar to meet the MLAs inside – seven Congress, three JD(S) and two independents – but he was rebuffed.

When Milind Deora’s presence and word have no currency in a Mumbai establishment, it says a lot.

It’s also a reflection on the state of the Congress and the lack of gravitas that informs people’s engagement with it.

Since 23 May this year, when the party won only one Lok Sabha seat from Maharashtra, it has all but gone into a stupor. When (former) party president Rahul Gandhi stepped down from his leadership position, state leaders believed that handing in their resignations – to whom, was a conundrum – would absolve them of their responsibility, and they could quietly walk into the sunset. Or join the BJP.

Congress: A Pale Shadow Of Its Former Self, Unmindful Of An Assembly Election in 90 Days

Ashok Chavan, former chief minister and till recently state president, chose to resign. He could not win from his home turf Nanded, though he was one of the two who had five years ago.

Radhakrishna Vikhe Patil, of the well-known political family with its fingers in many cooperatives in Ahmednagar, has been the leader of the Opposition in the state assembly since October 2014. He kept his channels to the BJP open, was unwilling to confront chief minister Devendra Fadnavis on any issue inside or outside the legislature, and eventually managed a BJP ticket for son Sujay this LS election. Within weeks, he had hopped across, and now sits as cabinet minister in the BJP government.

Then, of course, there are Nirupam and Deora who could not see eye to eye on six LS seats in Mumbai and had to be prodded into supporting Shivakumar this week.

With such ‘excellent’ and ‘inspiring’ leadership, is it any surprise that the Congress appears a pale shadow of its former self, seemingly unmindful that it faces an assembly election within 90 days, unwilling to pull up its socks and get down to serious political work? Fadnavis and his bosses in Delhi must be rubbing their hands in glee at the possible rout they will hand to this party in October.

Cong’s Inability To Sort Out Its Leadership Mess Will Hurt State Units

It’s not only in Karnataka or Maharashtra that the absence of leadership is hurting; Goa’s Congress MLAs cohort split or was engineered to split, with 10 of the 15 joining the BJP. The Telangana Rashtra Samithi lost an MLA and his supporters to the BJP this week. The bets are piling up for when a belligerent BJP will pull the rug in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan which has Congress governments.

Taking on the BJP’s political machine calls for the Congress to rebuild the party, re-purpose its rank and file, re-finance its war chest.

All this needs strong and visionary leadership. The Congress party’s inability to sort out its leadership tangle is hurting its state units, it was bound to.

In 2014 Maharashtra Assembly polls, the Congress managed to win 42 of the 288 seats; its ally, Sharad Pawar’s Nationalist Congress Party, bagged 41. They are now down to 40 each, after MLAs including Vikhe Patil crossed over.

The BJP had won 122 seats and the Shiv Sena 63 seats in that election. The two saffron parties have inked their alliance for the polls ahead.

However troublesome and argumentative each has been with the other, the two parties accept that their electoral strength lies together.

Individually and collectively, they have begun their outreach to voters, put their electoral systems in place, and have taken off from where they left in April-May. Fadnavis and Uddhav Thackeray are aligned on the electioneering, if nothing else. They have not even paused to factor in Raj Thackeray this time, given that his rousing rallies in April yielded nothing to the Congress or NCP.

Raj Thackeray Shows More Political Purpose Than Congress At This Point

In the Congress, there has been no reflection on the decision to field the pugnacious, entertaining and factually sharp Raj Thackeray as its de facto chief campaigner through March-April. In 2009, he had helped split the Sena-BJP votes and hand Congress-NCP its victory. His party had 13 seats in that Assembly. In 2014, he was smitten with Narendra Modi and endlessly praised him. He drew a blank at the polls. In 2019, he was mocking Modi and searching for his own political relevance.

Post-May, Raj Thackeray and his Maharashtra Navnirman Sena have shown some purpose. He visited New Delhi – his last trip was 14 years ago – to impress upon the Election Commission that EVMs are untrustworthy, and polling must be done via ballot boxes. He then sought a meeting with former Congress president Sonia Gandhi.

No Maharashtra leader has bothered to approach the EC to demand ballot box polling in the Assembly election.

When Raj Thackeray, dubbed as a ‘part-time’ politician some years ago, shows more political purpose than the Congress, it shows how much of a nadir the Grand Old Party has hit.

The organisation may be around, in fragmented bits and pieces, but it will not stir itself to work without leadership, direction, purpose and resources.

In the absence of leadership – both at the Centre and in the state – the other three are unlikely to fall into place.

New Cong Maharashtra Chief Is A Better Backroom Strategist Than A Frontman

Sharad Pawar has been waiting to speak to Congress leaders to firm up the alliance and take the seat-sharing discussion ahead. From Ashok Chavan and Prithviraj Chavan and Sushil Kumar Shinde, everyone engaged with him, but they all said it was at an informal level. Shinde was appointed to head a committee to examine if and how an alliance could be worked out with Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi, led by Prakash Ambedkar and Asaduddin Owaisi. The irony was lost on the party – Shinde, a Dalit, could not win from Solapur against the force of the new outfit.

The state unit finally got a chief this week – Balasaheb Thorat, former cabinet minister and a regional heavy-weight also from Ahmednagar. A quiet and contained man, he is a better backroom strategist, but has been forced to lead.

He fills a vacuum but does not fit the job profile that the party now needs. Even if the party were to have an aggressive and resourceful chief, as say Shivakumar is in Karnataka, what support and empowerment can he expect from the central leadership such as it exists? What should the state unit fight for, ideologically and practically?

The lack of clarity in central leadership and lingering question of party president has hurt the party’s state units already.

Congress Must Rediscover Its Will To Fight

We do not have a general leading the fight – what fight are we going to put up whether to win elections or save governments, asked a spokesperson. Maharashtra’s issues are many – farmers’ suicides, which the Fadnavis government itself admits number a staggering 12,000 in three years from 2015 to 2018 is a glaring one – but a listless and resource-less Congress is silent.

It took Waris Pathan of AIMIM to urge the entire Opposition to join forces on this issue; the AIMIM has only two MLAs (one of them is now a MP).

Congress leaders say in private conversations that the future looks bleak not because the Opposition seems invincible but because the party is drifting.

It would be possible to fight back, whether in Karnataka or Goa or in Maharashtra’s election booths, but the will to fight must be rediscovered. If the party’s top leaders prefer to go into the dying light, as it were, there is little incentive for others to rage.