Goodbye to traditional poll and politics

The era of conventional politics is over, says Avinash Pandey, a senior Congress leader and the man from Nagpur who defeated union minister Nitin Gadkari in student’s council elections in 1977

An election ‘war room’ of the Congress
An election ‘war room’ of the Congress

Pavan Dahat/Nagpur

The 63-year-old had defeated union minister Nitin Gadkari in student’s council elections for Nagpur university in 1977. “It was one of the first elections after the loss of Indira Gandhi in elections post Emergency. Nitin Gadkari was the ABVP (Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad) candidate for the post of General Secretary of Nagpur University Student’s Council and I was the NSUI candidate and I managed to defeat Mr. Gadkari,” Avinash Pande recalls with a chuckle.

He was not inclined towards joining politics full time. But it was a popular Congress leader from Vidarbha, Shrikant Jichkar, who persuaded him to change his mind. Jichkar, who had cracked the UPSC and had been selected for Class A services, had impressive academic credentials but had opted for politics and became an MLA. His promising career was cut short when he died tragically young.

But for Avinash Pande, it was a turning point. At the age of 25 he was fielded to contest the election for the East Nagpur Assembly constituency. Surviving multiple attacks during the campaign, when petrol and torches were flung at him, he won the election convincingly.

He was denied a ticket in the next election, he suspects, because he fell foul of a powerful satrap in the state. The same leader, he alleges, ensured his defeat in 2006 in the election to fill up the Rajya Sabha seat fallen vacant following the demise of Pramod Mahajan. But he secured 19 more votes than the strength of the party in the assembly, he recalls.

From being one of the youngest MLAs in Maharashtra assembly in 1985 to Rajya Sabha MP in 2010 and from being the NSUI Maharashtra president in 1981 to AICC General Secretary in 2018, Pande has been a Congressman over the past four decades.

One of his sweetest and most satisfying moments came when he helped the party to win the Rajasthan Assembly election in 2018 against heavy odds. He was in-charge of the state in the AICC and set up a war room in Jaipur, roped in younger workers from Maharashtra and launched a ‘Sampark and Samvad’ campaign a year before the polling to reach out to Congress workers.

Every time Congress lost an election, he is amused to recall, media pundits would go overboard in waxing eloquent about BJP’s strategies, election management and ‘Chanakya Neeti’.

“It was during the 2007 Gujarat assembly elections when I was AICC training coordinator. I was working with Ahmed Patel and a coordinated approach was first explored in Bharuch but on a small scale.” He was in Uttar Pradesh during 2009 Lok Sabha elections when a somewhat similar strategy was implemented.

He was appointed general secretary in-charge of Rajasthan in May 2017 with hardly 18 months for the state assembly election and Congress’s tally in the then outgoing assembly was 22 out of the total 200 assembly seats.

He put together a team led by Prafull Gudadhe Patil, who had contested election against former Maharashtra CM Devendra Fadnavis in 2014, and former researcher and activist from Pune Jinda Sandbhor.

Pande immediately began the “Congress Sashaktikaran” programme in July 2017 which was aimed at assessing the electoral health of the party in all 200 assembly segments in the state.

He divided each assembly segment in two blocks and tasked every party leader, no matter how senior he or she was, to travel and assess the party’s “health” and interact with Congress workers and the common public and collect data. But only after they went through a few training sessions.

The Congress leaders were asked to assess every aspect in these 400 blocks be it social, political equations or media or social media status.

“The result was well before a year of the assembly election, we had complete data about social and political dynamics, media and social media status from all 400 blocks in the state. “We were planning and calculating every single day. Ashok Gehlot and Sachin Pilot contributed immensely to this effort,” Pande claimed.

On the polling day the war room was able to help party workers with every issue, be it fake voters or malfunctioning VVPATs or EVMs or threats from the opponents.

Congress went on to win 101 seats and left BJP trailing at 73. The strategy and the planning did not work in 2019, he says, because of the various national trends dominating the election. Pulwama?

In Maharashtra in 2019, he had just 28 days to put together everything. The party won 42 of the 125 seats it contested.

“The era of conventional politics is over now. You have to adapt to changing times,” he adds by way of a parting shot.

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