IT’S tempting to project the Madhya Pradesh assembly elections to be held later this year as a Kamal vs Kamal contest—the BJP’s party symbol versus the MP Congress Committee president, Kamal Nath. It is also being perceived as a three versus one fight.
The three MP Congress bigwigs, Kamal Nath, Jyotiraditya Scindia and Digvijaya Singh, have buried their differences to take on the three-time Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan of the BJP. Interestingly, none of the three have been projected as Congress’s chief ministerial candidate. Instead, the party has fielded the three heavyweights in the state in various capacities to take on the might of the BJP.
The BJP, on its part, is not banking on Chouhan this time to deliver the goods. Sensing a strong anti-incumbency sentiment against the sitting chief minister, BJP president Amit Shah told party workers on May 4 in Bhopal that the next election in MP would be fought by the organisation.
The battle lines are already drawn in this three versus one contest, even though the assembly polls are five months away. The Congress troika has got down to the urgent business of reviving the moribund Congress organisation. Their main rival, the Chief Minister, too has got into full election mode, showering bonanzas on different sections of the voters with an eye on the upcoming elections. The pivot of Congress’s strategy revolves around tapping into the accumulated public anger against the 15-year rule of the BJP. Chouhan, on the other hand, is relying on government resources, the party’s formidable organisational network in the state and the heft of its electoral muscle under Shah.
Neither the Congress nor the chief minister is leaving anything to chance in pursuit of their goal. After being out of power for 15 years, it is a do-or-die battle for the Congress in the state. The BJP is also acutely conscious of the fact that defeat in three states—MP, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan—could sound the death knell for the party’s dream to recapture Delhi in the 2019 parliamentary election.
In the run-up to the high-stake election, each of the four players is grappling with different fault lines. For Nath, the most formidable challenge is to acclimatise himself with the rough and tumble of street politics as MPCC President. Although, he is the senior most Congress leader in the state, he carries the reputation of a fun-loving king of his citadel—Chhindwara—who is more comfortable in Delhi’s air-conditioned drawing-room strategies.
THE Guna Lok Sabha member, Jyotiraditya Scindia, who is the head of the party’s campaign committee, too carried a similar cross until a couple of years ago. But the scion of the erstwhile Gwalior family has worked hard to shed that image by reaching out to the Congress workers across the state. Still, the satrap of the Gwalior-Chambal region needs to work harder if he wants to emerge as a pan-Madhya Pradesh leader.
Digvijaya, who has been tasked with coordinating with all the committees that the MPCC has formed to win the election, has endured the humiliation of being described as the chief destroyer of the party for a long time. But, thanks to his arduous Narmada circumambulation that kept him away from active political and social life for six month until April this year, the former Chief Minister has regained his prestige to a great extent. He is the only pan-Madhya Pradesh leader of the three. All through his famous Narmada Yatra with his much younger second wife, Digvijaya was welcomed by party workers. The yatra has contributed immensely towards his image makeover. He is no longer trolled on social media as an irresponsible, anti-Hindu leader, who is more of a liability than an asset for the party.
Of the four players, Chief Minister Chouhan is dealing with the worst image crisis. He is now likened to Digvijaya of the 2003 vintage. In the run-up to the 2003 assembly elections, the BJP had invented ‘Mr. Bantadhar” as a sobriquet for the former chief minister. The damage it caused was so deep that the Congress’s tally in the election shrunk to 38 seats in an assembly of 230. In 2018, Chouhan, more or less, stares at a similar fate. His stock within the party has fallen so much that BJP MLAs say they would rather not have him in their constituency for campaigning for the fear of losing.
AN ABP-CSDS opinion poll confirms that Digvijaya’s fate in 2003 awaits Shivraj Singh Chouhan in the next election. Anti-incumbency against his 14 years of uninterrupted rule is so massive that the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) poll predicted a staggering 15 percent vote share difference between the BJP and the Congress.
According to the Mood of The Nation survey conducted by the CSDS for the ABP news channel, the Congress is likely to get 49 percent vote share, while the BJP might secure just 34 percent of votes if the elections to the 230-member assembly were held in May. The survey was conducted in the third week of May, nearly six months ahead of the assembly elections in the state.
Political observers and poll pundits say that the trend is not only irreversible, but is likely to intensify in the months ahead, further increasing the gap between the ruling party and the main opposition. Translated into seats, the 15 percent vote share difference could get the Congress 160 to 170 seats, while the BJP’s tally could shrink from the present 166 to 40 or 50 seats.
Significantly, the opinion poll did not factor in the possibility of pre-poll alliances between the Congress and other small opposition parties. Both the Congress and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) could improve their seat tally in a big way by entering into a pre-poll alliance in the forthcoming elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh.
A pre-poll alliance between the Congress and BSP could be the game changer in these elections. The BSP has a solid vote share of nearly seven percent. Should the Congress and BSP agree to join hands, the combined vote share of the alliance could go up to as high as 56 percent, translating into a seat share of 180.
The BJP high-command is not oblivious to Chouhan’s unpopularity. Shah has denied him the opportunity to become the chief ministerial candidate again. Shah came to Bhopal on May 4 primarily to convey this bad news to the chief minister. Sensing deep anguish among the party workers against the chief minister, the BJP president declared that the high-command would prefer the organisation rather than rely on the chief minister for campaigning. The announcement came as a huge shock to Chouhan and his staunch supporters.
Recently, Chouhan tacitly acknowledged his exclusion from the chief ministerial race by reasoning that elections are won on performance and not on the projected chief minister’s face. It’s noteworthy that he claimed exactly the opposite in the run-up to the two previous assembly elections in 2008 and 2013.
But the million dollar question is whether the anti-incumbency factor against the Chouhan is strong enough for the voters to ignore all the weaknesses of the Congress? Are the voters so angry with the BJP that they will prefer anybody over a ruling party candidate? These two questions are crucial, since the election outcome hinges on them.
Organisationally, the Congress is still weak, though the new MPCC chief and his team are making serious efforts to revive it at all levels. The shape of the state Congress has undergone a sea change since Nath took over as the MPCC president. Known for his lavish lifestyle, the businessman-politician has infused his characteristic panache in the organisation’s office too. The MPCC headquarters located in the posh Shivaji Nagar area of Bhopal looks livelier and swankier than it used to be even when the party was in power in the state until 2003. Within weeks of assuming charge, the new state Congress president transformed the look of the office from being a typically listless outpost to a buzzing corporate workplace.
This was the first major decision he took after taking charge on May 1. The millionaire high-flyer, and owner of two private jets, has ushered in other changes too that are not merely cosmetic. The office hosts regular meetings of Congress workers from across the state; media briefings have become more business like; a large number of spokespersons and TV panellists have been drafted in; new office bearers in their respective rooms diligently attend to calls and representations duly received from party workers from across the state. Most important, no one in the office cribs about resource crunch that plagued its functioning earlier.
At the organisational level too, the Congress has taken some swift and drastic decisions in its attempt to remove the perception that its Madhya Pradesh body is too faction-ridden and dormant to take on the BJP.
IN a rare show of unity, the three top leaders expressed happiness with the tasks they have been entrusted with. The old guard, who felt they were sidelined all these years, have also been accommodated in various committees to make them feel a part of the campaign to oust the BJP. The appointment of District Congress Committees (DCCs) chiefs, which remained in limbo for years, has been made. All offices of the Congress, from the block to the state level, are buzzing with activity.
A senior Congress leader said that he is seeing the revival of the Dabra spirit. Dabra is a small town, 45 km north of Gwalior, where the late Madhavrao Scinidia hosted a conclave of all senior Congress leaders in the run-up to the 1993 assembly election. The leaders in Dabra vowed to bury the hatchet for the sake of party’s victory. The show of unity paid off as the Congress won the assembly poll. Since then, Dabra is remembered in the state as a metaphor for unity.
While cherishing the Dabra spirit, the Congress, however, realises that much water has flowed down the Narmada since 1993 when the party had a strong base down to the village level. The 15 years of BJP rule has seen continuous disintegration of the organisation.
THAT’S the reason all Congress leaders in the state are unanimous that the party must align with other smaller political outfits, especially the BSP to ensure a convincing victory. The Karnataka assembly result has also acted as a catalyst for the leadership group’s resolve to join hands with the BSP and the Samajwadi Party (SP) ahead of the assembly elections.
The Congress learnt useful lessons from the fractured mandate in the southern state. It could have been a clear majority, had the Congress and the Janata Dal (Secular) entered into a pre-election pact. That the two parties still managed to cobble together a post-poll alliance to form a rag-tag government is a poor consolation for what could have been achieved. Like the Janata Dal (S) in Karnataka, the BSP could prove to be a spoiler for the Congress in Madhya Pradesh, unless they agree on seat sharing before the elections.
The vote share distribution from the 2013 assembly elections, however, indicates that the ruling BJP has an edge over the combined strength of the Congress and the BSP. The BSP polled 6.29 percent; the Congress polled 36.38 percent, while the BJP enjoyed a 44.88 percent vote share. The combined strength of the Congress and the BSP was 42.67 percent, which was two percent less than the ruling party. The BSP won four seats and finished number two or three in 29 seats. The Congress had to be content with 58 seats in the 230-strong assembly.
But Congress leaders say these numbers don’t reflect the ground reality. “The two percent gap in last election makes no sense today. The BJP is facing the strongest anti-incumbency in the 15 years of its rule, which could translate into losing as high as eight percent votes in the 2018 election,” says Manak Agrawal, MPCC chief media incharge.
The BSP has consolidated its base in districts adjoining Uttar Pradesh such as Bhind and Morena in the Chambal region as well as Rewa and Satna in the Vindhya region. In other districts too, the party has its cadre base, which though not very strong, can mar the Congress’s chances of victory. The BSP is banking on Dalit angst against the BJP to increase its vote and seat share. In April this year, Bhind and Morena districts witnessed violent Dalit agitation, which resulted in the death of eight persons in police firing. The agitation was against the Supreme Court’s controversial ruling that is viewed as dilution of the SC/ST act.
Scheduled castes, which comprise 21 percent of the state’s population, have 37 seats reserved for them. The BJP won 25 of them in the previous polls, primarily due to the fact that the Congress and the BSP contested separately. When the BSP opted out of electoral race in Chitrakoot (Satna) and Ater (Bhind) assembly by-election in 2017, the Congress defeated the BJP by a significant margin.
The twin victories convinced the Congress that reaching out to the BSP was imperative to prevent the BJP from regaining Madhya Pradesh for a fourth time in a row. The Congress party is also holding discussions with other like-minded parties such as Samajwadi Party (SP) and Gondwana Gantantra Party (GGP), a political outfit of the tribals. MP has 47 seats reserved for tribals.
The SP is a fringe player in Madhya Pradesh, mainly confined to Bhind and Morena districts adjoining Uttar Pradesh. But it has chipped away enough votes in successive elections in the past two decades to harm the Congress in at least a dozen seats.
Congress sources say the party might be inclined to offer 25 to 30 seats to the BSP and five to SP. However, formal discussion with either BSP supremo Mayawati or SP chief Akhilesh Yadav is yet to begin.
“We are holding discussions with everybody. The BJP wins because of fragmentation of the opposition votes and that will be stopped. The pre-poll arrangement won’t be just based on arithmetic. It will be arithmetic plus politics,” says Nath.
On the other hand, the organisation is the BJP’s biggest strength in Madhya Pradesh, where the party from its erstwhile avatar as the Jansangh grew from strength-to-strength since early 1950s, even when the Congress citadel looked impregnable. But galvanising the organisation and motivating the workers, mostly from the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) cadres, in support of the sitting BJP MLAs is a formidable challenge for the leadership.
PARTY workers have been voicing their anger against the sitting lawmakers for years at all possible forums, within and outside the party, but their anguish remained largely unaddressed. Their main grouse is that while MLAs are busy feathering their own nest, the loyal rank and file often gets a raw deal from the government.
The cadre is also unhappy because in its view the Chief Minister has allowed himself to be surrounded by a coterie of chosen bureaucrats, who are completely cut off from the ground realities.
At the root of their disenchantment is the all-pervasive corruption in the government. The Vyapam scam, India’s biggest job-cum-admission racket, of course, is the most notorious manifestation of organised swindle that the Chouhan government is accused of. The government’s tentative and ever changing policies aimed at providing remunerative prices to farmers have done more harm than good due to their shoddy and corruption-ridden implementation. Most of these policies have ended up enriching the traders, middlemen and bureaucrats at the expense of the farmers.