C-19, Shivaji Nagar is one of the two most famous addresses in Bhopal, the other being 6, Shyamla Hills, the Chief Minister’s official residence. The then Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister, late Arjun Singh, had the C-19 allotted to him after he demitted office in 1985. Later the veteran Congress leader left Bhopal to Delhi, leaving his son Ajay Singh, aka Rahul Bhaiya, to occupy this magnificent bungalow. Six-time MLA from Churhat assembly seat, Ajay Singh was re-elected leader of opposition after a gap of three years on February 23.
He has succeeded late Satya Deo Katare, who died in October after a prolonged illness. Katare, a Brahmin, was nominated leader of opposition by the high command on Jyotiraditya Scindia’s recommendation, though he sorely lacked majority support. No wonder then that he miserably failed in infusing enthusiasm among the MLAs to take on the Shivraj Singh government in the house. Katare’s illness had deprived the Congress MLAs an effective leadership within the assembly and that poorly reflected in the opposition’s performance in the last three years.
Outside the assembly too, PCC chief Arun Yadav’s lackluster leadership has demoralised the Congress cadres. Yadav’s style of working with only a small coterie has increasingly alienated Congress cadres across the State. In the last three years, the Congress has suffered a series of defeats in various elections, the latest being the Shahdol parliamentary by election in November last year.
Among top Congress leaders in Madhya Pradesh, Ajay Singh has lived longest in Bhopal at his permanent address. Other leaders, such as former Chief Minister Digvijay Singh, Kamal Nath and Suresh Pachori, rarely come to the State capital, though they too have official bungalows allotted to them here. Present State Congress chief, Arun Yadav, started living in Bhopal three years ago after he was nominated to the post. But Yadav too prefers to spend more time in his home town Khargone than Bhopal.
Living in Bhopal has helped Ajay Singh in no small way in winning support of a majority of the 58 Congress MLAs in the 230-strong State assembly. His lively contact with party men, including MLAs, has got him the leader of opposition post a second time. Congress high command’s observer Ajay Makan, who had come to Bhopal to gauge the MLAs preference for the leader of opposition, reported back that it had to be Singh. Singh’s residence is abuzz with comings and goings of supporters whose number has swelled after he was elected leader of opposition.
On the other hand, the residences of Kamal Nath, Digvijay Singh and Suresh Pachori wear deserted look except when these leaders air-dash to Bhopal, which is rare. Their respective followers across the State throng to the bungalows to welcome the leaders and disperse as soon as the leaders are gone. Guna-Shivpuri Lok Sabha member, Jyotiraditya Scindia, has no residence in Bhopal. Undoubtedly, Scindia is the most active MP in Madhya Pradesh, but his activities remain confined to only his constituency. He is not acknowledged as a pan-Madhya Pradesh leader.
Occasional appearance of Congress stalwarts in Madhya Pradesh, particularly in Bhopal, has left their supporters with little work to do except wait long to welcome their leaders when they arrive in Madhya Pradesh. In the last 13 years, since the Congress was routed by the BJP in the State, Congress workers’ major pastime seems to be wistfully remembering the time when the party was in power. The idle nostalgia has only grown more poignant each passing day as the BJP under Shivraj’s leadership has strengthened its grip over the voters, wantonly abusing the State machinery.
HOWEVER, February 22 was the day when, albeit briefly, it looked as though all this might change for better for the Congress. In a rare show of unity, all Congress bigwigs from the State came on a dais to give a clarion call to the party workers to oust the Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s “corrupt” government. The show had a desired effect. After over a decade, the Congress workers looked galvanised and charged.
Led by senior party leaders Kamal Nath, Jyotiraditya Scindia, Digvijaya Singh and Suresh Pachouri, thousands of party workers courted arrest amid heavy security arrangements.
Although the day-long protest and the State assembly’s gherao bore a sense of déjà vu—mild cane charge by police, scramble among workers to climb on the stage, enthusiastic sloganeering, traffic chaos, rush of adrenaline, passionate speeches, serious allegations of mis-governance and corruption against Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan, etc.—seven takeaways from the mega show were inescapable.
One, Jyotiraditya Scindia is keen to emerge as pan-Madhya Pradesh leader. In terms of numbers of banner-posters showing his photographs and supporters, the scion of the erstwhile Gwalior state outshone all other party leaders.
Two, former Union minister Kamal Nath too wants to break free from the image of Chhindawara ka Neta. Renovation works at his Bhopal bungalow in the run up to the unity show has fuelled speculation about Nath’s ambition to play a bigger role in Madhya Pradesh Congress politics. His cryptic remark, “I am prepared to shoulder any responsibility that high command bestows on me,” has created quite a buzz in the party circles.
THREE, former Chief Minister Digvijaya Singh seems to have reconciled to his role as a sort of ‘Marg Darshak’ in the State Congress politics. Very few posters-banners bore Diggi Raja‘s photographs, an indication of his declining clout in the State.
Four, State Congress chief Arun Yadav‘s rather lackluster term might end after the Uttar Pradesh election. Speculation about his imminent exit has been rife ever since the Congress lost the Shahdol parliamentary by election in November last year.
Five, workers enthusiasm in the meet has inspired the stalwarts to contemplate another ‘Dabra conclave’ to stabilise the unity among various factions. In the run up to the 1993 assembly election in Madhya Pradesh, late Madhavrao Scindia had successfully initiated a unity meet at Dabra town in Gwalior district. It translated into Congress victory in the assembly election.
Six, tone and tenor of the party leaders’ speeches indicated that Chief Minister Shivraj Singh’s family members will be the main targets of the Congress attacks in future. The February 22 protest was dominated by allegations as to how Shivraj’s family members and close aides have been milking State’s natural resources such as sand, minerals, etc.
Seven, party workers are also desperate to persuade their factional leaders to bury the hatchet and work unitedly so that 14 years of vanvas from power ends soon.
Grand success of the unity show notwithstanding, the Congress has a task cut out for it. If it is really keen to put up a formidable challenge to the Shivraj government, the moribund Congress has to galvanise the cadre at the grassroots level. The 13 years of uninterrupted BJP rule has enfeebled the opposition immeasurably. Congress leaders have done precious little to lift up the workers’ sagging morale.
While the Chief Minister remains almost perennially in election mode with each of his government’s scheme being targeted to woo various sections of the voters, the Congress leadership has miserably failed to counter the ruling party’s ‘development’ narrative. Issues have been aplenty for the Congress to arraign the government, but lack of effective leadership and coordinated strategies have plagued the party ever since it lost power.
Congress leaders feel unless the mystique around the Chief Minister as ‘development man’ is effectively crushed, the party cannot hope to revive its fortune in the run-up to the forthcoming assembly elections. That was apparent in the February 22 show. All speeches revolved around attacking the Chief Minister for allegedly patronising illegal sand mining by his relatives, protecting accused in the Vyapam scam and milking State machinery to shine his image.