The battle for Central India

Advantage Congress: The party has the best chance since 15 years to win MP, Chhattisgarh. Will it?

Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s own plight aptly reflects his party’s vulnerabilities in the poll-bound state where voting is scheduled on November 28.

 Like in the 2008 and 2013 assembly elections, the chief minister is the pivot around whom electioneering is revolving in the state. The BJP has put all its eggs in his basket and the Congress is targeting him more than targeting his party. However, unlike in the previous polls, Chouhan no longer looks like the knight in shining armour with his juggernaut rolling thunderously across the Central Indian state.

 Chinks in the armour are increasingly visible as campaigning starts to peak. What was unthinkable in the past has happened to a beleaguered Chouhan in this election: he is facing a formidable challenger in former Madhya Pradesh Congress president Arun Yadav in the Budni constituency, where Chouhan has sailed through breezily four times in the past, in 1990, 2006, 2008 and 2013; he was booed by the public during his Jan Ashirvad Yatra at many places; a slipper was hurled at him in one town; he had to abruptly abort the Yatra due to poor public response; his brother-in-law Sanjay Singh Masani defected from BJP to Congress; his wife Sadhna Singh got an earful on two occasions last week from angry women during campaigning in Budni.

 All these clearly indicate that Chouhan is battling severe anti-incumbency. He has ruled the state since 2005, unencumbered by any visible dissent from within. In his 13 years as chief minister, Chouhan had seen to it that no one within the party rose high enough to pose a challenge to his leadership. Therefore, the task of salvaging the government for a fourth term from the quagmire of public resentment lies squarely on his shoulders. Opinion polls suggest he may not be equal to the task.

 Doubts about Chouhan’s chances of retaining power stem from many factors. For one, a resurgent Congress under state party chief Kamal Nath’s leadership looks more united and determined than it has ever been since it was routed in 2003. For another, people don’t seem to be willing to be swayed by either communal or casteist electoral ploys. More importantly, rebels of the BJP have queered the pitch for nearly two dozen party candidates, a clear indication that Chouhan’s writ no longer runs in the party. In previous elections, just a phone call from Chouhan was enough for rebel candidates to withdraw nominations.

 One leader’s imposing presence this time has upset the BJP’s calculations in the run up to the polls -- Kamal Nath. His organisational capacity, clout with the party high command and ability to ensure a facade of unity among top party leaders have inspired belief among the rank and file that this election is winnable. To the delight of Congress workers, Kamal Nath has outsmarted the BJP leadership, be it in stealing a march over Hindutva or in candidate selection or poaching dissidents from the BJP.

 A comparative journey of the two parties in the last few months provides an useful insight into their changing fortunes. The Vyapam scam has, of course, been an albatross round Chouhan’s neck since the multi-crore job-cum-admission swindle surfaced in 2013. However, anti-incumbency against his government has really begun to surface in the last two years. It was manifest in the upper castes’ simmering anger over Chouhan’s rather unwise “mai ka lal” remark during a meeting with SC/ST government employees in 2016. Chouhan had said, “Koi mai ka lal aarakshan khatm nahi kar sakta jab tak main chief minister hoon (No one can scrap reservation so long as I’m chief minister)”. This caused a wave of anger among the BJP’s upper caste vote bank. Sensing this, Chouhan undertook a political pilgrimage of the Narmada, which connected him to 144 constituencies along the river. However, the extravagant journey proved counterproductive. While he was away from Bhopal, the agrarian crisis in the state was brewing. It erupted suddenly in June last year. The farmers hit the streets to demand, among other things, remunerative prices for their produce. Police resorted to force to quell the agitating farmers. In Mandsaur, six farmers were killed.

Since then, Chouhan’s popularity graph has plummeted. All his moves to placate the farmers in the aftermath of the bloodied stir bred more ill-will. No amount of lollypop offered to the farmers could restore their trust in the BJP government. However, while anger against the government was mounting, Congress was still not viewed as a viable alternative. Chouhan still had the benefit of the TINA (there is no alternative) factor.

Popular perception about the Congress began to change after Kamal Nath took over as state party chief, infusing fresh energy into the organisation. However, doubts about Congress’s ability to oust the BJP persisted. 

Only by September did the trio of Kamal Nath, Digvijay Singh and Jyotiraditya Scindia manage to quell the doubts to a large extent. They undertook different responsibilities but worked in tandem. Kamal Nath took up the task of reviving the organisation, Digvijay leveraged his pan-Madhya Pradesh image to galvanise idle workers and Scindia deployed his charm offensive through public rallies. Their combined efforts bore fruit.

The Congress also tactfully negotiated the anti-reservation protests that had threatened to spawn caste conflict in the state. The BJP government failed on this count. The soft versus hard Hindutva narrative built up in the media following the Congress’ announcement to open cowsheds in all village panchayats and construct the mythical path traversed by Lord Rama during his exile gave jitters to the BJP. Congress president Rahul Gandhi’s temple-hopping in Madhya Pradesh further upset the ruling party.

Before the BJP could unleash its brand of Hindutva to counter the Congress, Kamal Nath switched gears. He launched a 40-question series to discomfit the chief minister. The BJP government chose to ignore the uncomfortable questions on its performance on a range of issues. It was again ‘Advantage Congress’.

The acid test for the Congress was to avert insidious rebellion, which is a bane of the party, following declaration of candidates. On this count, too, the Congress is seen to have fared better than the BJP.   But the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Will Congress be able to convert its advantage into votes on a scale enough to turn the 165-58 score of the 2013 assembly election into a majority for itself? We will know on December 11.

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The battle for Central India

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