A PRELUDE TO 2019?
HOW A FACTION-RIDDEN CONGRESS GOT ITS ACT TOGETHER TO POSE A SERIOUS CHALLENGE TO THE BJP IN MADHYA PRADESH. BUT HAS IT DONE ENOUGH?
PM Modi’s entry into the campaign was always going to be tricky for the Congress. But the party has got its act together and poses a serious challenge to the BJP
Consensus may have eluded Madhya Pradesh Congress leaders in the past, but they have all gotten around to believing that this assembly election is a ‘now or never’ moment. Going by the numerous surveys, the gut feeling in the Congress camp is that it has locked the ruling BJP in a tight contest and could well be within striking distance of power. As campaigning drew to a close on November 26, the focus was on keeping the momentum and avoiding costly mistakes. Congress president Rahul Gandhi and state president Kamal Nath issued public appeals, reiterating the promises made by the party and seeking support.
Factionalism aside, analysts see the state Congress’s spirited electioneering as a far cry from its past campaigns. For one, the top leaders had their task cut out. Former chief minister Digvijaya Singh, who was not at the forefront of the campaign, was engaged in behind-thescenes manoeuvring to contain the damage by party rebels contesting the election. Digvijaya, who was instructed to ensure unity post-ticket distribution, managed to prevail on rebels like Nasir Islam and Sajid Ali in Bhopal Central, Sanjeev Saxena in Bhopal South and Mohammed Saood in Bhopal North. Another 35 rebels across the state, including from Indore, Prithvipur, Niwari, Hat Pipaliya, Neemuch, Badnawar and Shujalpur—stood down at Digvijaya’s behest.
Also, weeks ahead of the announcement of candidates, the party started allocating organisational posts to aspirants it was sure would be denied tickets. Digvijaya, however, failed to convince party veteran Satyavrat Chaturvedi—his son Nitin is contesting as a Samajwadi Party candidate—and former MLA Xavier Meda, who is an independent candidate from Jhabua. More than 15 Congress leaders who refused to back down were expelled.
The BJP’s efforts to clamp down on rebels met with limited success. The party had to expel more than 50 leaders. “Rebel candidates are present in all elections. The phenomenon appears bigger this time as senior leaders like Sartaj Singh and Ramkrishna Kusmaria have rebelled,” Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan said,
downplaying the situation in his party.
Nath, who campaigned across the state, was the chief negotiator when it came to wooing communities that were averse to supporting the party in various constituencies. Nath had also been holding talks with community leaders these past few months. “To those not evincing support for the Congress, Kamal Nath says that his party is going to win the elections and he wouldn’t want them to be left out. That’s his style,” says a political analyst.
Nath also ensured that booth-level workers, for the first time, had a checklist of dos and don’ts. The election war room set up in the Congress office kept an eye on negative publicity. A battery of lawyers was on standby to raise incidents of violation of the model code by rivals with the Election Commission (EC). National spokespersons of the Congress, including Priyanka Chaturvedi and Randeep Singh Surjewala, camped in Bhopal and held daily press conferences to expose what they claimed were the Chouhan government’s tall claims, such as improvement in the road and irrigation network and agricultural prosperity.
Entrusted with the responsibility of campaigning, Guna MP Jyotiraditya Scindia extensively toured the state and addressed public meetings. He covered 100 out of the 230 constituencies. Scindia had earlier travelled across the state to hold meetings with party office-bearers. Both Scindia and Nath reserved the last two days of campaigning for their strongholds—Gwalior and Chhindwara respectively.
Away from the campaigning heat, Leader of Oppo-
Elections are not always won with money, as was evident in the last bypolls. The people have made up their minds—no amount of money will change that —Jyotiraditya Scindia, Congress leader
sition Ajay Singh concentrated on the Baghelkhand and Bundelkhand regions, which add up to 56 seats. Singh operated from his assembly seat and hometown of Churhat in Sidhi district. He managed to get several powerful local BJP leaders, including Jaisinghnagar MLA Pramila Singh, to switch over to the Congress in the final phase of the campaign.
Like every election, the BJP banked on Prime Minister Narendra Modi for a home run. Modi addressed 10 rallies across the state, spread over Gwalior, Shahdol, Indore, Chhindwara, Jhabua, Rewa, Mandsaur, Chhatarpur, Jabalpur and Vidisha. The venues were meticulously selected to impact about 20 constituencies each. The Congress tried to match up to Modi’s blitzkrieg by stepping up attacks on the perceived failures of the prime minister. Scindia, at a public rally in Piprai in Ashoknagar district on November 19, highlighted the Union government’s failure to check rising oil and cooking gas prices. He claimed that payouts from the PM’s new crop insurance scheme had been meagre.
Elsewhere, besides attacking the state government, Congress leaders hit out at the Centre on issues such as black money, demonetisation and Pakistansponsored terrorism. The issues raised by the prime minister in his rallies invited sharp rebuttals by the Congress on social media. The party also played up the farm loan waiver issue, which has resonated well with the agricultural community in the state.
But, in a self-goal, the Congress promised to ban RSS units in government offices, giving the BJP an opportunity to pitch it as anti-Hindu and prompting Nath to issue a letter cautioning Congress leaders to guard against polarising the electorate at the fag end of the campaign. Madhya Pradesh’s 6.5 per cent Muslim population is spread across the state. Polarisation on religious lines can benefit the BJP in Bhopal, Indore and Ujjain divisions.
While it attempted to put its best foot forward, some issues remained unresolved for the Congress. Like the funds crunch. The Congress officially allocated each candidate a mere Rs 20 lakh for electioneering, less than even the Rs 28 lakh limit imposed by the EC. Congress sources say most of its candidates remained tight-fisted. “We have the Lok Sabha election coming up in a few months and cannot use up all our assets right now,” a Congress leader said. While the BJP was thought to be better placed in electoral financing, Scindia insists money isn’t everything in a campaign. “Elections are not always won with money, as evident from the last bypolls in the state. The people have made up their minds—no amount of money will change that,” he says.
The Congress had to contend with the BJP’s formidable election machinery, led by chief strategist and party president Amit Shah, who has stationed himself in Bhopal till voting concludes. Shah’s core team, which includes state BJP chief Rakesh Singh, state election in-charge Dharmendra Pradhan, general secretary (organisation) Suhas Bhagat and state in-charge Vinay Sahasrabuddhe, met regularly to plug gaps in the party’s campaign.
Reminiscent of Mani Shankar Aiyar’s neech aadmi jibe at Modi in the final leg of the 2017 Gujarat election campaign, the Congress found itself on the backfoot following party leader Raj Babbar’s remark comparing the rupee’s slide to the age of the prime minister’s mother. Modi was quick to dub the comment as a personal attack on his mother. If that was not enough, a video of Congress leader Vilas Muttemwar attacking Modi’s father surfaced. There is more trouble. Factionalism often rears its head in the Congress. So while Scindia was seen primarily campaigning for candidates he has bagged nominations for, Nath was considered to be doing the same for his team. “Cohesion, articulation of views, minimising of weaknesses and maximising of each other’s strengths” is how Scindia explains the Congress’s election campaign, downplaying all differences between the bigwigs. No doubt, the party is on a far stronger wicket this time. Whether that’s good enough to unseat the BJP will be clear on December 11.