India Today - - INSIDE - By Rahul Noronha

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.

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