Why Congress is so confident in Madhya Pradesh
Anti-incumbency feelings in the state are even stronger than in Karnataka, and BJP looks like a divided house
Madhya Pradesh chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan recently told the BJP workers, “Karnatak-pharnatak ke result se ghabrane ki zaroorat nahin hai; abhi humare tarkash mein bahut teer baaki hain (There is no need to worry over the Karnataka result; we have many more arrows in our quiver).” Notwithstanding the brave words, the demoralisation in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)
camp, which prompted the CM’s palliative statement is palpable.
Chouhan, unlike Basavaraj Bommai in Karnataka, is an old war horse and the longest-serving chief minister of the state, having headed the government from 2005 to 2018 and gotten back in the saddle in March 2020 after toppling the Kamal Nath-led Congress government. He has been the undisputed BJP leader in the state for 18 of the past 20 years since 2003, when the BJP wrested power away from the Congress. He was earlier MP for four terms and has much better control over the bureaucracy than Bommai had in Karnataka.
But his pep talk does not seem to have made much difference. BJP leaders, unable to defend the record of the BJP government, are raking up the anti-Sikh riots of 1984 to target Kamal Nath and potholed roads from Digvijaya Singh’s tenure as CM between 1993 and 2003—these being the top Congress leaders.
Meanwhile, there is simmering anger among the people over rampant corruption and inept administration, besides police high-handedness. The probe into the Vyapam recruitment scam has reached a dead end. The probe report of the Jain Commission on the police firing at Mandsaur in 2017 is yet to be made public though thousands of farmers, booked for the unrest over low prices, continue to attend court. Similarly, the probe into the so-called honey-trap scandal has been dragging on for the past three years.
The BJP government took a fancy to bulldozers since 2020 and used them to pull down the homes of Muslims and Dalits on the flimsiest of grounds and without following due process. However, following raps on the knuckles from the courts and recent reverses in the panchayat elections, the state government’s ardour for bulldozers has cooled off substantially.
When a strong gale last week damaged the Mahakal corridor in Ujjain, built on the lines of the Kashi corridor in Varanasi at a cost of Rs 320 crore and inaugurated by the prime minister earlier this year, questions were raised on corruption and poor construction. The gale dislodged and dismembered several idols, including one of Lord Shiva, revealing them to be hollower than expected.
In the face of this disarray, the Congress camp is a contrast—brimming with confidence and looking more united, better organised and more determined. The confusion over the chief ministerial ‘face’ was settled early, unlike in Karnataka, with Digvijaya Singh announcing publicly that Kamal Nath would be the party’s face in the election. The two senior leaders (Kamal Nath barely a year older than Digvijaya Singh) seem to have put together an effective team.
Political analyst Rasheed Kidwai, known for his acerbic and candid comments about the Congress, says, “For the first time in the last two decades, Congress leaders are working to unite the party and workers, setting aside personal preferences and factional interests.”
Digvijaya Singh has been assigned to oversee the campaign in 66 constituencies where the Congress has not won even once in the last three elections. The former Congress chief minister, who had undertaken the Narmada Yatra along the river’s route from September 2017 to April 2018, was also a part of Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra. Both these yatras seem to have revived the party in the state.
Singh has been busy holding block-level meetings, and following up with meetings of the district committees. At these meetings, he invites workers to take the stage and air their complaints, grievances and ideas. He himself sits in the back row with a diary and a pen, taking notes. He addresses the meetings only after others have spoken. Interactions with local community leaders and visiting important places of worship form part of his programme. His visits culminate with a press conference on the last day when he raises local issues to castigate the government.
Buoyed by the public response to the Bharat Jodo Yatra, Rahul Gandhi had declared that the Congress would return to power in the next election. He repeated the claim last week and added that the Congress would bag 150 seats in the next election. (In the 2018 Assembly polls, the party had won 114 out of 230 seats and formed the government, but the government fell after 15 months, following the defection of 22 MLAs owing allegiance to Jyotiraditya Scindia.)
Aware that the committed section of the bureaucracy could play spoilsport, Digvijaya Singh has issued a public warning against implicating party workers in false cases. “It is just a matter of five months before we get back to power; and this time we will not be as lenient as in the past,” he asserted at a meeting.
The Congress has successfully created a centralised leadership in the state, which is taking decisions, shortlisting candidates, forming task forces and assigning responsibilities. “Earlier, Congress candidates [individually] managed the election in their respective constituencies,” confided a local party leader, “but this time, the party is managing everything [as a collective], including funds.”
Among the states where elections are due before the Lok Sabha election, including Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Telangana, Madhya Pradesh is the only state to have a BJP government. While the BJP is expected to go all out to retain power, it suffered another setback in May when the son of former chief minister Kailash Joshi left the party and joined the Congress.
As in Karnataka, an upbeat Congress has already made five promises to the people. They are a farm loan waiver, the Old Pension Scheme (OPS), Rs 1,500 a month to women under the Nari Samman Yojana (‘women’s dignity plan’), an LPG cylinder at Rs 500, and free electricity up to 100 units and half the rate for consumption up to 200 units.
In 2019, the Congress government had waived the loans of 2.7 million farmers, points out Abhay Dubey, party spokesperson. Out of 660,000 government employees, he says, 440,000 are covered under the New Pension Scheme but would like to go back to OPS; and over 5.2 million people with Ujjwala connections will benefit from the Rs 500 LPG cylinder scheme, he claims.
The Congress is also preparing a 150-page aarop patra (chargesheet) to highlight misgovernance during the 18-year BJP rule in the state
and putting the finishing touches on its poll manifesto, a vachan patra of promises, says Paras Saklecha, member of the manifesto committee. Kamal Nath wants the promises to be realistic, practical and financially viable.