From the west to the north-east, from the centre to the south, the Congress is fighting gritty battles in five State elections—Rajasthan, Mizoram, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Telangana—that can make or break the party before the national contest in 2024. It is in direct contest both against the BJP and strong regional parties, and each result will be imbued with its own meaning and significance.
For the sake of clarity, we can divide the contests into those States where the Congress is hoping for a pro-incumbency push, such as Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, and States where it hopes to come to power. The picture is complex in Chhattisgarh, contrary to the perception that it is the safest bet, and voting in the first phase on November 7 that included the tribal areas was somewhat below par for the Congress (20 of the State’s 90 seats voted).
Complex scenario in Chhattisgarh
The State could have been a showpiece for tribal rights and social justice, issues close to the stated positions of Rahul Gandhi. It has a 32 per cent tribal population, but neither the BJP nor the Congress has ever had an Adivasi leadership, unlike in Jharkhand. Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel is from the backward classes as is Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot. There are some questions about Baghel’s priorities as the Congress did not step in to protect Christian tribals from attacks and intimidation from Hindu right-wing outfits. It also delayed the implementation of the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, passed in 1996 and intended to give decision-making powers to village councils in Adivasi areas. The government notified the rules only in 2022 and even then did not give full autonomy to tribal areas.
On the flip side, the BJP and the Sangh Parivar have even more regressive attitudes towards genuine empowerment of tribals, whom they seem to see only as a captive audience for Hindutva proselytisation. While the Congress has also settled into a soft Hindutva mode, it has more tangible positions regarding setting a good procurement price for paddy, balancing caste equations, and writing off farm loans.
In the battle of perceptions, the Congress is ahead as Baghel is the chief ministerial face while the BJP has none. Although three-term former Chief Minister Raman Singh is contesting, he is as diminished as other BJP State leaders. National figures such as Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah and Chief Ministers like Adityanath and Himanta Biswa Sarma are campaigning in all the election-bound States.
Second term in Rajasthan?
In Rajasthan, the Congress could make history if it wins a second term as that has not happened since 1998. The interesting subplot is Gehlot digging his heels in and insisting on running the show his way without taking inputs from the national party. He refused to change candidates: in the words of a Congress stalwart, “in victory or defeat, Gehlot wants his people around him”. Gehlot also “sent packing” the in-house election management team the national Congress has been using for some time, most successfully in Karnataka earlier this year.
Gehlot has his own consultant, the founder of a company called DesignBoxed, who is handling most aspects of his messaging and campaign. While Gehlot has the welfare schemes and promises in his favour, his hopes also come from the lack of clarity in the BJP about who will lead the State since it has boxed the viable Vasundhara Raje too into the “collective leadership” pantheon.
The equation in Madhya Pradesh
In some ways, it is simpler to just get the momentum right when fighting against ruling parties. The BJP’s Shivraj Singh Chouhan has been the Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh since November 2005 (except for just over a year between 2018 and 2020). He would himself be surprised if he got a walkover even though the State has pockets where the RSS cadre has done intensive work for decades. Meanwhile, the Congress is relying on veterans Kamal Nath and Digvijaya Singh, both 76 and former Chief Ministers, who, despite reported differences over candidates, are hanging together.
Kamal Nath is the Chief Minister candidate and is combining soft Hindutva with some hard bargaining. There are rebels in the fray who the party will hope to contain given the natural anti-incumbency they could harvest if they manage the arithmetic. Here too, tribal people make up around 21 per cent of the population, with Madhya Pradesh reporting 30 per cent of the atrocities against STs across India. Similar issues of dispossession, poverty, and exploitation link the tribal people of Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, once part of the same State.
- The Congress is is fighting gritty battles in Assembly elections in five States—Rajasthan, Mizoram, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, and Telangana
- In each State, it is in direct contest both against the BJP and strong regional parties
- The results of these elections can make or break the party ahead of the General elections in 2024
A different identity issue in Mizoram
An entirely different ST identity determines equations in Mizoram, where the ruling Mizo National Front (MNF) is fighting the upcoming Zoram People’s Movement. But the Congress, once a force here, was the party the MNF defeated in 2018. The Mizoram campaign is being handled for the Congress at the State level without consultants, but there are hopes that the terrible violence in neighbouring BJP-ruled Manipur will give them credibility and gains.
A miraculous campaign
It is in Telangana that the Congress is in the midst of a somewhat miraculous campaign that appears to have built the party up from the ground in a matter of months. Internal assessments vary from a close contest with the ruling Bharat Rashtra Samithi (BRS) to an outright victory. There are interesting sociopsychological inputs that have gone into shaping the campaign. The rhetoric being used by the energetic Pradesh Congress Committee (PCC) president A. Revanth Reddy and increasingly by Rahul Gandhi calls on the people to vote against the dora palana (feudal rule by landlords) and choose a praja palana (people’s rule).
According to the Congress, certain BRS schemes such as digitising land records have backfired with sections of the population, particularly where lands were given to SCs and STs. The Dalit Bandhu scheme gives a generous Rs.10 lakh to chosen SC families to promote entrepreneurship, but the Congress believes it has created resentment among those who do not benefit and there are charges of kickbacks as well.
The Congress family, starting from Sonia Gandhi who facilitated the creation of Telangana, is seen as an asset here. Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, always an effective campaigner, has created ripples in all five States.
After the hurly-burly is done, Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge indicated that he will resume conversations with the constituents of the INDIA grouping, who have expressed anger about the national party’s preoccupation with the State elections. While that is the next problem, what does come through is that the Congress is running a campaign where local leaders have autonomy even as the party takes cues from political consultants. Things could either click or go very wrong.
Saba Naqvi is a Delhi-based journalist and author of four books, who writes on politics and identity issues.