Congress fails to get its act together in Madhya Pradesh

It could have challenged the BJP in several seats given the widespread dissatisfaction over civic issues and dissent within the saffron party.

Published : May 12, 2024 13:34 IST - 11 MINS READ

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi with Madhya Pradesh party president Jitendra Patwari at a roadshow in the State on March 2.

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi with Madhya Pradesh party president Jitendra Patwari at a roadshow in the State on March 2. | Photo Credit: PTI

Congress flags flutter on roadside shops and houses in Diwatia village, part of the Bhojpur Assembly segment of Vidisha Lok Sabha constituency, and one imagines it is an indication of the area warming up to the party, but minutes later the scene changes.

Villagers gossiping or taking a siesta suddenly don saffron caps and scarfs with the BJP’s symbol and name and rouse themselves to welcome Shivraj Singh Chouhan, former Chief Minister, who is the BJP candidate from Vidisha. “Bhaiyya aate rehna [please keep coming],” the villagers say, as Chouhan waves to them.

Om Prakash Nagar, a youth from Diwatia, explains the situation. “Two days ago the Congress’ Jitu Patwari had come. So, their workers put up these flags. However, the atmosphere is in favour of the BJP here. Bhaiyya is back. The result is clear. There is no contest.”

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Bhagwat Nagar (72) says he has been voting for the party since its Jana Sangh days and recalls howj Chouhan used to campaign on foot, earning him the sobriquet of paaon paaon bhaiyya (brother marching on foot) in the region. “Whoever is the candidate, it is the BJP that will win. Desh badal jayega, hamara vote nahin badlega [The nation will change but not our vote],” he adds.

Rampant unemployment

Ravi Nagar’s dilemma is visible. He agrees that there are no jobs here, and that most of the youth have to migrate to other States. “There is massive unemployment. But when it comes to the nation, we forget employment. After all, everyone cannot be given jobs,” he says. He points to the massive water crisis in the region. “After the election was announced, some water taps began to work. They may stop once the election is over,” he says, adding that it takes at least three weeks to repair a transformer that supplies power to motors meant to irrigate the fields. “Farming is at stake. But everything is okay when the nation is safe.”

Basant Rathore from Gwalior is a taxi driver in Bhopal. Rathore, a Kshatriya, is not aware who the BJP candidate is in Bhopal but is sure that the party will win. The Kshatriya anger against the BJP, palpable in Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh, is missing here. Factories such as Adarsh Mill and JC Mill in Gwalior have closed down. The youth have no jobs. “All my brothers drive taxis in different cities. But we vote for the BJP, although the Congress candidate Praveen Pathak is an educated, good person.”

With the last phase of the election in the State due on May 13 in Malwa Nimar region, indications are that a crisis-ridden Congress has given Madhya Pradesh on a platter to a faction-ridden BJP, which has anyway been a force in the State since the days of the Jana Sangh, when Rajmata Vijaya Raje Scindia of the Gwalior royal family was its flag-bearer.

BJP supporters at a rally addressed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in Dhar, Madhya Pradesh, on May 7.

BJP supporters at a rally addressed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in Dhar, Madhya Pradesh, on May 7. | Photo Credit: ANI

How the Congress ceded space to BJP

A period of Congress rule ended in 2003 when the Uma Bharti-led BJP decimated the party led by Digvijaya Singh. Since then, barring 15 months of the Kamal Nath-led government from December 2018 to March 2020, it has been the BJP all the way. The party has now established itself in all the regions of the State: Vindhya, Malwa-Nimar, Bundelkhand, Mahakoushal, Gwalior-Chambal, and central Madhya Pradesh (of which Vidisha is a part).

The Congress had a good hold in the Gwalior-Chambal, Mahakoushal, and Vindhya regions, but that changed in 2023, with the BJP winning most of the Assembly seats there as well. With the Scindia royals now entirely with the BJP, the Gwalior-Chambal region, too, is with the party. Chouhan’s “Laadli Behna” scheme and a slew of development projects in Mahakoushal also helped the BJP consolidate its support base.

After the poor showing by the Congress in Mahakoushal in the December 2023 Assembly election, many leaders raised questions over Kamal Nath’s candidate selection and resource management skills.

The Malwa region, adjoining Maharashtra, is a known RSS stronghold and its best known constituency is perhaps Rajgarh, Digvijaya Singh’s pocket borough until he lost it in 1989. Since 2014, Rajgarh has been represented by Rodmal Nagar, a grassroots worker of the BJP.

The Congress may have missed an opportunity to strengthen its prospects and capitalise on the dissidence in the BJP after Chouhan was replaced as Chief Minister, or even on the pressing governance issues in the State. There were initial signs that the contest would be keen in about a dozen of the 29 Lok Sabha seats even though the BJP won 27 and 28 seats in 2014 and 2019 respectively.

Among these seats were Chhindwara (Kamal Nath’s seat, which his son Nakul Nath won in 2019, the lone Congress seat), Rajgarh (where Digvijaya Singh is contesting from after a gap of more than three decades), Jhabua-Ratlam, Mandla, Morena, Bhind, Sidhi, Satna, and Rewa. Unemployment, bad roads, and electricity and water supply are the main issues almost everywhere. However, the Congress seems to have lost the advantage, and the State seems poised for a saffron sweep despite the view among many analysts that the BJP will not be able to repeat its past numbers. Surprisingly, these analysts expect the Congress to do better than expected in the BJP strongholds of Gwalior, Ujjain, and Bhopal.

Discontent over basic issues could hurt BJP

What could perhaps queer the BJP’s pitch is the discontent on the ground over basic issues and the growing disgruntlement within the party over more and more “outsiders” populating its rank and file (roughly 50,000 Congress workers were inducted into the BJP in the run-up to the election). But the dominant view is that these issues may only affect the victory margins in most places.

Speaking to Frontline, Digvijaya Singh expressed the hope of a repeat of 2009 when the Congress won 12 Lok Sabha seats. But that seems a tall task for a party marred by desertions and divisions. In March, Suresh Pachouri, former Union Minister and prominent Brahmin leader of the Congress, quit the party and joined the BJP. A four-time Rajya Sabha member, Pachouri’s home is in the Bhojpur Assembly segment of Vidisha. This has helped the BJP further consolidate the Brahmin vote.

Indore was the weirdest case, where Congress candidate Akshay Kanti Bam, a choice of State party chief Jitu Patwari, withdrew his nomination papers at the last moment and joined the BJP, giving the saffron party nearly a contest-free victory. Soon a host of Congress leaders from Indore followed suit, adding to the confusion in the party’s rank and file in the Malwa region.

Even the alliance with the Samajwadi Party did not make much difference, with SP candidate Meera Yadav’s nomination in Khajuraho getting rejected. A former MLA, she had not signed her nomination form. Khajuraho is also the Lok Sabha seat of BJP State president, V.D. Sharma. The Congress was still smarting from these setbacks when Ram Niwas Rawat, its most senior leader in the Gwalior-Chambal region, who was also its candidate in the Morena seat in 2009, joined the BJP on April 30, the day Rahul Gandhi was addressing a rally in Chambal.

Rawat belongs to the powerful Meena caste, which has a sizeable presence in the region and can tilt the balance in favour of the BJP in the Morena and Bhind seats. Rawat was eyeing the position of Congress Legislature Party leader in Madhya Pradesh, but the party chose the tribal leader Umang Singhar to counter the BJP’s deepening imprint on seats reserved for Scheduled Tribes. In the Bhind and Morena seats, the Congress faces the added challenge of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) fielding a number of formidable candidates. Results of earlier elections show that the BSP’s vote tilted the balance in these seats in favour of the BJP.

Congress leaders Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi addressed back-to-back rallies in the Gwalior-Chambal region where the party took a hit after Jyotiraditya Scindia’s exit from the party in March 2020. Their focus was on changing the discourse to social justice and employment issues.

At a polling booth during the third phase of the election, in Bhopal on May 7.

At a polling booth during the third phase of the election, in Bhopal on May 7. | Photo Credit: SANJEEV GUPTA/ANI

Caste back in focus

With caste back in focus this time, the Congress had an opportunity even in a seat like Bhind, which it has not won since 1984, but its choice of candidate led to rebellion. The party picked sitting MLA Phool Singh Baraiya, the former State BSP chief of Madhya Pradesh, who is unpopular among dominant castes owing to his strident caste remarks. The party’s 2019 runner-up candidate, Devashish Jararia, rebelled and is contesting as the BSP candidate this time and may take away a sizeable number of Brahmin and Dalit votes. As such, despite facing anti-incumbency, sitting BJP MP Sandhya Rai can breathe easy.

Speaking to Frontline, Rasheed Kidwai, a Bhopal-based journalist and political analyst, said: “The BSP has fielded some strong candidates in Gwalior-Chambal. This, in addition to the desertions it has seen, will dent the Congress party’s performance. After the 2023 Assembly election defeat, the Congress effected a change of guard, replacing Kamal Nath with Jitu Patwari, a relative lightweight and a young leader. After the Indore episode, Patwari, who is already facing a backlash from many senior leaders, is feeling all the more cornered. The Congress is not fighting fit here, despite the challenge being big in Madhya Pradesh, which is a traditional stronghold of the BJP.”

While Rahul Gandhi has been trying to build a narrative around caste, reservation, and the Constitution, the BJP has attempted to thwart the move by alleging that the Congress was trying to give the OBC-Dalit quota to Muslims. The campaign is bound to get traction in a State where no political party has fielded any Muslim candidate in this election.

“The election becomes H-M here. The BJP is a Hindu party, and the Congress is a Muslim party,” said a BJP worker with a grin. There are 38 lakh Muslim voters in the State, accounting for 6.6 per cent of the electorate, but they are concentrated in a few pockets.

Even Hindutva-baiter Digvijaya Singh seems to have fallen silent on that score in this election and is keeping the focus on “samvidhan” (Constitution). The BJP is countering it with the “Musalman” and “Pakistan” rhetoric. In Rajgarh, Digvijaya Singh is playing the emotional card of this being his last election.

Congress’ dilemma

And therein lies the dilemma for the Congress: Scindia left the party in 2020 and Kamal Nath and Digvijaya Singh are past their prime. Besides, the party’s choice of candidates has left many leaders dissatisfied. Former State Congress chief Arun Yadav, son of former Deputy Chief Minister Subash Yadav, was keen to contest from his previous Lok Sabha seat, Khandwa, or from Guna but was not fielded from either.

With Modi and the Scindia royals having joined hands in Guna, Scindia can breathe easy even as Congress candidate Yadavendra Singh is seeking to capitalise on the Yadav anger after the BJP replaced its sitting MP, K.P. Yadav. with Scindia. K.P. Yadav, a worker of Scindia, made history when he defeated the royal scion of Gwalior in 2019.

Also Read | Will too many Congress defectors spoil the broth for BJP in Madhya Pradesh?

The tussles within the Congress, something that characterised the Congress in the past too, are far from over despite two consecutive terms in the opposition. Days before the third phase of polling, Nirmala Sapre, the sitting Congress MLA from Beena in the Sagar parliamentary seat, joined the BJP in the presence of Chief Minister Mohan Yadav. Clearly, the BJP has sought to bring down the morale of Congress workers in the State, where the BJP got 58 per cent of the votes in the last Lok Sabha election.

Sameer Chougaonkar, a political analyst from Lashkar in Gwalior, said that the Congress’ cadre strength has weakened in Gwalior after Scindia’s exit. “An ageing Digvijaya Singh is largely confined to his seat, while Kamal Nath’s stock has fallen after 2023. All this will help the BJP despite the anger against the BJP candidate within the rank and file of that party.”

During a rally in Ratlam, where former Union Minister Kantilal Bhuria is the Congress candidate, Mohan Yadav said that the Congress did not make Bhuria, a tribal candidate, Chief Minister despite having the opportunity to do so. Bhuria has lost twice here to the BJP, in 2014 and 2019, and a hat-trick of losses is perhaps on the cards in a situation where even other tribal leaders within the party do not have the best of equations with him.

Although the Congress has by and large retained its core vote base, the BJP’s exponential rise has ensured that this will not be enough. For the Congress, the positive factor is that residents are raising basic issues and there is no Modi wave, but even in such a tepid election, resources and organisational machinery do matter. Does the Congress have those?

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