The Congress’s campaign in Madhya Pradesh might lack the punch and bite that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had packed into its offensive against Digvijaya Singh in 2003, except for the barbs thrown on Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP president Amit Shah by Rahul Gandhi. Rhetoric has given way to more hard-headed considerations in the Congress’ blueprint, underpinned to one word, “samanway” (coordination), that essentially called upon the party’s heavyweights Kamal Nath, Jyoritaditya Scindia and Digvijaya Singh to work as a “fighting force” and not as “squabbling rivals”.
Vinay Bakliwal, the Congress’ Indore working president, says: “Ultimately, it was pressure from our workers that pushed the ‘neta’ (leaders) to set aside their differences. The workers’ refrain was, ‘bahut ho gaya, ye tera mera’ (enough of this business of you and me). They said when we have dedicated ourselves to the Congress organisation despite being out of power for 15 years, why can these leaders not work together in one election at least?”
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When Nath took over as the state Congress president in April 2018, time was not on his side. “He had to list his priorities clearly and not get lost in politicking,” says Prakash Jain, a vice-president of the MP Congress, adding: “From day one, our workers’ message to him was, ‘abhi nahi to kabhi nahi’ (it’s now or never).” The message has become an overriding mantra because despite the purported “lack of resources” as compared with the BJP’s “well-lined purse”, the apprehensions over “high-tech manipulation” and the efficient and organised back-up from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), “this election is like a people’s movement against the BJP rule and the Congress is essentially a movement and not a cadre-driven entity,” says Dipak Babaria, the general secretary in charge of MP.
Gleaning leaves from Shah’s book of poll management, Nath focused first on setting up booth committees for the first time in MP. “His slogan was, mera booth, mera gaurav’ (my booth, my pride). Ten workers were deployed in each booth. They were drawn from all castes and communities with the help of the NSUI (National Students’ Union of India) and our women’s wing. Next, Nath insisted that the Congress offices be kept open every day and function regularly so that workers could access the local functionaries. Our office is open for eight hours daily and I spend at least four hours each day,” says Indore Congress spokesperson Bhanwar Sharma.
The focus on booths resurrected the near-moribund rural and district units that were usually devoid of activity even during an election. “The presidents and the other office-bearers were in place at the block and district levels,” says Bakliwal.
To try and allay the persisting confusion over the hierarchical placement of the leaders — that became imperative after Digvijaya’s “Narmada” peregrination revived his standing as the Congress’ “only grassroots” leader — Nath reportedly went out of his way to seek out Digvijaya’s hand and help, and assure him that nobody would be allowed to have an upper hand in nominating candidates to gerrymander their “turf”. “The big trio have their spheres of influence. Eventually, Digvijaya realised that he had to wash away the taint of culpability, of being blamed for the party’s rout in the past three elections. He was seen as a saboteur of sorts and he had to remove that impression. He also has his son’s future to think about,” a state Congress source says. Digvijaya’s scion, Jaivardhan, is contesting a second time from the family’s Raghogarh bastion, although he is reportedly attempting hard to shake off the cachet he brings as his father’s legatee.
While Jain’s claim was that tickets were handed out in a textbook fashion — after conducting three surveys of the aspirants in each constituency, weeding out the less desirable and evolving consensus wherever there was disagreement — an objective view was that Nath and Digvijaya worked as a “single unit”, while Scindia had his way in the Chambal region and parts of Ujjain, where his family is still revered. The second rung of leaders, notably Ajay Singh, Kantilal Bhuria and Suresh Pachauri, also managed to get in a word edgeways. Singh and Pachauri are themselves contesting.
Political observers picked holes in the Congress’ electioneering, noting that while it “played to the gallery” on the agrarian distress, it was not “adequately” aggressive in addressing traders’ concerns and adopted the “soft” Hindutva line with more than the required zeal. To the last charge, Babaria’s answer is: “It’s a malignant campaign carried out by the BJP. The Congress believes in communal amity and not religious fundamentalism. Our president is a votary of Shiva.”
Veteran Bhopal journalist Girja Shankar, who has closely observed every chief minister since the seventies, has brought up another “lacuna” in the Congress’ politics. “Scindia and Nath never did state politics. They can fight their own elections competently but cannot fight for others,” he says. This perception is roundly rejected by most Congress workers who conclude that Nath is the “answer we were looking for” to confront the BJP.