During the past six months, Madhya Pradesh Congress president Arun Yadav has not spent three consecutive nights in one place. He has been on a padyatra since October, covering the constituencies with a concentration of scheduled castes and scheduled tribes. Over the next one year, he plans to cover the entire state. Chhattisgarh Congress president Bhupesh Baghel and Odisha Congress president Prasad Harichandan, too, have taken the padyatra route to revive the party's prospects in their states.
In the past, the Congress has had tall leaders like Digvijaya Singh, Ajit Jogi and J.B. Patnaik in these states, which were considered to be Congress bastions. However, the last time the Congress formed a government in Madhya Pradesh was in 2003 and in Odisha it was further back in 2000. Clearly, the Congress has lost its grip over the region that accounts for 61 Lok Sabha seats. Blame it on infighting and the absence of a strong leadership at the grassroots level.
After losing the general elections in 2014, the Congress found that in many of its state units, the young leaders were unhappy with the senior leaders who were busy with petty ego clashes and groupism. So, Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi handpicked young leaders—Yadav is 43, Baghel 51 and Harichandan 52—to head the state units. Interestingly, all three belong to the other backward classes.
Severely troubled by groupism, the Congress in Odisha has seen mass exodus of leaders and workers to the ruling Biju Janata Dal and the BJP. However, it got its biggest blow in 2014 when the leader of opposition in the state assembly, Bhupinder Singh, joined the BJD, along with Chinmoy Sahoo, the president of the state unit of the National Students Union of India.
“There was utter chaos. Party leaders were writing letters against each other and releasing it to the media,” recalls Harichandan, who is also a poet. “Some were forming separate outfits. At a time when only 19 of 30 districts had a Congress body, I was entrusted with the responsibility of the state Congress.”
But, Harichandan is optimistic about bringing about a change. “I am focusing on three things—cohesion, organisation and agitation—to rebuild the party,” he says. “I have been on padyatras to regions of agrarian distress and those with a strong tribal population.’’
He has been careful not to step on the toes of the seniors and has ordered that the party's banners and hoardings should not carry his photograph. He has renovated the Congress Bhavan, which was in a dilapidated condition and become a den for drunkards.
Harichandan's enthusiasm seems to have rubbed off on his office-bearers, too. “Nowadays, we have a lot of work. Erlier we used to hide from the media to avoid answering queries on the infighting,’’ says party spokesperson Sougat Mohanty.
“After a long time the state organisation is working on a multi-pronged strategy of tackling ambitious leaders and effectively opposing the Naveen Patnaik government,’’ says state Congress secretary Debasish Bhuyan.
There is a general feeling that things are on the mend within the Congress in the state. “In feudal areas, leadership definitely plays a key role,’’ says Narasingha Mishra, former member of the law commission and leader of opposition in the assembly.
But, for how long can Harichandan keep the warring leaders off each other's throats? “The state Congress is divided into five groups led by Lalatendu Mahapatra [a follower of former chief minister J.B. Patnaik], former Congress president Jaydev Jena, former Union minister Bhakta Charan Das, Chiranjib Biswal and Narasingha Mishra,” says Siddarth Kanungo, a political analyst. Harichandan, he says, looks helpless at times.
THE PARTY president in Madhya Pradesh seems to be in a much better position. Compared with Harichandan, Arun Yadav doesn't have to deal with as much infighting so he has been concentrating on rebuilding the party, a la saffron style. During the assembly elections in 2013, the BJP had wooed the backward classes. By picking a leader from the Yadav community that accounts for more than 6 per cent of the vote share, the Congress plans to use the BJP's trump card against it.
Yadav is known for his round-the-clock accessibility and down-to-earth working style. Now on his padyatra, Yadav will be the second leader to cover the entire state on foot after veteran Congress leader D.P. Mishra. Every day, Yadav covers about 15km, interacting with the people on the way. He avoids staying in rest houses and hotels and prefers to spend the night in some village to convey the message that the Congress is not a party of the elite, but commoners, says state Congress secretary Virendra Diwedi.
Over the past decade, Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan of the BJP has cultivated an image of being an ‘ordinary person’. “The people love Shivraj for his rustic ways, which give a feeling of being close to the masses,” says Sandeep Pauranik, a political analyst. However, Yadav can give Chouhan tough competition.
When Chouhan's uncle died recently, Yadav was quick to rush to his village to express his condolence. “If we want to defeat the BJP we need to do it in their style,’’ says Congress spokesperson Bhupendra Gupta. “BJP leaders participate in almost all traditional festivals and events to connect with the masses.”
“We have entered politics to serve the people, but the masses need to have faith in us,” says Yadav. “To earn their faith we, like any good preacher, need to speak their language.”
In the villages that Yadav has visited so far, he has formed a team of ten party workers to take his message to the grassroots. “During the padyatra, we have also been honouring the senior Congressmen in that village by acknowledging their contribution and giving them a certificate,’’ says party secretary Vimlendra Tiwari.
Congressmen are happy that the party is finally addressing the issues they have been raising for the past few years. “It is a treat for our eyes to see our leader walking from village to village,” says Congress leader Virendra Diwedi.
FOR THE PAST 13 years, the BJP has been in power under Chouhan, an OBC leader, who has become the darling of the masses through his pro-poor and pro-farmer policies. With help from RSS-affiliated bodies like Saraswati Sishu Mandir and Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram, the BJP has captured the dalit and tribal vote bank of the Congress. Yadav is hoping to bring them back into the Congress fold. “Yadav is the Congress's answer to the BJP's ploy of making three OBC leaders chief ministers—Uma Bharti (Lodhi), Babulal Gaur (Yadav) and Shivraj Singh Chouhan (Kirar),’’ says Pauranik.
Yadav is leaving no stone unturned to counter the BJP’s hindutva plank. He started his padyatra in the auspicious week of Durga Puja from Amarkantak, a pilgrim town with a predominantly tribal population. The BJP has a strong presence there.
In Chhattisgarh, the Congress lost to the BJP by a slender margin of less than 1 per cent in the 2013 assembly polls. Bhupesh Baghel, a former minister and Digvijaya Singh supporter, has rejuvenated the Congress at grassroots level through his padyatra.
“After our top leadership was gunned down by the Naxals in the Bastar attack in 2013, our chief has revived the party,” says party spokesperson Mahendra Chhabra. “He has toured almost all the constituencies.’’
However, his rivalry with former chief minister Ajit Jogi has created some bad blood within the party. “We feel very sorry for the top leaders of our party who are often in the news for the wrong reasons,’’ says Bhujit Doshi, Congress leader from Bastar, who formed a forum called 'Indira Vahini' to work in the tribal regions that were once Congress strongholds. The forum has also been working on creating unity within the party.
Created in 2000, Chhattisgarh was under the Congress rule for three years, and the BJP has been at the helm of affairs since then. For the Congress to return to power, Baghel would have to give up his personal differences and work towards strengthening the party.