Future uncertain for Congress stalwarts Ashok Gehlot, Kamal Nath and Bhupesh Baghel amid poll setback

There is now a big question mark on what the future holds for these leaders

Ashok Gehlot, Kamal Nath and Bhupesh Baghel Ashok Gehlot, Kamal Nath and Bhupesh Baghel | PTI, Sanjay Ahlawat

The Congress had relied on its state leaders, most of them party veterans, in these assembly elections, placing them at the forefront of the poll campaign. With the party failing to register a victory in the Hindi heartland, there is now a big question mark on what the future holds for these leaders.

Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot helmed the campaign in the state, seeking to achieve what has not happened in the last three decades in the state – retain power – on the basis of the welfare schemes rolled out by his government and the slew of populist promises made in the run up to polls.

It was the face of the 72-year-old leader that smiled down from the party's publicity material that talked about the government's welfare schemes for the past several months, and it was only on the eve of elections that other state leaders found space on the posters and banners. The election was important for Gehlot with regard to his own political survival. Seeking to safeguard his turf in the political landscape of Rajasthan, Gehlot, who has through most of the last five years fought off claims to the leadership space made by his bete noire Sachin Pilot, had recently gone to the extent of posing a challenge to the party high command.

While the Congress' tally in Rajasthan has some amount of respectability and suggests a strong fight put up by the incumbent in the face of the tradition of the state voting out the incumbent, the defeat is expected to strengthen voices of opposition against Gehlot within the party. Demands are likely to be made for a change in the leadership in the state and the party high command would now be expected to bring about a generational change in the state.

In Madhya Pradesh, the party's campaign was centred around the face of veteran leader Kamal Nath. And another party veteran, Digvijaya Singh, had an active role to play in the election behind the scenes. The Kamal Nath-Digvijaya duo would now find their heft being cut down to size in the wake of the BJP's comprehensive victory against the Congress. It will not be easy for the party to find a leader to helm the organisation in the state since it does not have a robust second rung. Jitu Patwari, a leader who has been seen as a probable to lead the party's campaign in the state in the future and is seen as close to former party president Rahul Gandhi, was trailing from Rau.

The biggest setback for the Congress in these elections is the shock defeat in Chhattisgarh. This was one state where it was perceived that Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel was devoid of a challenge from the BJP. While Baghel was not projected as a chief ministerial face, the campaign and the election strategy in the state had his imprint writ large. It focused on his son of the soil image, his OBC credentials and his welfare schemes. His aggressive stance against the BJP was seen as a model to be emulated in other states. And he has had a big role to play in the Congress' campaign in other states too.

The BJP has countered the Congress' strategy in Chhattisgarh by going on the offensive against Baghel and working hard to paint him as a corrupt leader and also as someone who has not worked on issues such as forced conversions or the other concerns of the tribal population in the state. The defeat leaves Baghel chastened, but more importantly, it would result in his importance in the Congress' scheme of things undergoing a re-evaluation.

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