Can Congress retain Chhattisgarh and make a comeback in MP?

Political watchers feel that Madhya Pradesh will see a tight contest

45-Rahul-Gandhi-Kamal-Nath Flying high: Rahul Gandhi with Kamal Nath and other Congress leaders during the Bharat Jodo Yatra in Madhya Pradesh.

The weather is unpleasant in central India these days, with sudden bursts of storms and rain adding humidity to the high temperatures. The same holds true for the political atmosphere in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh where elections are due in five months.

The BJP and the Congress are preparing to battle it out once again in the two states, which are largely bipolar. Congress leader Rahul Gandhi said his party would win 150 seats (of the total 230) in Madhya Pradesh, just like it did in Karnataka. The BJP has adopted a resolution about winning more than 200 seats. In Chhattisgarh, Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel has repeatedly spoken about the Congress’ aim to hold on to its current tally of 71 seats, whereas the BJP claims that it would win a clear majority.

The BJP’s biggest strength is Chouhan, while the Congress has a big advantage with Kamal Nath’s leadership. “Both parties will do well to give their local leadership the upper hand,” said political analyst Girija Shanker.

Political watchers feel that Madhya Pradesh will see a tight contest, with the Congress in a far better position compared with 2018 and the BJP facing anti-incumbency and internal dissent. They say the Congress might actually have an edge over the BJP at this point, while the BJP’s biggest hope is Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s popularity. As for Chhattisgarh, the Congress government, riding high on its welfare schemes and the Chhattisgarhi pride factor, is placed comfortably against the surprisingly demoralised BJP. In both states, the selection of candidates will be crucial.

Political commentator Rashid Kidwai said the uncharacteristic aggression shown by the Congress in Madhya Pradesh, evident from Rahul Gandhi himself claiming 150 seats, was quite interesting. “The party seems encouraged by the Karnataka results and it sees similarities in Madhya Pradesh—anti-incumbency against the BJP, several local issues to raise and a seasoned leader in Kamal Nath. There is no major internal strife. Karnataka has shown that some of the steps taken by the BJP, like making a tribal president, are not working,” he said.

The BJP is roiled by internal strife. Ticket seekers in the crucial Gwalior-Chambal region are a major headache for the party. Kidwai said those who lost in 2018 to Congress leaders who defected to the BJP and got re-elected from the same seats would want their seats back. “There are rumours that Union Minister Jyotiraditya Scindia, whose defection was instrumental in the formation of the BJP government in 2020, might be seeking tickets for 50-60 supporters. Such internal strife is something the BJP is not used to.

There is also no clarity about the continuation of V.D. Sharma as state BJP chief as he seems to have failed in checking internal dissent. “Chouhan is depending on personal charisma and new schemes, but the Congress is quick to find counters. The Congress also looks confident and aggressive under Kamal Nath,” said political analyst Manish Dixit. He said former chief minister Digvijaya Singh was working in the background, especially in the 66 seats that the Congress failed to win the last three times. “The Congress is also pinning its hopes on the second phase of the Bharat Jodo Yatra,” said Dixit.

The BJP’s biggest strength is Chouhan, while the Congress has a big advantage with Kamal Nath’s leadership. “Both parties will do well to give their local leadership the upper hand which seems to have worked in other state elections,” said political analyst Girija Shanker. “Voters rely more on the local leadership for getting their aspirations fulfilled. Too much interference from or dependence on national leadership could actually be harmful.”

Kidwai said the Congress was better placed in Chhattisgarh, as there was no one like Chouhan in the BJP camp. Shanker, too, said the race appeared to be one-sided. The existing seat difference—Congress’ 71 against the BJP’s 14—is too wide a gap, especially in the absence of charismatic local leaders. Baghel, meanwhile, has established himself as the ‘son of the soil’ and has become adept in playing up ‘Chhattisgarhi’ identity and pride.

Chhattisgarh BJP chief spokesperson Ajay Chandrakar said the perception in favour of the Congress was a result of a huge public relations exercise, while the BJP was active on the ground. “We will simultaneously conduct a mega contact campaign on the completion of nine years of Prime Minister Modi and also kisan chaupals (meeting with farmers) till June 10 in all assembly segments.” The Congress said the Baghel government had fulfilled over 90 per cent of its electoral promises and also brought in additional schemes. “Our government worked in the health and education sectors and took care of basic needs by providing subsidised rice through ration shops,” said Sushil Anand Shukla, chairman, communications department, Chhattisgarh Congress. He explained how Baghel managed to revive the culture and identity pride of Chhattisgarh, and also worked on religious project like the Ram Van Gaman Path scheme.

Despite dire predictions by political observers, the BJP is hopeful of an improved performance in MP. Rajneesh Agrawal, the party’s state secretary, spoke about three key factors which he said would help the BJP retain power in Bhopal. First, the party’s organisational strength, with 38 lakh registered workers who are active down at the booth and panna (voters’ list page) levels; second, the BJP’s faith in over 2.25 crore beneficiaries of various welfare schemes and, finally, the arithmetic of the 200 seats, which was with the party at some point during the past 20 years. “In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, we got over 56 per cent votes in more than 200 seats, so the target is based on solid calculations and we are doing micro-level strategising.” He said internal dissent was mere clamour of aspirants for tickets.

K.K. Mishra, who heads the media department of the Congress in Madhya Pradesh, said the party was in a better shape in the state after Scindia’s defection as it brought down internal wrangling. He said the people had lost faith in Chouhan. “They are upset about issues like price rise, unemployment, corruption and the law and order situation. This wave among voters along with the hard work of Congress activists will help us sail through comfortably. This trend has been backed by different surveys as well.”