Gearing for battle

Congress is considering pre-poll alliances to win assembly polls in Madhya Pradesh

gallery-image Kamal Nath and Jyotiraditya Scindia | PTI
gallery-image Digvijaya Singh | Janak Bhat

AFTER LOSING ITS traditional stronghold of Madhya Pradesh to the BJP 15 years ago, the Congress is determined to reclaim power in the assembly elections due in December. After years of infighting, there is more stability in the Madhya Pradesh Congress Committee (MPCC) after the party high command allotted specific posts to party leaders ahead of the elections. Senior MP Kamal Nath is firmly in the saddle as the state Congress president, and fellow MP Jyotiraditya Scindia is serving as campaign committee chief. Recently, four working presidents were appointed, and a dozen committees formed to fill vacant posts.

Though Scindia seems the popular choice due to his mass and youth appeal, the party is not projecting anyone specific as its chief ministerial candidate.

After a long lull, the party office at Shivaji Nagar in Bhopal has become a beehive of activity, even sporting a fresh coat of paint after almost eight years. Nath is yet to start election tours, but his presence in the office, and in Bhopal, has reinvigorated party workers. Furthermore, the Congress is in an upbeat mood as it has won all the assembly bypolls held in the state in the past 10 months. On August 3, it won nine of 14 municipal seats, snatching three from the BJP.

The Congress is banking heavily on the anti-incumbency factor to win the elections. The BJP has been in power for 15 years, and Shivraj Singh Chouhan has been the chief minister for almost 13 years. In the past year he has had to contend with a spate of violence in the state, following farmer agitations and dalit protests. Undeterred by these setbacks, however, he has been campaigning fervently, reminding voters of his development initiatives and wooing them with various subsidies, schemes and gifts.

Earlier, an integral part of the Congress support base came from the adivasi and dalit communities. This eroded over the years and the vote bank got split among various parties. The BJP, in particular, secured a large proportion of these votes, thanks to the work done by the RSS for these communities.

The Congress is making efforts to regain the support of these communities. “Several retired government officials from the scheduled caste community have joined us,” said the state party's working president Surendra Choudhary, a dalit. The national general secretary in-charge of the state, Dipak Babaria, said that if the party won the elections, it would appoint Choudhary as the deputy chief minister. Of the other three working presidents, one is an adivasi and two are from backward castes; all four are from different regions. The top four in the MPCC—Nath, Scindia, former chief minister Digvijaya Singh and opposition leader Ajay Singh—are from different regions.

The Congress hopes that its consideration of caste and regional angles will help it have a wider reach over the electorate. This balancing act, however, has few takers. Barring Scindia, none of the leaders have a connect with the youth, which comprises 44 per cent of the electorate. “The Congress is stuck in the formula politics of the eighties and nineties,” said a former minister of the Congress. “Through his strategy of reaching out directly to the people, Chouhan has changed the grammar of politics in the state, while our party is taking the electorate for granted, relying only on anti-incumbency.”

The BJP, however, does not appear to be ruffled by the anti-incumbency factor. “Through its well-oiled organisational setup and with RSS support, the BJP will overcome the anti-incumbency factor,” said BJP leader Vijesh Lunawat. Moreover, the party never fails to remind voters of the dangers of “returning to the days of Digvijaya”, whose tenure as chief minister became synonymous with bad roads and lack of electricity. The Congress hopes to keep the 'Digvijaya factor' at bay by reiterating to voters that a new generation of party leaders has emerged in the past two decades.

“People are now looking for change, and 2018 is that year,” said former state Congress president Arun Yadav. “Our party is ready to deliver this change. We are getting a remarkable response from the masses. During my tenure, I laid the ground; now the new leadership just needs to reap the benefits.”

Babaria said that the party was focusing on its organisational setup, gradually infusing young blood and new ideas at all levels. Nath has spent the past two months in Bhopal strengthening this setup.

Should the Congress win, the question who will be the chief minister looms large.

Though Scindia seems the popular choice due to his mass and youth appeal, the party is not projecting anyone specific as its chief ministerial candidate. Traditionally, the state Congress president becomes the chief minister.

Pre-poll surveys have predicted a huge mandate for the Congress. But the party is leaving nothing to chance. It fears a fragmentation of opposition votes, a repeat of what happened in the past three elections, and is hence considering pre-poll alliances. “We are in the process of holding discussions with other like-minded parties,’’ said Nath. If there is a pre-poll alliance, it will be a first in the history of the MPCC.