Back to square one for Congress in MP

An overwhelming number of Congress MLAs want Kamal Nath to be the Leader of the Opposition and wait for an opportunity to topple the new BJP regime. This is not an unlikely scenario as byelections to 23 Assembly seats are required to be held within the next six months. If the Congress manages to win 75 per cent of these seats — a formidable task — the grand old party will get a chance to dethrone the Shivraj Chouhan-led government. .

Back to square one for Congress in MP

Rasheed Kidwai

Senior Journalist and Author

THE fall of the Kamal Nath government in Madhya Pradesh has thrown multiple challenges to both the victor and the conquered. As expected, the BJP was quick to pick up the threads to usher in the new government under Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s stewardship. But there is no sign of how the Congress intends to oppose him. The grand old party needs to find the new state unit chief and the Leader of the Opposition, for which judicious selection is required.

Chouhan was an obvious frontrunner as Nath’s successor, but two Union ministers — Narendra Singh Tomar and Thawarchand Gehlot — were in the race too. Tomar is considered close to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. He hails from the Gwalior-Chambal region and served as the state party unit chief when Chouhan was the CM. A lesser known contender for the CM’s post was Narottam Mishra, a former state minister and a member of Amit Shah’s team (when Shah was BJP national president). Like Tomar, Mishra hails from Gwalior region and reportedly played a pivotal role in bringing Jyotiraditya Scindia and his supporters in the BJP. But instead of experimenting, the BJP leadership played with a straight bat. Perhaps it is aware that Chouhan alone has numbers on his side even without a head count. In the 2018 Assembly polls, Chouhan was the chief ministerial face as the BJP managed to get 109 out of 230 seats with a vote share of 41 per cent, marginally higher than the Congress’ 40.9 per cent. Chouhan was able to overcome anti-incumbency as a consequence of the 15-year rule.

Like Mishra, Chouhan played a key role in engineering large-scale defections. Political morality may condemn it, but in terms of realpolitik, Chouhan has the making of an Amit Shah, Atal Bihari Vajpayee or a mix of both. Getting Jyotiraditya Scindia on the BJP side was not easy as BJP leaders from the Gwalior-Chambal region have traditionally been opposed to ‘mahal’ politics. During the 2018 Madhya Pradesh Assembly polls, the BJP had coined a slogan, Mauf karo Maharaj, apna toh hai Shivraj (forgive us Maharaj, but we prefer Shivraj). However, once Scindia deserted the Congress, Chouhan was there, waiting for him with open arms. This flexibility speaks volumes about the man and his brand of politics.

As the chief minister of Madhya Pradesh for 13 years, Chouhan held the distinction of getting the dubious BIMARU tag that was labelled to a cluster of Hindi-speaking states (Bihar, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh also in the league) that were most backward on most socio-economic indicators. At a time, when the coronavirus pandemic battle needs to be fought in every state, Chouhan’s administrative skill and experience may be viewed at a premium.

In his previous three tenures as the CM, Chouhan organised dozens of panchayats, announcing many sops for the unorganised sector. Spending about four days a week in villages, solemnising marriages under the Kanyadan, and Ladli Laxmi schemes targeting women and girls, Chouhan had earned a popular nickname, mama' (maternal uncle), and emerged as a leader among the best performing chief ministers of that era.

In contrast to the BJP, the Congress in Madhya Pradesh is in a quandary and appearing to be a demoralised lot. The gravity of Jyotiraditya Scindia’s exit, defection of 22 party MLAs and the abrupt loss of power has created a huge crisis of confidence. In this grim scenario, some sections of the party view former Congress chief minister Digvijaya Singh as the villain of the piece. According to them, had Scindia been given the Rajya Sabha berth as the party’s nominee number one, ahead of Digvijaya, perhaps a split in the CLP could have been averted.

All eyes are on Sonia and Rahul Gandhi on how they would tackle the key issues in Madhya Pradesh. At present, Kamal Nath is both the state PCC chief and leader of the Congress Legislature Party. An overwhelming number of party MLAs want Nath to be the Leader of the Opposition and wait for an opportunity to topple the new BJP regime. This sense of anticipation may be exaggerated, but it is not an unlikely scenario as byelections to 23 Assembly seats are required to be held within the next six months. If the Congress manages to win 75 per cent of these seats — a formidable task — the grand old party will get a chance to evict the BJP from the seat of power.

The task of a new PCC chief is more daunting. The new incumbent has to keep the flock together, rejuvenate the party rank and file and help win the bulk of the 23 crucial Assembly bypolls. Since a number of vacant seats are in the Gwalior-Chambal region, the Congress faces a difficult challenge in meeting the combined strength of the Scindias, Chouhan, Tomar, Mishra and the rest. Edgy Congress leaders say that for decades, the party failed to build any alternative leadership in what is considered as a Madhavrao-Jyotiraditya fiefdom. While Digvijaya has past credentials, not many within the Congress are confident about his ability to deliver such problematic tasks.

There are two youngsters in the Madhya Pradesh Congress who have generated some interest within the party circles. Jitu Patwari, a former state youth Congress chief and minister in the Nath ministry, has reportedly caught Rahul Gandhi’s attention. Digvijaya’s son Jaivardhan was a minister, too. Hailing from Raghogarh that falls close to Gwalior-Guna, Jaivardhan, in a theoretical sense, has the potential to take on the mighty Scindias. But the big question is whether the Congress central leadership would act decisively or dither. It has already paid a heavy price for what it thought to be a ‘masterly inactivity’ when Sonia-Rahul sat over the appointment of the new MPCC chief for 15 months.

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