There’s no election office for the Congress party in Vidisha, because it doesn’t have a Lok Sabha candidate in this historical town of Madhya Pradesh, 50km away from the state capital, Bhopal. According to analysts and political observers, this Parliament constituency, once the seat of the Sunga empire and a busy trade centre in fifth century BC, offers a glimpse into the Congress’ state unit—a divided house.
In fact, the Congress had fielded a candidate, Rajkumar Patel, against Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) stalwart Sushma Swaraj from Vidisha, but the Election Commission rejected his nomination papers owing to a delay in submitting some important papers.
Now, Swaraj’s election to the Lok Sabha from this high-profile seat, which goes to the polls on 23 April, is almost a fait accompli. Polls in 13 of Madhya Pradesh’s 29 Lok Sabha seats will take place on 23 April and in the remaining 16 on 30 April.
Although Patel had alleged “conspiracy of (the) BJP administration (in the state) and the returning officer”, a Congress leader said on condition of anonymity that it was a “deliberate” move by Patel. Another Congress leader, who also didn’t want to be named, said Patel was “bought over” by the BJP.
Patel refuted the charges: “It was very unfortunate (the rejection of his nomination papers) but nobody can question my integrity and loyalty to my party. My party is my mother, and I will not be able to cheat it,” he said.
For Suresh Mehrotra, a political analyst based in Bhopal, all these charges and countercharges are indications of what’s wrong with the Congress in the state. “In fact, there is no organization such as the Congress in Madhya Pradesh, but there are groups, belonging to (senior leaders) Arjun Singh, Kamal Nath, Digvijay Singh, Jyotiraditya Scindia, Suresh Pachouri, Subhash Yadav and there is (the) Rahul (Gandhi) brigade also. They point fingers at each other, fight with each other, and there is no time to fight against the opposition,” he said.
Some others agree. "Look at (Union minister) Arjun Singh, he is addressing public rallies asking people to vote against his daughter (Veena Singh, who is contesting as an independent candidate from Sidhi) and (former chief minister) Digvijay Singh tells us to defeat his brother (Laxman Singh, who is contesting on a BJP ticket)," said Ramesh Vishwakarma, a resident of Vidisha.
For sure, the party has left several voters disappointed.
Rahim Mir, who came to the Tilak Chowk market in Vidisha along with two burkha-clad family members, is angry about the internal squabbles in the Congress and its failure to field a candidate from Vidisha. "We have to accept what is kept for us, we have no choice."
Even the Congress leadership at the Centre appears to have failed to rein in the state’s warring leaders. After the 2008 state assembly polls, Congress president Sonia Gandhi had reportedly told a party colleague that Madhya Pradesh was a state where the party could have won easily but it was "given on a platter to the BJP by our leaders". The Congress won only 71 seats in the 230-member Madhya Pradesh assembly in the 2008 polls while the BJP returned to power, winning 143 seats. In the 2004 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP had won 25 of the 29 seats from the state, with 48.13% of the votes. The Congress won four seats with 34.07% of the votes.
However, going by past performance, Patel may not have won even if he had contested the election from Vidisha, which is one of the 15 Lok Sabha seats that the Congress hasn’t been able to wrest from the BJP since 1989. In 1989, Raghavji, now finance minister in the Shivraj Singh Chauhan-led Madhya Pradesh government, won from the constituency, defeating Congress’ sitting Lok Sabha member Pratap Bhanu Sharma. In 1991, former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee won from this constituency, securing 58% of the votes polled.
Although Vajpayee relinquished the seat, Vidisha elected Chauhan five times in a row to the Lok Sabha—in 1991, 1996, 1998, 1999 and 2004. The BJP retained the seat in the by-election after Chauhan quit the Lok Sabha to become chief minister.
"We want to break the record of (former prime minister) P.V. Narasimha Rao’s 539,000 votes majority (from the Nandyal constituency in Andhra Pradesh)," said Raj Jain, a BJP member. He said the Congress candidate’s absence has helped Swaraj, who is also in charge of the party’s electioneering in Chhattisgarh and Orissa, to concentrate on other parts of Madhya Pradesh as well as these states.
Some voters, such as Rakesh Shukla of Vidisha, say public anger against the Congress also stems from the fact that it didn’t do enough to develop the state’s infrastructure while it was in power for 10 years, from 1993 to 2003.
"Did you see this road?" asked Shukla, driving his car on the smooth NH86 extension road. "The Congress was in power for 10 years. We used to take at least 3 hours to cover the 50km road to reach Vidisha. This is all thanks to the BJP government," he said.
Amiruddin, who uses one name, said: "The state government is doing the best to serve the poor." He said, "But (the Congress-led government) at the Centre is not giving us power and foodgrains...that is why most of our villages face shortage of power."
Whatever may be the opinion of such people at the grass roots, there’s no dearth of optimism in the Congress camp.
"The people of Madhya Pradesh, like in other places, have a choice between (BJP’s prime ministerial candidate L.K.) Advani and (Prime Minister) Manmohan Singh. The whole country knows the real nature of these two leaders," N.P. Prajapaty, a senior state Congress leader, said, adding that "we have nothing to lose, but gain".
The BJP’s strategy
Political observers in the state say the BJP has mostly sought votes for its development initiatives in central India—both in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. "Both states have leaders (Chauhan in Madhya Pradesh and Raman Singh in Chhattisgarh) who stay out of controversies. They don’t make any effort to cash in on religious sentiments and they seek votes on a positive plank—development," said Neeraj Mishra, a Bhopal-based official of a corporate house. He did not want to identify the company he works for and other details.
As an organization, too, the BJP is cohesive in the state.
“The style of functioning is almost perfect here. They pull out maximum money from the Central funds and they engage party sympathizers for construction works. Voters are happy because they have good roads and businessmen as well as partymen are satisfied because they have the money,” said a businessman in Bhopal, who didn’t want to be identified.
Chauhan, according to many party workers in the state, is the hero for the time being. "He is young, dynamic, hard-working and a friend of all caste groups and the poor. The Congress has lost its confidence because of him," said Prabhat Jha, campaign manager of the BJP in the state.
However, Swaraj’s decision to contest from Vidisha had triggered speculation that she would emerge as a strong contender for the chief minister’s post.
"Now BJP leaders are not very keen to remain at the centre. They want to be power centres in states," said Mehrotra, who is also the editor-in-chief of Whispers in the Corridors, a magazine published from Bhopal.
Jha says this is untrue. "It is just a rumour. She is one of our prominent leaders and we want to make her the right hand of Advaniji."
But some BJP leaders say it is too early to dismiss the Congress as a weak electoral force in the state. "It is the only party other than the BJP which has a national network. The BSP (Bahujan Samaj Party, led by Uttar Pradesh chief minister Mayawati) is still at infancy in many parts of the state. The Congress will remain as our main enemy," Sunil, a BJP leader, said asking that his surname not be disclosed.