Congress: A ship in search of a captain
In 2013, the Congress in MP faces a do-or-die battle which can only be won if the various ‘parties’ in the party unite. HT runs a scanner over the main opposition party only to find that a critical vacancy needs to be filled, Ashutosh Shukla writes.
The biggest strength of the Congress is its omnipresent status in the state. A Congress worker and a Congress flag can be spotted even in the remotest of corners of the state.
Not very long ago, BJP workers -- particularly in remote tribal pockets -- would ask the electorate to vote for the “other” Congress, ie, “Congress with the lotus election sign”. The situation has changed of course but ‘reach’ remains the Congress’s biggest advantage in Madhya Pradesh.
Even though observers opine that “committed votebank” is only for cadre-based parties like BJP or the Communists, the Congress in this state actually has committed voters.Chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan may do wonders, spiralling prices of goods may make life miserable, but there would still be people and families who stamp on the Congress symbol for generations.
The Congress is a party of leaders, and not cadres. While this may work against the party, it also helps in an unique manner: Congress leaders, rather than blaming higher-ups, often take it upon themselves to run their own little campaigns and political operations.
At times this can be counter-productive, but it’s definitely better than the extreme centralization of power that ails the BJP in the Shivraj Singh-Prabhat Jha regime.
The Congress in MP boasts of big names like Jyotiraditya Scindia, Digvijaya Singh, Kamal Nath, Kantilal Bhuria, Arun Yadav, Ajay Singh and many more.
While too many cooks can spoil the broth, it is also equally true that if these leaders work in tandem during the 2013 elections, the party would be unstoppable. “Even if they divide regions among themselves, the BJP would be nowhere,” said a Congress leader.In MP, where the BJP has been in power for two consecutive terms, antiincumbency can be the most potent weapon in the hands of the Congress.
Surveys and public opinions in urban areas may suggest that Chouhan still has popular support, but Congress leaders like Kantilal Bhuria insist that there is a massive undercurrent against the BJP regime and by the time elections arrive, it would be on the surface for everyone to see.
The Congress knows that yet another drubbing in the state election will shake up its very roots in MP.
That “survival instinct” needs to translate into a strong determination to win. Against an increasingly complacent BJP, the very fact that it has been out of power for eight years can turn into the Congress’s biggest strength.
Several of the above-mentioned strengths of the Congress can turn into weaknesses if handled wrongly.
First and foremost, political observers say that the party actually comes together only during elections -- something like a fire-fighting team. Once the contingency is over, it disperses."For five long years after the election, Congress activists don’t do anything. If they are in power, they enjoy the spoils of power and if outside, they do their own job," said a veteran party leader.
“Look at the BJP, despite being in power for almost a decade, their programme schedule is far, far busier than Congress. Why does it happen? That’s because most of the top Congress leaders are in Delhi, and those left back in MP are their representatives. There is no one at the grassroot level. There is just a crowd only when leaders arrive… and they seldom come,” he added.
The Congress appears inert as it has failed to capitalise on the antiincumbency sentiments existing in the state by converting them into potent electoral issues.
Interestingly, a couple of days after the premises of builder Dilip Suryavanshi and mining baron Sudhir Sharma (both considered close to the ruling BJP) were raided, the Congress was looking askance as to how to respond to the situation.
On the other hand, when price rise was erupting as an issue across the country, the BJP started a ‘jail bharo andolan’ in no time.
In Indian politics, the decibel level with which a message is delivered is often as important as the message itself. That seems to have been lost on the Congress in the state.It also remains conspicuously silent every time Chouhan -- facing flak for power, fertiliser or gunny bag crises - turns the tables on the opposition by bringing in the Centre's role and accusing it of meting out step-motherly treatment to MP.
In the absence of proper coordination among the top leaders from the state, the party organisation is in a state of constant drift.
When there is some intra-party dispute or the issue of forming the state executive, decision-making is rendered so difficult that once All India Congress Committee (AICC) general secretary in-charge of party affairs in Madhya Pradesh, BK Hariprasad, had said, "I can't help it. There are too many big leaders in MP."
The contradictions within the party became evident from the way the issue of disqualification of party MLAs Chaudhury Rakesh Singh and Kalpana Parulekar from the state assembly was handled.
A group within the party deciding to blow up the issue, hit the streets and turn it into a war cry against corruption under BJP rule in the state. But the grand plan soon fell flat as strings were pulled from Delhi and the two MLAs ended up apologizing to the Speaker and lobbying Chouhan for getting their expulsion revoked.
Having largely been a gconvenienth Opposition till now, there is a chance for the Congress to redeem itself in the next 14 months before going to the people.
In the assembly, there has recently been some sharpness in the partyfs attack on the ruling dispensation.Mobilising public opinion at the grassroots level poses a great challenge for the party, and therefore a great opportunity. What is being termed as 'Coalgate' provides the party ammunition against Chouhan, who reportedly in November 2007, wrote to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to allow Reliance Power Ltd to use surplus coal from captive blocks of the Sasan Ultra Mega Power Project being set up by the company in Chitrangi, Singrauli.
While the BJP has already held puts its "defense" mechanism on the offensive by even organizing a press conference by state industries minister Kailash Vijayvargiya, the state Congress has done hardly anything to attack the government.
The Dilip Suryavanshi-Sudhir Sharma saga of influence-peddling and money-making under the indulgent eyes of the powers-that-be is also a volcano waiting to explode.
Political observers say it might become difficult for Chouhan if more details come out.
Having been out of power for eight years, the Congress has nothing to lose and everything to gain. But for a turnaround, the party will have to find a fresh, energetic leader who can unite all factions and lead a campaign against the BJP and Chouhan.
In other words, the Congress in MP now has the perfect opportunity to effect an internal change of guard.
Chief minister Chouhan is the real threat for the Congress. It knows to win MP back, a leader who can match up to Chouhan has to be found.
The incumbent's communication skills have to be matched, grip on party and political machinery has to be matched, ability to give an impression that everyone is on board has to be matched.
Roads, infrastructure, law and order are in tatters, but still the chief minister has been able to convince people that things are much better than in the Congress regime.Power crisis may still be persisting but geffortsh are being made to streamline generation and distribution of power -- as BJP state president Prabhat Jha puts it,"We will be giving 24-hour power to even villages from 2013, the election year and Congress would be robbed of its most potent electoral plank."
The anti-incumbency factor of UPA II, coupled with scores of scams and scandals, rising prices, a doddering economy and a state of paralysis in governance, is already hitting the Congress in MP bad.
Many leaders with whom HT spoke to said that UPA II is doing more to ensure their defeat in 2013 than what the BJP is doing.
There is an urgent need to bring all the top leaders together under the banner of the Congress -- not "Digvijay Congress" or "Kamal Nath Congress".
The late Madhavrao Scindia had organised a conclave in Dabra to forge unity in the party - and many party leaders now feel that time has come for a similar meet.
If Congress loses the election in 2013, then it would be 15 years out of power for a party that ruled the state for decades after its creation in 1956.
If that happens, MP could also go the Gujarat way. That, is perhaps the biggest threat.