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Why the Congress is hopeful in Madhya Pradesh

The Congress in 2018 is in sharp contrast to what it used to be in 2008 and even 2013. There is clearly a whiff of change in the party this time.

Madhya Pradesh Elections 2018 Updated: Oct 11, 2018 11:03 IST
Uttam Kumar
Uttam Kumar
Hindustan Times, Bhopal
Congress,Madhya Pradesh,Madhya Pradesh election
Congress president Rahul Gandhi waves to his supporters during a roadshow, at Jabalpur, in Madhya Pradesh on October 6.(HT File Photo/Mujeeb Faruqui )

Madhya Pradesh Congress’ media coordinator Narendra Saluja doesn’t let visitors shift his focus from the live inputs — videos shots and text messages — he is receiving from Kamal Nath’s rally in Vidisha .

In the next room, media department in-charge Shobha Oza, former President, All India Mahila Congress, is briefing a group of journalists about the party’s programme.

A set of spokesmen occupy other rooms to give sound bites to local TV journalists. A separate war room has come up on the premises, and it keeps a watch on the minutest of details of the campaign.

Suddenly, a Congress worker barges into Saluja’s room screaming, “The BJP is accusing us of attacking Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s convoy.” In the next few minutes, Congress’ counter attack is all over social media.

Welcome to ‘Congress 2018’. The party is in sharp contrast to what it used to be in 2008 and even 2013. Those, too, were election years, but the party had its office in a dilapidated building that wore a deserted look. There is a whiff of change this time.

WILL THE GRAND OLD PARTY MAKE A COMEBACK AFTER 15 YEARS?
STRENGTHS
Congress feels it has a real chance because the BJP is facing 15 years of anti-incumbency.
Organisational network has expanded. More than 100,000 workers have been accommodated in new units.
With Kamal Nath and Jyotirdatiya Scindia taking centrestage, the Congress presents a more united front this time.
Congress’ has a well planned social media campaign. It has already hit the ground with rallies of senior leaders.
The Congress hopes to gain from the unrest within the upper castes.
WEAKNESSES
Candidate selection is going to be a difficult task.
Congress has been out of power for 15 years. Energising the party cadre will be a real challenge.
Managing potential rebels after ticket distribution.
Mobilisation of resources.
Preventing division of anti-BJP votes in areas bordering UP, where Bahujan Samaj Party has a base.

The change

Former union minister Kamal Nath was appointed Madhya Pradesh Congress chief on May 1, replacing Arun Yadav. The decision was not easy, particularly because the Madhya Pradesh unit was faction-ridden. But several factors worked in favour of Kamal Nath. He is a nine-term Lok Sabha MP from Chhindwara and is one of the senior-most politicians of the Congress known for his managerial skills.

Almost half the district units of Congress in the poll-bound state got a new chief in the next few weeks.

Nath borrowed a leaf out of BJP chief Amit Shah’s book, and created new units within the party. Booth units, each having 11 office bearers, were created under sectors. Each sector constituted about 10-11 booths. The concept of booth committees and Shakti Kendras (clusters of 2-3 booths) had so far been followed only by the BJP.

The Congress’ organisation had been rusting after having been out of power for 15 years. Just bringing life back into the Madhya Pradesh Congress Committee (MPCC) was a big challenge. Congress’ in-charge for Madhya Pradesh, Dipak Babaria, a leader from Gujarat, brought the concept of booths and sectors to Madhya Pradesh, a party leader said.

“The new structure helped us make space for more than 1 lakh new office bearers. They are now working with renewed vigour,” Saluja said.

“Nearly three months went into creating the new organisational structure,” Oza said.

The focus then shifted to the campaign.

The message

“Protests by farmers, jobs, rapes, malnutrition and poor roads are major issues for us,” Congress spokesman Pankaj Chaturvedi said. In July, Congress president Rahul Gandhi visited Mandsaur, where six farmers were killed in police firing the previous year, and announced that if the Congress won, the new government would waive farm loans. “Shivraj Singh Chouhan faces a strong anti-incumbency. The state’s finances are in poor shape, but a desperate chief minister is announcing poll sops,” former union minister Suresh Pachauri said.

Congress’ broad campaign message remains focused on governance issues, but there is a fine imprint of soft Hindutva too. A day after taking over as Madhya Pradesh Congress chief, Kamal Nath visited Ujjain’s Mahakaleshwar temple and the Pitambara Peeth in Datia. Its campaign committee chairman, Jyotiraditya Scindia, too, visited the temples between May and June.

“We are conscious of BJP’s effort to communalise the election. There are about half a dozen districts where a communal polarisation can help the BJP,” a senior Congress functionary said, requesting that he not be identified.

Kamal Nath has promised a gaushala (cow shelter) in every panchayat if Congress is voted to power.

The chief minister is personally countering the Congress. “They are doing things as they come. Whatever anyone demands, they say we will do it. The question is that when they were in power for the last 50 years why didn’t they do it, what use is it to claim that they will do something now? People cannot be fooled so easily. Just because you go to a temple or speak about gaushalas, people are not going to forget what they did in the past,” said Shivraj Singh Chouhan.

The unity

A tug of war between Congress’ heavyweights had been troubling the party in the last three elections. The Congress appears conscious of this fact now.

As state president, Kamal Nath plays a supervisory role in Madhya Pradesh.

Scindia, the promising young politician from Gwalior, is touring the entire state and drawing crowds.

At his rally in Mandsaur in July, Rahul Gandhi left no one in doubt that Kamal Nath and Scindia would be central to all poll-related decision. “Rahul has done a balancing act,” a Congress leader said.

Former chief minister Digvijaya Singh, who was removed as general secretary and dropped from the Congress working committee, has been appointed the chairman of the coordination committee and given the job of coordinating with Congress workers and dealing with potential disgruntled candidates who might be denied tickets.

“On the face of it, they look united. But, each one of them nurses chief ministerial ambition. They are divided from within,” BJP’s Rajya Sabha MP Prabhat Jha said.

“Congress is a united front. Every leader has an area of influence. BJP has only Shivraj,” Oza says.

The challenge

The Congress had its best chance of winning Madhya Pradesh in 2008, but lost it because of faulty ticket distribution and the factional feud, a leader said on the condition of anonymity. It was an election in which the Congress came closest to the BJP (winning 71 seats) after the 2003 rout. Pachauri was the Congress chief then.

“Candidate selection is going to be crucial in this election. We will give tickets to those who can win the seat. There is no confusion amongst us,” Pachauri said.

The proposed alliance with the Bahujan Samaj Party, the Samajwadi Party and the Gondwana Gantantra Party is yet to be sealed. Together, these three parties polled about 2.9 million votes — almost equal to the vote difference between the BJP and the Congress — in 2013.

“We hope it will be sealed soon,” a Congress leader said.

First Published: Oct 11, 2018 08:53 IST