Madhya Pradesh: Divided We Fall

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Of the scores of rallies that Jyotiraditya Scindia has addressed so far in Madhya Pradesh, the one held at Morena on 1 September stood out. On that day, the sleepy town was transformed into a fairground. People turned up in huge numbers to get a glimpse of their ‘Maharaj’. The Scindia scion’s helicopter had landed 2 km away from the Ambedkar Stadium where he was to speak. Waiting for him on stage were Congress seniors, including former chief minister Digvijaya Singh.

Scindia’s convoy finally reached the spot 90 minutes late. The 42-year-old climbed the stage to a rousing cheer by the 1 lakh strong crowd. Apologising profusely to his colleagues for the delay, he asked for the speeches to begin. One after another, Congressmen took to the dais and addressed the crowd, which was getting restless. They had come to hear their ‘Maharaj’ speak and did not feign patience as they rooted for him each time someone stood up to speak. And each time, Scindia had to ask them to keep calm and allow for the speaker to complete his address.

Finally, when his turn came to address the crowd — he was the third but last speaker — Scindia asked for pin-drop silence and the crowd obliged by remaining quiet for the 45 minutes that he spoke. The sway he held over the gathering was exemplary, almost befitting a king. Rattling off facts and figures from the top of his head, he had the crowd hanging on to his every word. He narrated anecdotes and called on his family legacy and the good it had done for the people of the state.

What followed was interesting, and to an extent, telling of how the Congress is likely to plan its script in Madhya Pradesh ahead of the 25 November Assembly polls. After Scindia had finished speaking, Digvijaya took to the stage, but the crowd began to leave. Scindia had to intervene and ask them to stay back, a request he made again when it was the turn of Union minister Kamal Nath. On both occasions, the crowd obliged. A local party leader remarked, “It is only Maharaj who can ensure that the Congress comes back to power in Madhya Pradesh.”

Now that the poll date has been announced, the frenzy around Scindia is even more perceptible. But is there even a small chance it will translate into victory?

A decade out of power should have galvanised the party. But as the election looms large, the dilemma before the party leaders is whom to fight first? Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan or the internal bickering. The Congress is trying to present a united face in a bid to dislodge Chouhan, but the fissures run deep.

The state Congress unit revolves around a troika — Digvijaya, who was chief minister in 1993-2003 and has since been out of electoral politics; Nath, the party’s chief troubleshooter in Parliament; and Scindia. While Singh and Nath have years of experience, Scindia draws strength from his lineage, though he has come of age with his own efforts, both in the state and at the Centre.

Apart from this troika, the party has leaders such as state unit chief and Lok Sabha MP Kantilal Bhuria, Suresh Pachauri, who was MoS, Department of Personnel and Training in the UPA-1 government, Rajya Sabha MP Satyavrat Chaturvedi, Ajay Singh, MLA and son of late Congress leader Arjun Singh, and Arun Yadav, Lok Sabha MP and son of late Congress leader Subhash Yadav.

So the million-dollar question that remains unanswered is: Despite having an array of leaders, why has the Congress not been able to get its act together? The answer, perhaps, lies in paraphrasing an age-old dictum. United we stand, divided we fall. And how!

In the 2008 Assembly election, instead of an independent assessment, the ticket distribution was mostly divided among the troika. Out of 230 seats, 39 were given on Nath’s recommendation, followed by Scindia (32), Digvijaya (24), Pachauri (19), Ajay Singh (17), Bhuria (13), Chaturvedi (11), the late Subhash Yadav (8) and Lok Sabha MP Meenakshi Natarajan (3). The rest were decided on the basis of joint recommendations.

The result was disastrous. Despite such a “democratic distribution” of tickets, the party won only 71 seats. The flawed process also resulted in 13 rebels fighting against the official Congress candidates. The result was that both the rebel and the official candidate lost by margins of less than 3,000 votes.

Interestingly, all the rebels are now back in the Congress and eager for a ticket again. And that has created bad blood among the loyal ones. “The rebel candidates had the backing of state leaders. Their aim was to jeopardise the chances of the official candidates who were backed by rival leaders,” says a Congressman on the condition of anonymity. The official figure is 13, but if insiders are to be believed then the tally is close to 55 candidates who were backed by one Congress leader or the other.

In the 2003 election, the BJP won 168 seats with 43.7 percent of the votes, while the Congress could manage only 38 seats (32.5 percent). In 2008, the Congress’ vote share rose marginally to 33 percent, but the number of seats increased to 71. This was a big improvement, but nowhere close to posing a threat to the BJP regime.

“We lost in 2008 because there were problems with ticket distribution,” says Leader of the Opposition Ajay Singh. When asked what will change in the current polls, he quips, “It’s a case of once bitten twice shy.” Ticket distribution holds the key but whether the Congress will be able to up its game remains to be seen.

BJP leader and former chief minister Babulal Gaur says the Congress does not have leaders, instead it has several ‘kings’ who have assumed the role of regional satraps. “The Congress leaders haven’t organised a single Jan Andolan in the past 10 years,” he says. “Their style of functioning is a dichotomy in this day and age of enlightenment. That is why the BJP will come back to power.”

Similar sentiments are echoed by Congress cadres. A party functionary says that state Congress leaders feel more comfortable in New Delhi than in Madhya Pradesh. “If a political party has been out of power for 10 years, it’s a big challenge to keep the workers motivated. More so if the fruits of power are nowhere on the horizon,” he says.

However, the party does not seem to have learnt any lessons. On 23 September, the party had planned a rally from Vidisha. Before it could start, a fight broke out between rival supporters. Digvijaya’s supporters felt that he was not getting proper representation in the posters.

On 11 September, there was a coordination committee meeting in Bhopal. This was to be held after a press conference at the MP Congress Committee headquarters. As the hall was filled with party workers seeking tickets, they had to be forcibly removed and the doors were locked from inside. Digvijaya was also supposed to be present at the press meet, but he decided to come after visiting a friend. The congregation waited for him, but eventually started as the press contingent was getting restless. By the time Digvijaya arrived, the doors were locked. He banged on the doors, but nobody paid attention. Finally Digvijaya left without attending the meet. This led to further speculation about infighting.

Such examples of palace coup abound. In 2008, Pachauri was a Minister of State in the UPA-1 government but resigned to lead the state Congress unit ahead of the Assembly election held later that year.

After the 2008 debacle, Pachauri wanted to contest the 2009 Lok Sabha election from Hoshangabad. But the troika leaned on him to not contest and asked him to focus on helping the party win the maximum number of seats. As a result, he is now neither a legislator nor has a prominent post. He is nowhere to be seen at Congress rallies as he has conveyed that he is unwell.

Similar is the case in Chattarpur district. Manvendra Singh, the MLA from Maharajpur and a former minister in the Digvijaya Cabinet, was denied a ticket in 2008 due to frequent run-ins with Chaturvedi. He contested as an independent candidate and won. In the past year, he has been trying hard to get back into the Congress. He holds sway in the Bundelkhand region. But due to the rivalry within the Congress, he believes that it would be prudent to join the BJP rather than “beg for a Congress ticket”.

As if the infighting among the bigwigs was not enough, two minority leaders started fighting openly. Ghufran Azam, a two-term MP from Betul, shot off a letter to Aslam Sher Khan, former Indian hockey player and one-time MP from Betul. In his letter, Azam told Khan that he was a turncoat and would struggle to win even a councillor’s seat if he left the Congress. At the moment, Khan is holding his peace but one can expect fireworks. With the Muslim population close to 6 percent, the party would not like to lose them to either the BSP or the SP.

Unlike Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, caste does not play a decisive role during polls in Madhya Pradesh. “Even though the OBC population is more than 50 percent in MP, the state does not vote on caste lines,” says political analyst Girija Shankar. SCs/ STs form 30 percent of the population, while upper castes account for 14 percent.

Meanwhile, trouble is also brewing in Jhabua, the bastion of state Congress chief and Lok Sabha MP Kantilal Bhuria. His son Vikrant Bhuria is keen on contesting from Thandla, located in the district. But the sitting Congress MLA, Veersingh Bhuria, is in no mood to budge. Veersingh has also indicated that if the Congress does not retain him, he will have no option but to contest as a rebel candidate. If Vikrant Bhuria gets a party ticket, it goes without saying that rival leaders will use it as a lever against his father.

Bhuria is certainly not on good terms with the Union ministers who hail from Madhya Pradesh. During a meeting with party vice-president Rahul Gandhi, he came down heavily on both Kamal Nath and Scindia. He accused them of being non-cooperative with the state party unit. He also lamented that the UPA government’s policies and schemes are not being popularised by them in the state.

Sources claim that both Nath and Chaturvedi have conveyed to the leadership that Scindia should be named the CM candidate. Interestingly, Digvijaya is not keen on the job. His energies are instead focussed on establishing his son Jaywardhan, a Youth Congress leader, who is planning to contest from the family’s pocket borough of Raghogarh.

Digvijaya evokes strong reactions from both the cadres as well as the general public. Some hail him as a saviour while others detest him. Some party workers believe if he addresses a rally, it’s enough to ensure that the party will lose a few thousand votes. Of course, this could pass for the kind of vicious sniping and infighting that is dragging the Congress down.

In February 2011, when Ratnesh Solomon, a five-term Congress MLA from Jabera, passed away, it was decided to field his daughter Tanya in the bypoll. The party was sure of an outright win as Tanya was known to the people as a hard-working doctor. Considering the anti-Congress mood at the Centre, some leaders requested Digvijaya to resist campaigning as they felt it would help the BJP. Regardless, he hit the campaign trail on the last day, and Tanya lost by 11,000 votes. To this day, a sizeable section of the party blames Digvijaya for this defeat.

If the veterans are having trouble keeping the house in order, the young Turks don’t inspire much confidence either. For example, Ajay Singh hasn’t been able to capitalise on the legacy of his father, the late Arjun Singh. Though he is the Leader of the Opposition, his influence is restricted to his constituency in Churhat. He hails from Vindhya Pradesh, which sends 33 MLAs to the Assembly. Vindhya Pradesh used to be a Congress bastion, but the OBC vote, close to 40 percent here, has been poached by both the BJP and the BSP.

Similarly, Arun Yadav, who hails from Nimar division, has a poor track record. In 2008, the Congress managed to win just one out of the 22 seats in the division.

Political analysts feel that the Congress missed a trick by delaying the decision to name Scindia as the campaign committee chief. Now he is running against time.

As Scindia is tipped to be the chief ministerial candidate, the Congress is expected to win big in the Gwalior-Chambal division, which consists of 34 Assembly seats. It is also confident of doing well in the Bhopal division.`

The rampant infighting in the Congress should be music to the ears of the BJP. But its state chief Narendra Singh Tomar is hardly bothered. “Infighting or not, we have nothing to fear from the Congress,” he says. “We are going to win on the performance of the Chouhan government, which has done monumental work.”

He has reasons to be confident. Chouhan is a shrewd and crafty politician who has successfully changed the perception of the CM’s office. He is easily accessible; the image he has in rural areas is that of someone who has risen through the ranks. But the humble-looking Chouhan is definitely no pushover. He became the CM at the start of the third year of the BJP government by replacing Uma Bharti. Instead of allowing Gaur (who was displaced by Bharti) to turn a rebel, Chouhan persuaded him to join his Cabinet. Such amity is rare in Indian politics.

In sharp contrast to the Congress, Chouhan has kept his party on a tight leash. The way he dealt with state BJP chief Prabhat Jha, a confidant of RSS leader Suresh Soni, is illustrative of this. While Chouhan was a slow and steady operator, Jha was a man in a hurry. There were instances when Jha would directly call up state officials, including the DGP and the Chief Secretary. This created a rift between the party and the government and also ensured that the bureaucracy benefited from these differences.

When the question of giving Jha a second term came, Soni camped in Bhopal to ensure that the deal goes through. Everybody thought that the announcement of Jha’s name was a mere formality. But if sources are to be believed, Chouhan requested RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat to intervene and get Lok Sabha MP Narendra Singh Tomar as the party chief. Until the last minute, Chouhan gave the impression that Jha was all set to get a second term but made sure that Tomar got the job instead.

Another advantage that Chouhan has over others is that he has not kept himself hostage to the BJP structure. He has managed to build a direct rapport with the masses instead of banking on the party. BJP leaders concede that rather than Chouhan being dependent on the BJP, it is the party that is dependent on the CM.

The problem for Chouhan is not his party bosses but his ministers. Thirteen of them face corruption allegations, while two have been removed. Then the case of former minister Raghavji, who was arrested following a sleaze CD scandal, has brought a bad name to the government. “These are mere allegations of corruption that can be levelled on anybody in this day and age,” says Tomar.

Further, corruption charges against the bureaucracy have dented the government’s image. In March 2011, Income Tax officials raided IAS couple Arvind Joshi and Tinu Joshi, both principal secretaries, and recovered unaccounted wealth to the tune of Rs 360 crore. Probes are pending against 55 IAS officers. Opposition leaders allege that Chouhan is to blame because he is too lenient on the bureaucracy.

IT raids on low-level officials have exposed the corrupt underbelly of the state administration. For example, a raid at the house of Raman Dhuldhoye, a clerk in the Regional Transport Office, yielded Rs 7 crore in cash as well as gold and silver. Officials also found that Arjun Das Lalwani, a clerk in the state electricity board, owned many shops and a shopping complex. It’s embarrassing for the Chouhan government that even clerks have amassed ill-gotten wealth to the tune of several crores.

“The BJP doesn’t want honest party members. It wants middlemen, contractors and all those who can mint money,” says Digvijaya. “I demand that the CM should get his assets and possessions verified because only then the people would know the extent of his corruption.”

Chouhan has been cautious of his image and has tried to balance the core values of Hindutva with secularism. Madhya Pradesh was the first state to ban cow slaughter. In fact, an amended law entails harsher punishment. He has got the anti- conversion Bill passed in the Assembly, and made surya namaskar mandatory in government schools. On the other hand, you would find Chouhan attending Iftar parties with a skull cap. He has also started special trains to Ajmer for pilgrims. Mass marriages for Hindu as well as Muslim girls take place simultaneously — all this makes him more acceptable to the minorities.

This time there is a possibility that the BJP may field Muslim candidates. It is interesting to note that there are around 35-40 seats where the Muslim population varies between 20-50 percent. As far as the communal situation in the state is concerned, there have been flare-ups, but no major riot has been reported since Chouhan took over.

Chouhan’s major achievement has been Madhya Pradesh’s record agriculture growth. If statistics are to be believed, the wheat production in 2011-12 was 85 lakh tonnes while the figure in 2002-03 was 2 lakh tonnes. In the social sector, Chouhan’s schemes have been so well received that even the Centre has adopted them. In every village, there is an ambulance available for pregnant women to be taken to the hospital. When a girl child attains the age of 21, the state government gives her Rs 1 lakh.

State government employees have benefited from Chouhan’s largesse. He has made their dearness allowance at par with that of Central government employees. He has raised the age limit to 40 for employees to apply for higher positions. He has also allowed the hiring of daily wagers by the state departments for administrative work, which has been a boon for several unemployed youth. He has increased the retirement age of the higher education teachers to 65 years and has also accepted the UGC recommendations for pay fixation.

But it’s not all good news. One of the pet peeves against Chouhan is that most of his announcements never take off. Since he came to power, he has announced 7,334 schemes, but 3,513 of them are reportedly stuck in red tape.

When it comes to crimes against women, MP tops the national charts with more than 4,000 incidents of sexual assault every year. Chouhan has deputed female police officers as nodal in-charge of every district. In principle, it’s a good idea, but the problem is that the person in-charge of Khandwa is posted 190 km away at Bhopal. This creates major jurisdiction issues and the local police are often unable to help the officer probing complaints.

Despite all the permutations and combinations, observers feel that much of the battle will be decided at the altar of ticket distribution. “It would be incorrect to say that there is no infighting in the Congress, but let us wait until ticket distribution,” says political analyst Abhilash Khandekar. The Congress has been let down by ticket distribution in the past two elections, but this time the party feels that it can do better with checks and balances.

Madhya Pradesh is essentially a two-party state. But with the entry of the SP and BSP, the weaker of the two major parties is getting hit. While Chouhan is on a charm offensive, the Congress is finding it difficult to quell the internal rebellion.

Once again, ticket distribution will hold the key for the Congress, along with Scindia’s charisma. It looks like the BJP is ahead with the Congress in hot pursuit. The measure of the Congress gain will depend on how quickly its leaders can resolve their differences.

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