In the states the BJP rules, it has forced every other party to identify and announce its chief ministerial candidate. Where its own chief ministers are doing well, the build-up usually announces them to be good enough to be prime ministers. Shivraj Singh Chouhan in Madhya Pradesh is often touted by senior leaders as one such claimant.
The Congress works on inverted tactics. It never announces a chief ministerial candidate and sticks to the “the-high-command-will- decide” line. In Madhya Pradesh, the state with the highest number of Congress satraps, the party tried something new. All the claimants for the CM’s chair — Digvijaya Singh, Kamal Nath, Suresh Pachauri and Jyotiraditya Scindia — appeared on the same stage rally after rally, as if to reiterate that the Congress was united.
“The BJP, which had claimed 184 seats and 85 percent approval ratings for Shivraj, will now happily settle for anything just above 116,” says NP Prajapati, chief whip of the Congress in the outgoing Assembly. He predicts that in a house of 230, the Congress would clear 120 and that the BJP will be stuck at around 90 seats. This is not idle banter. In its report after polling day, the State Intelligence Bureau gave the Congress 118 seats to the BJP’s 100. Most opinion polls also now seem to have revised their earlier predictions of a BJP landslide to a “tough, unpredictable battle at hand”.
What is giving the Congressmen hope?
The Vindhya region, which had returned just two out of 30 seats to the Congress in 2008, may yield many more this time. The tide might have turned entirely in Bundelkhand’s 28 seats, as many believe Uma Bharti has returned the hand she was dealt by Chouhan, who banned her entry into Madhya Pradesh. Uma is now an MLA in Uttar Pradesh’s part of Bundelkhand. Her rebel party, the Bhartiya Jan Shakti, had won five seats in 2008. The same returns might disrupt the BJP this time.
The part projection of Jyoriraditya Scindia as CM candidate may have helped matters in the Gwalior-Chambal region. The overall feeling in the Congress is that of change, as 10 years of BJP rule may have created regional ennui and anti-incumbency against sitting MLAs.
This is most prominent in the Hoshangabad-Jabalpur region, which was swept by the BJP the last time. A standout case here is of Girjashankar Sharma, BJP MLA from Itarsi, who filed his nomination as an independent candidate until he was officially given the BJP symbol. Sharma may or may not win, but the split in the BJP was nonetheless out.
Kamal Nath may turn out to be the single biggest factor in favour of the Congress. Though convinced late of a Congress upsurge, he gave it his all in the last eight weeks. He personally called every aspirant, candidate and worker in each of the 230 constituencies to convey the message that he was in-charge. Scindia and Digvijaya, for once, played second fiddle to Nath’s organisational skills.
Many feel that if in the final analysis, the Congress falls short, it will not be because Nath didn’t try hard enough, but because he was brought in too late. If indeed the Congress makes it, he would be the undisputed choice of all legislators. Scindia, who was made the chairman of the campaign committee, a euphemism for chief ministerial candidate, may find that though his image worked initially, it had begun to fade by the end of the two-month-long campaign, as he failed to connect with rural masses.
What has caused worry lines to appear in the BJP camp is the poor response to Narendra Modi’s rallies. A month ahead of the election announcement, a over five lakh people gathered in Bhopal’s Dussehra Ground. A month later, less than 7,000 turned up to hear Modi at the same venue. Several rallies in Bundelkhand, Nimar and Malwa flopped so miserably that the standing joke was that television channels were paid not to show the crowds. BJP spokespersons gave all sorts of reasons from early arrival to harvest season. Yet what can’t be discounted is the appeal that Modi holds for the urban young crowd and first-time voters.
In the end, the biggest draw in this election was Chouhan himself. Starting with a pre-election campaign to hectic engagements during the polls, the incumbent cm proved that only a united Congress with all its satraps on the same stage could have taken him on. He fell for the odd publicity stunt in between — like filing a defamation suit against Sonia Gandhi — but on the whole, he marshalled his resources well. If he does deliver a third straight BJP government, he may emerge as a challenge to Modi from within. Not the first, but perhaps the most credible.