It’s a minute or two past 7 o’clock in the evening when Kamal Nath makes his way in an open jeep, to the sound of deafening drumbeats, down a narrow lane of Gulabara locality in his home turf of Chhindwara. A small stage, covered in frilled white has been rigged up at the lane’s end for a nukkad meeting.
That scene may seem unremarkable in the run-up to polls — it is not. In this election, there is talk in Chhindwara about how the mighty Congress leader, around whom so many elections have revolved, and who is rumoured to have pulled strings even inside the rival BJP camp here, has been driven this time to make an appearance at the smallest of gatherings.
In his short five-minute speech, Kamal Nath speaks of how, in his career spanning more than four decades, he has put Chhindwara on the country’s map. “Earlier, they would ask, kaun sa Chhindwara (which Chhindwara)?”
Kamal Nath’s Congress smells a chance in this election in Madhya Pradesh — it had closed the gap with the BJP in 2018, finishing a little behind in vote share and slightly ahead in seats. It ran a 15-month government that was brought down by the Jyotiraditya Scindia-led defections in 2020.
This time, too, for the most part, despite speculation about Kamal Nath vs Digvijaya Singh, the notoriously faction-ridden MP Congress has put up a united front under Kamal Nath’s leadership. Yet for all the show of unity and the big leader gracing the small meeting, the sense is unmistakable – Congress is counting, most of all, on the BJP to defeat the BJP. It calculates that in a bipolar polity, if the BJP faces anti-incumbency, it can be the only beneficiary.
If the BJP’s campaign this time is uber centralised in a bid to paper over the wear and tear of a four-term incumbency, the Congress campaign is hyper local and dispersed.
In Indore, Deepak Joshi ‘Pintu’, first time candidate, who belongs to a powerful Congress family, says that, apart from the regular Congress manifesto, he has customised manifestoes for every ward in his constituency. Jitu Patwari, working president of the MP Congress, also a candidate from Indore, seen as a rising star within the party, flaunts his social media agility – “I am on all social media platforms, about 25 lakh follow me”. As he walks about in Rau, his constituency, his meet-and-greet with voters, set to rousing music, is being posted online simultaneously. If the BJP plays down Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan and brings Prime Minister Narendra Modi centrestage, Congress candidates are stars of their own campaigns.
But it seems that the Congress is going local as an escape, not as a strategy. This is because in terms of the big issues and ideas, Kamal Nath’s party has not been seen to take on the Shivraj government. It has been an Opposition that has not roused itself for a state-wide mobilisation, organising only local and perfunctory protests – be it on the issue of the state’s many recruitment scams that blight the future of its young, or on farmers’ issues in an agriculture-dominated economy. Kamal Nath himself, not seen as a mass leader, has spent most of his career in the political corridors of Delhi.
On most issues in this election, in fact, the MP Congress has plunged headlong into a me-too race with the ruling BJP.
Take, for instance, what is called, loosely, the party’s soft Hindutva. Be it Jitu Patwari in Indore who makes a point of paying his respects to every temple deity during his walkabout in his constituency, or Kamal Nath who installed a 101-feet Hanuman statue and organised programmes by prominent kathavachaks (religious story-tellers) in Chhindwara, or the Congress in Khandwa organising Hanuman Chalisa in the town’s Gandhi Bhavan ahead of elections – these could be seen as the party’s legitimate strategy to break the presumed monopoly on the “Hindu” vote of the BJP. Except that it is also accompanied by a squeamishness vis-a-vis sharing the frame with the “Muslim” voter that panders to the rules of the game set by the BJP.
In Khargone, where in April 2022, after incidents of arson and stone-pelting on a Ram Navami procession, the Chouhan government, borrowing from the playbook of Yogi Adityanath in UP, short-circuited due process and demolished several homes, using the fig leaf of illegal constructions, in Muslim localities, the Congress has dithered in raising its voice against the clear injustice of the government action.
Admittedly, in a polarised climate, with a hardening majoritarianism the dominant political strain, there will be a blowback from any outreach to the minority community. “The Congress is anti-Hindu, people know,” says Shalini Ratoria, an RSS office-bearer who runs a group of educational institutions in Khargone. “The benefit of all government schemes goes to Muslims, but after such incidents of arson and stone-pelting, people think inko suvidhaon ke laabh se vanchit kiya jaaye (the stone-pelters’ punishment should also be that they are deprived of government schemes).”
It is not an easy political predicament for the Congress in Khargone, but asks former MLA Parasram Dandir: “What would have happened, what would the party have lost, if our MLA had taken 10 people in front of the JCB?”
In the Muslim locality of Khaskhas Badi, the wounds are still raw, as many point to the clearing where the demolished homes had been. “Baap dadaon ke time se niwas… peedhian chali aa rahin thi (my family had lived in that home for generations),” says Mahboob. “They didn’t let us even pick up our utensils,” says Aslam.
The residents of Khaskhas Badi feel violated by the BJP government, and abandoned by the Congress. Says Saud Khan, a mechanic: “Congress MLA ashwasan dete rahe, madad nahin ki (gave assurances, but didn’t help).” The Congress MLA came to Khaskhas Badi recently to give a 15-minute election speech, they say, while the BJP does not even come to ask for votes in the Muslim locality.
The Congress has also given in to the BJP in the matter of the promises of cash transfers and subsidies that have become the dominant theme of this election campaign in MP. It is a race to offer the voter instant gratification.
CM Chouhan’s prominent poll-eve Ladli Behna yojana which offers Rs 1,250 per month to women has kicked off a frantic competition. The Congress has pledged Rs 1,500 to women and a gas cylinder for Rs 500 and a reversal to the Old Pension Scheme. Among the promises in the leaflets distributed by Jitu Patwari in Indore: Every child will get, per month, Rs 500 until Class 5, Rs 1,000 until Class 10, and Rs 1,500 until Class 12. Rs 1,200 per month to the elderly and widows; Rs 2,000 to those with special needs. Daughters will get a total of Rs 2,51,000 from birth to marriage (of which 1,01,000 will be in cash at the time of marriage)… and so on.
In this rush to offer the voter more cash, here and now, big ideas, the possibilities of structural changes, on both sides, are a casualty. The Chouhan government uses the flurry of cash promises to sidestep questions such as why has MP still not been able to attract any industry worth the name. The Congress’s joining the race flagged off by the BJP means not just that it does not hold the Chouhan government accountable for its larger failures and abdications, but also that it relegates its own broader planks and ideas that it tom-toms nationally.
The demand for a caste census is conspicuous by its marginal presence in the Congress campaign and manifesto in MP — all but crowded out of the frame by the cash transfer promises. To an extent, this is also because of reasons of demography — though OBCs are said to constitute about 50 per cent or more in MP, they are a scattered presence across the state’s well-defined regions. The absence of a dominant pan-state OBC group means that the demand for a caste count does not resonate in the same way that it does, say, in Bihar or UP. Moreover, when it comes to OBC representation in its leadership echelons, the BJP is ahead of the Congress in MP.
And yet, that is not the only or main reason why Rahul Gandhi’s big idea ahead of 2024 is being given the go-by by his party in this Assembly election in MP.
If it wins this election, it will not be because the Congress in MP offered an alternative to the BJP, but because it became the receptacle for the anti-BJP stirrings. A party that is busy taking the BJP’s cue in its fight with the BJP does not have the energy or resources to do the hard labour of politics and political mobilisation — to shape and communicate an idea on the ground, to draw the links and connect the dots needed to convince voters, for instance, why it believes a caste census is necessary to address caste backwardness, in the country and in MP.