The Congress may have not projected a chief ministerial face in Madhya Pradesh, but in Chhindwara, the Lok Sabha bastion of state party president Kamal Nath, the party and its candidates are seeking votes for making him the chief minister. And their not-so-subtle pitch: it is the Mahakaushal region’s best and perhaps the last chance to have a chief minister. This, despite the fact that Nath is not contesting the Assembly polls.
Nath’s control over the party in Chhindwara is absolute. So much so that District Congress president Ganga Prasad Tiwari, when asked whether Congress president Rahul Gandhi would campaign in Chhindwara, said, “Kamal Nathji hain na.”
But the district, which is part of the key Mahakaushal region, has voted differently when it comes to Lok Sabha and Assembly polls. Nath has won the Lok Sabha seat consistently since 1980, barring once, but has been unable to really turn the tables on the BJP when it comes to Assembly polls.
For instance, the Congress could win only three out of the seven seats in Chhindwara district in 2013. Six months later, Nath went on to win the Lok Sabha seat for the ninth time, surviving the Narendra Modi wave which swept the Hindi heartland. BJP had the upper hand in Chhindwara in 2008 and 2003 state polls as well despite Nath continuously winning the Lok Sabha polls with comfortable margins.
Travel through the district now and the Congress’s campaign mantra here becomes clear. “Waqt hain badlaav ka. Jan jan ne thana hain, Kamal Nath ko mukyamantri banana hain,” read posters on Congress campaign vehicles. “Kamal Nath is going to be the chief minister which means the government will be run from Chhindwara,” Congress candidate from the city seat Deepak Saxena declared while addressing a corner meeting. He then reeled off promises with a caveat: “All these will be done when Kamal Nath becomes the Chief Minister.”
Saxena as well as the other candidates in the district are handpicked by Nath. So is the district Congress president. He has denied tickets to those who did not bow before him. For instance, one former MLA from Saunsar constituency, Ajay Choure, was considered a close associate of Nath’s predecessor Arun Yadav. Ajay was a claimant for ticket, but Nath gave it to his brother Vijay.
So why is Kamal Nath not contesting then? Neither Tiwari nor other Congress leaders have a satisfactory answer. “There must be some calculation,” said local Congress leader Rashid Khan, sipping tea outside one of the make-shift campaign offices of the party.
The BJP, however, is not worried about the “Kamal Nath for chief minister” pitch. District BJP president Narendra Raju Parmar said the party has been winning four to five Assembly seats in Chhindwara. “We have near total control over all the local bodies. Kamal Nath has always been here, but we have been winning,” he said.
While the Congress is banking on the anti-incumbency factor playing out against the Shivraj Singh Chouhan government along with price rise, the BJP admits that trading class in the urban centre is unhappy over implementation of the GST, but argues that the welfare measures of the state government will see it through. They say there is anti-incumbency against Nath too, arguing that he has not even been able to convert the meter gauge railway line from Chhindwara to Nagpur to broad gauge in all these years.
The “Kamal Nath for Chief Minister” chant is visible in neighbouring districts too. For instance, in Multai constituency in the neighbouring Betul district, Congress candidate Sukhdev Panse said the “Nath factor” will help him. “The entire Betul district wants Kamal Nath to become the Chief Minister. Yahan unka sikka chalta hain,” he said.