A day after the Congress brought down three BJP governments to return to the Hindi heartland, hectic lobbying and behind-the-scene manoeuvres began in the party on who should be the new Chief Ministers.
In Madhya Pradesh, former Union Minister and state Congress president Kamal Nath is tipped to be the Chief Minister since the majority of the newly-elected MLAs, it is learnt, prefer him over Jyotiraditya Scindia.
In Rajasthan, however, the race for the Chief Minister’s post may go down to the wire. After a day of high drama that saw persistent sloganeering by party workers and a six-hour meeting of the newly-elected MLAs, both Ashok Gehlot and Sachin Pilot refused to back down.
Sources in both camps claimed support of the majority of the MLAs. Unable to take a decision, AICC general secretary in charge of the state Avinash Pande and AICC observer K C Venugopal left for Delhi where they will meet Congress president Rahul Gandhi to submit a report. A decision will be taken in Delhi Thursday.
Turning to Shakti, his party’s internal messaging platform, Gandhi, sources said, has asked party workers to reveal their choice for Chief Minister in all three states. Sources said he sent a pre-recorded audio message, seeking feedback.
Sources in the Pilot camp said they are counting on the support of a large number of young MLAs, most from the Ajmer, Bharatpur and Jaipur divisions. They said the “weakest spot” was the Jodhpur division, Gehlot’s home turf. Gehlot and Pilot, sources said, will remain in Jaipur and await the word from Delhi.
In a shot in the arm for the other camp, a delegation of six Independent MLAs — all Congress rebels — met Gehlot. Ramkesh Meena, MLA from Gangapur, told The Indian Express: “I am ready to lend support to the Congress on the condition that Gehlot is made Chief Minister. The Congress gave tickets to wrong people and that’s why its tally went down. A party should not deny tickets to deserving candidates just because they are supporters of certain leaders.” Other Independent legislators who met Gehlot included Babulal Nagar, Laxman Meena and Raj Kumar Gaur.
In Bhopal, the majority of the MLAs, in their interaction with AICC observer A K Antony and Jitendra Singh, were said to have preferred Kamal Nath over Scindia.
The state units of Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan opted for the Congress standard operating procedure, authorising the party president to nominate the legislature party leader who will take over as Chief Minister.
While senior party leaders said the 2019 Lok Sabha elections will be kept in mind while picking the Chief Ministers, a young-versus-experienced debate has complicated the race, both in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh.
Congress sources conceded it will be a difficult choice for Gandhi since he will have to balance caste and factional equations with an eye on 2019, apart from the challenge to strike the right chord on the generation race. The task has become more tricky given that the Congress is one short of the halfway mark in both states, which will not give him much elbow room to experiment.
That is not the case in Chhattisgarh though where it has clear majority but three contenders for the top job. The newly elected MLAs were meeting Wednesday evening in Raipur.
In Madhya Pradesh, the Congress moved swiftly after the last result was announced early in the morning by the Election Commission. Nath, Scindia and Digvijaya Singh met Governor Anandiben Patel and staked claim to form the government. Nath got in touch with BSP chief Mayawati who announced the support of her party’s two MLAs to the Congress. The SP too promised support of its lone legislator.
A former Chief Minister, Digvijaya Singh has thrown his weight behind Kamal Nath, strengthening his position.
In Jaipur too, the Congress staked claim to form the government. A delegation of senior party leaders, including Pilot and Gehlot, met Governor Kalyan Singh .
The race in both the states is tangled in many ways. After taking over as Congress president, Gandhi had deftly resolved the young Turk-versus-old warhorse debate in the party. The appointment of Nath as Madhya Pradesh Congress chief and Gehlot as AICC general secretary in charge of Gujarat were seen as efforts to send out a message that he would cherish experience. At the same time, there is high expectation among the young crop of leaders.
During the election campaign, Gandhi himself never tired of talking about youth and their aspirations. “He had promised change in the party. Let us see whether he manages to deliver that or not… Young and fresh faces can connect more with the youth… that is an imperative if we are looking at 2019,” a leader said. A decision either way could reopen the faultlines.
Many leaders also argue that experience and tact are needed to head governments with the support of Independents and other parties. The other challenge is factionalism. The leadership knows well that factionalism could rock its boat in the two Hindi heartland states in 2019. The party was united in Madhya Pradesh, if not in Rajasthan. Sources say creation of a Deputy Chief Minister’s post could be a way out.