Madhya Pradesh elections 2018: Congress playing catch-up with BJP, will that prove enough?https://indianexpress.com/elections/the-challengers-run-madhya-pradesh-assembly-elections-2018-congress-manifesto-bjp-5463027/

Madhya Pradesh elections 2018: Congress playing catch-up with BJP, will that prove enough?

From social media to booth-level coordination, the Congress is playing catch-up with BJP in its bid to unseat the saffron party after three terms in power. But, will that prove enough on November 28?

Madhya Pradesh elections: Congress playing catch-up with BJP, will that prove enough?
Jyotiraditya Scindia, Kamal Nath, Digvijaya Singh at the release of the Congress manifesto for Madhya Pradesh in Bhopal on November 10. (PTI photo)

It is 9.30 am but the Congress district headquarters in Chhindwara is yet to open. Bharat Soni, the young office attendant at the imposing Rajiv Bhawan, informs that no one is expected before 11 am.

A five-minute drive away, the BJP district office is buzzing. Arvind Rajput, a local functionary, is busy allocating routes to drivers of campaign vehicles. The BJP district president, Narendra Raju Parmar, who has moved into one of the rooms on the first floor, is preparing to set off for campaigning.

As the Congress takes on the BJP in a state where the saffron party has had three straight stints in power, it continues to be plagued by a woeful lack of infrastructure and a sense of ennui betrayed by its party offices. Yet, on the ground, there is an optimism that this election could be different, that the new ideas and strategies coordinated from Delhi — booth-level coordinators, a better social media presence and a check on intra-party rebellions — could challenge the BJP’s dream run.

The Congress’s narrative in Madhya Pradesh is largely state-centric, down to constituency-level issues in most places. Rahul Gandhi’s pet topic Rafale, for instance, doesn’t find any mention. The commitment to develop Ram Van Gaman Path, the mythical route said to have been taken by Lord Ram, is not high on campaign agenda either. But in a state where stray cows have troubled farmers, gaushalas (cow shelters) finds a mention.

The Sunday Express travelled from Chhindwara in south Madhya Pradesh to Gwalior in the north, via Raghogarh — the bastions of its chief ministerial hopefuls Kamal Nath, Jyotiraditya Scindia and former CM Digvijaya Singh respectively — a distance of 1,136 km that criss-crosses eight districts and some 25 Assembly constituencies to see the challenge the Congress is putting up.

Chhindwara: Kamal Nath factor (2013: BJP 4, Cong 3)

Madhya Pradesh elections: Congress playing catch-up with BJP, will that prove enough?
Madhya Pradesh Congress President Kamal Nath. (File)

The Mahindra Scorpio carrying Ganga Prasad Tiwari, who has been at the helm of Chhindwara Congress since 1999, drives into the Rajiv Bhawan office a little after 11.30 am. Settling down in his room, he soon starts eulogising Kamal Nath.

In April, the Congress high command had taken everyone by surprise by naming Kamal Nath the Pradesh Congress Committee president. In a state where the party has had to deal with conflicting ambitions of its top three leaders, the move was seen as a decisive one in favour of the 72-year-old Nath.

Here in Chhindwara though, there was never any question of who is in charge. Nath won the Lok Sabha seat for the ninth time in 2014, one of only two seats that the party won that year in the midst of the Modi wave (the other being Scindia’s in Guna).

But in Chhindwara, one of the contradictions that has wracked the Madhya Pradesh Congress is in ample display. While Nath has repeatedly won the Lok Sabha seat, the BJP has an upper hand in the Assembly segments, a phenomenon seen in Scindia’s bastions of Guna and Gwalior as well. Of the seven seats in Chhindwara, four are with the BJP.

In private, Congress leaders blame this on wrong candidate selection, something, they say, Nath and the Congress have worked on this time round. While there is some amount of discontent that the three state biggies, along with senior leader Suresh Pachouri, have “cornered most the seats”, the Congress has done well to keep this under check.

Take Saunsar Assembly seat in Chhindwara district. Ajay Choure, a former MLA, was considered the “natural choice”, but Nath was said to dislike him because of his proximity to Nath’s predecessor Arun Yadav. Nath ensured Ajay didn’t get the ticket, but gave it to his brother Vijay, checkmating any possibility of rebellion.

A stone’s throw from the district headquarters, the Congress’s Chhindwara Assembly seat candidate, Deepak Saxena, a former state minister, is campaigning. He tells the people to vote for the Congress as it is “the best and last chance” for a person from Chhindwara to become chief minister. Kamal Nath becoming CM, he says, will mean the government will be run from Chhindwara.

Betul: Tightening organisation (2013: BJP 4, Cong 0)

Mithul Joshi, a general secretary of the Gandhinagar District Congress in Gujarat, has been stationed in Betul district for over five months now. Operating out of a small hotel, he is one of the 52 district observers appointed by the party to oversee election preparations, including candidate selection — a first for the party in the state.

Leaders say the Congress organisation in Madhya Pradesh was largely on paper, but in the last five months, the 52 observers have pushed the party to put in place an apparatus that reaches the booth level, something to match the BJP’s organisational strength.

Earlier, a block Congress committee was for all practical purposes the primary unit of the party in many places. This time round, the party has divided each block into three or four mandalams, each with a president and a committee. The mandalam has been further divided into three to four sectors — here too, with a president and committee each. Each sector has eight to 12 polling booths and in each one of those, a booth committee has been formed. The famed panna prabhari concept of the BJP (putting a man in charge of every page of the voter list) has been replicated too.

Madhya Pradesh elections: Congress playing catch-up with BJP, will that prove enough?
Congress leader and MP Jyotiraditya Scindia at a public meeting in support of Congress candidate Arun Yadav from Budhni assembly constituency ahead of the State Assembly elections, Sehore district of Madhya Pradesh, Saturday. (PTI Photo)

“We have got some 12,000 workers in each district. We have all their phone numbers. If we want to convey something to them, we can do so in less than an hour. Congress ek andolan tha, usko ek party ka swaroop diya gaya hai abhi (The Congress used to be a movement, now we have given it the shape of a party,” says Kapil Fauzdar, president of the party unit in nearby Hoshangabad.

Joshi and Fauzdar say the party prepared the list of Booth Level Agents months ago, a strategy unheard of in the state Congress.

Hoshangabad: Cap on rebellion (2013: BJP 4, Cong 0)

It’s 9.30 am on a Sunday and district chief Kapil Fauzdar has left his residence to join the Congress candidate from Hoshangabad, Sartaj Singh, at the Radha Soami Satsang campus. Fauzdar is constantly on the phone, counselling those who lost out in the ticket race.

Fauzdar was set to be the Congress candidate for the Hoshangabad seat until Singh, the former Union minister who jumped ship from the BJP, joined the Congress. Over the next three hours, there is no hint of rancor as Fauzdar accompanies Singh. Fauzdar is not the only one. Praveen Pathak, Congress candidate in Gwalior South, begins his campaign after breakfast at the house of a Congress leader who lost out in the ticket race.

But all is not hunky dory. In Chhatarpur district, veteran Congress leader Satyavrat Chaturvedi is campaigning for his son, who is contesting on a Samajwadi Party ticket from Rajnagar seat. Chaturvedi says the selection of candidates has been the “most erratic” ever.

Another senior Congress leader says the party erred in not giving tickets to Vyapam whistleblowers Paras Saklecha and Anand Rai and to “heroes of the farmer agitation” of Mandsaur, Kedar Sirohi and D P Dhakad.

“These are people who fought against the BJP. The Congress gained out of their battle. These three leaders (Kamal Nath, Digvijaya Singh and Jyotiraditya Scindia) are fond of giving tickets to their lackeys. And this has been the bane of the Congress in Madhya Pradesh for the last 15 years,” says the senior leader on condition of anonymity.

Despite these hints of trouble, only a handful of rebels actually remain in the fray, including Chaturvedi’s son Nitin. “There is a feeling that we are coming back to power… So even those who are unhappy are lying low,” says a district president.

Raisen: Homeless Congress (2013: BJP 4, Cong 0)

The hunt for the Congress district committee office in Raisen takes you to a crowded market. Raisen falls in Sushma Swaraj’s Lok Sabha constituency of Vidisha, and Pachouri, one of the stalwarts of the Madhya Pradesh Congress, is contesting from Bhojpur in this district. Last time, he had lost.

Lakhan, the Congress office attendant who earns Rs 5,000 a month for his 10-to-5 job of keeping the office — an asbestos-roofed squat structure — open and clean, is busy chatting with a fruit vendor downstairs.

For a party that ruled Madhya Pradesh for almost 36 years, the lack of a district office doesn’t spell good news. The story is the same in several districts. In Betul, for instance, the office in Kothi Bazaar is in a room not bigger than the provision store next door.

It’s only in Guna, the Lok Sabha constituency of Scindia, and Gwalior, where he holds considerable sway, that the offices are plush, teeming with cadre, and the campaign more purposeful. The Congress office in Guna is a two-storey building while the 6,000-sq feet Madhavrao Scindia Congress Bhawan in Gwalior is on the third floor of a building which is owned by the party.

“I don’t know why we did not think of finding land in every district and building an office,” a DCC president says. The BJP has built new offices in Vidisha and Raisen and have big offices in places such as Betul.

Congress leaders, however, insist the size of the offices or the lack of them is no indication of their mobilisation on the ground.

Vidisha: Groundwork (2013: BJP 3, Cong 2)

Kamal Nath may have lost the legal battle in the Supreme Court for publication of voters’ list in text format, but on the ground, the party has been working over the last five months to address ‘fake and duplicate’ voters.

The party had given the Election Commission a list of 25,000 such alleged voters in Vidisha alone, of which 18,000 were removed, says Chhimanbhai Patel, the AICC observer in the district. “We checked each voter to find out whether they were enrolled in two places. It was a big task but we managed to eliminate a lot of duplicate voters,” says Patel, who has been stationed in Vidisha for the last five months, staying in a hotel owned by a local Congress leader.

Guna-Raghogarh: A low-key Digvijaya (2013: BJP 2, Cong 2)

Madhya Pradesh elections: Congress playing catch-up with BJP, will that prove enough?
Former Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Digvijaya Singh. (File Photo)

The two-storey Congress office in a congested alley in the Assembly seat of Raghogarh is one of its landmarks. Raghogarh is all about Digvijaya Singh, who was Congress CM from 1993 to 2003. His son Jaivardhan Singh, a sitting MLA, is the candidate this time, while brother Laxman Singh is trying his luck from Chachaura seat in Guna district. Singh is on a door-to-door campaign in Aron in the district.

While the Congress campaign in Chhindwara, Shivpuri and Gwalior is tailored to make the respective leaders seem like probable CM candidates, in Raghogarh, there is no such pitch for Singh. Despite this and despite Singh insisting he is not in the race, Congressmen swear by “Raja saab”. “He will become the CM… Who else? He may say he is not interested but if the party says, he will have to,” says Goshari Ram Sharma, a former sarpanch.

BJP national vice-president and party in-charge of Madhya Pradesh Vinay Sahasrabuddhe calls the Congress “not only divided but a trivided house”. “When they are out of power they become a party of leaders without cadres. In every zone they have a different CM candidate.”

Shivpuri: The Hindutva pitch (2013: BJP 2, Cong 3)

In Shivpuri and other districts, there is not much traction for the Congress’s much-talked-about saffron pitch — the promise to develop the Ram Van Gaman Path, building gaushalas in every panchayat, commercial production of gau mutra (cow urine) and opening of a spiritual department.

“Shehari elaka hai na… yehan yeh sab nahin chalta hai (These issues don’t work in these urban parts),” says Rashid Khan, a Congress worker in Chhindwara.

Arshad Khan, among the drivers at the BJP office in Chhindwara, is sympathetic to the Congress. “Karna padta hai (They have no choice),” he says of the Congress’s sudden saffron turn. “The BJP keeps saying all these things and the Congress has to counter. But these (the promises) are positive things… does not harm anyone,” he says.

In both rural areas and urban pockets, the Congress unfailingly promises to build gaushalas. Pratap Bhanu Sharma, who represented Vidisha in 1980 and 1984, says the promise isn’t tied to religion. Building cow shelters, he says, is perhaps the best way to address the problem of stray cattle that raid farms and cause accidents on highways.

Besides this, the Congress campaign is centered round four or five issues, to ensure that the election is not converted into a Modi vs Congress fight or a Shivraj versus Who narrative. Congress leaders talk about agrarian distress, unemployment, lack of industries, price rise and atrocities against women — the last one to counter Chouhan’s “mama (uncle)” image and his welfare scheme for women.

The BJP is quick to dismiss the narrative. “The Congress has been trivialising the campaign. While we talk about prosperous Madhya Pradesh, they talk about banning RSS shakhas. Having provided bijli, sadak and pani, we have envisioned a Madhya Pradesh of tomorrow while they are day-dreaming on the basis of their populist promises,” says BJP’s Sahasrabuddhe.

Gwalior: The social media campaign (2013: BJP 4, Cong 2)

A board outside one of the rooms in the Congress office in Gwalior announces: ‘Social Media War Room’. The Congress has always been considered a laggard on the social media front. But in Madhya Pradesh, it seems to be matching the firepower of the BJP.

The Congress’s IT cell in the state hit the headlines in August when Nath sacked its then chief, Dharmendra Vajpayee, and appointed IT cell coordinator Abhay Tiwari because he wanted the IT cell to be more aggressive. The Congress has also replicated the BJP model of using WhatsApp groups to reach out to people right up to the booth level — the state has around 55,000 booths.

“Take any booth. We take the voter list and collect data such the WhatsApp number of a family member. We then create WhatsApp groups where we post our activities. Those who support the BJP or are not so political will exit the group… that is ok, but we have some form of data. We have conducted surveys on the basis of caste, gender and created groups,” says Congress’s Guna district IT cell head Ankur Shrivastava.

Shrivastava is part of 257 groups in the Guna Assembly constituency alone. Most of the district IT cell heads and coordinators runs multiple Facebook pages. There are separate WhatsApp groups for Twitter too, where the posts of leaders are shared.

But apart from Chhindwara and Gwalior, other Congress offices have no space for such social media war rooms. Guna’s Shrivastava, an electrical engineer, has his office at home. Kapil Bhargava, the IT cell head in Shivpuri who is part of 350 WhatsApp groups, operates out of a computer institute that he runs.

Says Bhargava, “We lost the 2014 elections because of social media… we have realised that and are working to ensure that we don’t slip up this time.”