The Congress won the hotly contested "Maharaj
versus Shivraj" contest in the two assembly by-elections held in Jyotiraditya Scindia's parliamentary constituency of Guna in (Mungaoli, Kolaras). But If the Gujarat assembly elections were a wake-up call for the BJP, this win is a reality check for the Congress.
This was the last electoral contest before Madhya Pradesh votes for its next government and the vastly reduced margins of victory for the Congress (it held both the seats) should worry the party. The results are a pointer to the battle-ready formidable BJP election machinery which served up a tough fight to Scindia after 14 years of Shivraj Singh Chouhan being in power.
Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan led the BJP campaign with a host of ministers
Worse, a beleaguered Scindia was the lone man fighting from a party that boasts of so many leaders. The factions and the cracks which were smoothed over on paper were evident on the ground. Scindia was joined only on the last day of his campaign by Kamal Nath, the other Congressman with chief ministerial ambitions, to project a wholly unconvincing unity.
Scindia managed to retain his pocket borough but Chouhan was delighted at the whittling down of the margins of defeat, claiming proof of "anti-incumbency" in the "Maharaja's
backyard". Chouhan had made the by-elections a prestige issue and virtually parked his entire cabinet there, going on a door-to-door campaign.
The by-polls, seen as a prestige battle between Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan and Jyotiraditya Scindia of the Congress, saw campaigning on an unprecedented scale
"If the Congress claimed a moral victory in Gujarat as it stalled the BJP at (a total of) 99 seats, then I hope they concede that Madhya Pradesh is a moral victory for us. They simply don't have a leader who has the pan-MP stature of Chouhan," said a senior BJP leader at the centre.
The Congress is beset with endemic infighting and senior leaders permanently engaged in competing with each other instead of with the BJP. This has ensured that Chouhan has comfortably enjoyed three terms in power and the Congress's base has eroded away, leaving each leader with a limited sphere of influence - Guna for Scindia, Chhindwara for Kamal Nath, Raghogarh for former Chief Minister Digvijaya Singh.
The competition is so intense that Singh has patched up with old rival Kamal Nath who is 70 and a nine-time MP from Chhindwara to ensure that Scindia does not get to become the Chief Ministerial face. While Kamal Nath went on record first to me for NDTV
to say that he would throw his support behind Scindia if the high command made him the chief ministerial candidate, the reality on the ground is very different.
Senior Congress leader Kamal Nath is a nine-time MP from Chhindwara
All the leaders protect their turf vigorously but this has ensured that none of them can influence all of Madhya Pradesh, gifting the BJP an easy ride all these years.
So party president Rahul Gandhi will have to bite the bullet if he wants to wrest the state away from the BJP and name a presumptive Chief Minister. The sort of patch work solution he has proposed, accommodating various factions in committees, simply will not work. Scindia has been publicly nudging him to be declared the man for the job face and his claims just got stronger as he fought the entire campaign alone, but Gandhi has so far shown so signs of assent - a repeat of how he is handling Sachin Pilot who delivered recent crucial victories in Rajasthan. The disinclination to project a face as politics gets more personalised and presidential is likely to be a costly mistake. Voters like to know who they are voting for and in Madhya Pradesh, Chouhan has made it a "commoner versus royalty" contest.
In Gujarat, despite the BJP's unlimited funding and formidable electoral machinery, the Congress provides a run for its money by putting up a united fight. Gandhi needs to quickly ensure that he gets the party's act together in Madhya Pradesh. The state has enough issues that can be capitalised by the opposition - the gargantuan Vyapam scam, the agrarian distress which led to the police firing on farmers in June 2017, leaving five farmers dead in Mandsaur.
"Madhya Pradesh is a state ripe for the picking but Gandhi needs to read the riot act to our leaders," said a Congress leader. "They need to comprehend that the BJP is the competition, not each other, and even their fiefdoms will wither away if we don't get back into power. If Scindia could campaign like a man possessed, addressing a record number of rallies, what prevents them for doing the same for the state elections?"
Congress president Rahul Gandhi and the party's Rajasthan chief Sachin Pilot in Ajmer (File photo)
Sources say that instead of naming his choice, Gandhi will divide power between Scindia as the likely chief of a campaign committee, and Kamal Nath and Singh, who the party can currently not afford to alienate. How much success this more of the same approach will have is debatable. Currently, Chouhan is banking on the Congress's lack of imagination.
If Gandhi takes urgent remedial measures, Madhya Pradesh could be the first state on the road to electoral recovery as general election season dawns.
But as some senior Congress leaders from a rival faction incredibly celebrated the whittling down of the party's victory margin which "cut Maharaj
down to size and dented his Chief Ministerial projections", the Congress remains its own worst enemy.(Swati Chaturvedi is an author and a journalist who has worked with The Indian Express, The Statesman and The Hindustan Times.)Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.