As curtains came down on the Chhattisgarh Assembly polls with the second and last phase of polling on Tuesday, the opposition Congress must be diligently mulling over the party’s chances of wresting the state from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) after three successive routs.
The results in the assembly elections to the three Hindi belt states of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh shall clearly impact the morale of the Congress to take on Modi’s BJP in the Lok Sabha elections due next year.
While the BJP is confident the performance of its chief ministers shall yet again deliver the goods for the party in their respective states, the Congress party under Rahul Gandhi has strategically refrained from projecting any chief minister face.
The strategy has an equal chance of success, as it has of failure. Anti-incumbency conflated with factors imported from the central government may upset BJP’s plans.
Despite anti-incumbency, more pronounced in Rajasthan and MP, Chhattisgarh, for instance, witnessed its own unique electoral arithmetic that may hurt the Congress as it would hurt the ruling BJP under Raman Singh, pledging to lead his party to a fourth successive victory in the state.
Despite a heavy turnout of voters (over 70 per cent – consistent since the newly-carved state went to polls for the first time in 2003) the Ajit Jogi-Mayawati electoral pact has the potential to upset Raman Singh’s dream run.
The former district collector turned leader, Ajit Jogi, is emerging as a force to reckon with in the state. With Mayawati by his side, he dreams of becoming the chief minister again.
He was the first chief minister of Chhattisgarh for three years after it came into being in 2000. The BSP traces its links with the state to 1984 when party’s founder Kanshi Ram had unsuccessfully contested the rural Janjgir Lok Sabha seat in undivided Madhya Pradesh. He had polled a paltry 32,000 votes.
With a four per cent vote share, the BSP tie-up may catapult Jogi into the role of a kingmaker if not the king, particularly considering that Chhattisgarh elections are closely fought contests.
The Congress has not projected any CM face. To top it all, the party has been plagued by infighting. Senior leaders like Ghanaram Sahu, state vice-president, ditched the party on the eve of the first phase of polling, delivering a second big blow to the Congress in quick succession.
Only a few days ago, party’s working president Ram Dayal Uike quit Congress to join hands with the BJP. With a raft of electoral debacles behind him, Rahul Gandhi shall be desperate to make a clean sweep when he has the chance. But, the infighting certainly makes his job of steering the party to victory a difficult proposition.
The Congress may be looking upbeat in neighbouring Madhya Pradesh. The incumbent CM Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s popularity has been hit by a combination of factors, most notably a three-term anti-incumbency. Against this backdrop, the Congress has made a veteran like Kamal Nath its state unit chief in the election year. It has also picked up Jyotiraditya Scindia to lead the campaign. And all this under the distant, sulking but observant eyes of the former CM Digvijay Singh.
The formidable line up of Congress leaders is a double-edged sword. Who shall be CM in case the party won the elections? The closest answer could be one of the three named above. Of these, two are Lok Sabha MPs and former ministers but have never been CM, a post that carries its own significance and could extend a halo around a leader of substance.
The third contender, who has been twice chief minister could be waiting in the wings, biding his time for party’s weak moment depending upon how the verdict shapes up.
Confronted with too many leaders, the Congress realizes picking one against the other could throw a spanner in its works, at a time when opinion polls have predicted a modest to heavy gain for the party in the state.
The ruling BJP is happy to exploit this Congress dilemma. PM Modi in one of his campaign rallies recently took a swipe against the Congress saying that Congress has three CM candidates and over a dozen are in the queue.
The Congress’s reply to the critics is on expected lines — the party does not believe in projecting chief ministers. But the fact is this is not a uniform rule, something which Rahul himself broke as party vice-president. Campaigning for the Punjab elections last year, he declared Capt Amarinder Singh as the party’s CM choice at least two months before the polls.
The Congress also failed to hitch its ride with the BSP in MP after Chhattisgarh. Though the party leaders downplay any suggestions it would impact poll prospects negatively, but it is nobody’s guess that in case of a hung assembly every seat counts. The party is betting on Rahul Gandhi just as Modi has been BJP’s mascot in one state election after another, pulling off some improbable victories.