21 January, 2021

Winning & How To Get A Knack

The Congress staked much on the bypolls in Madhya Pradesh, but ended a poor second. The BJP win empowers both Chouhan and Scindia, amidst gathering clouds of a party squabble.

The saffron standard waved in exultation after its bypoll wins
Photographs by PTI
Winning & How To Get A Knack

Ever since he lost power in March after a 15-month stint as chief minister, Kamal Nath had relentlessly claimed that the bypolls necessitated by defection of Congress MLAs to the BJP presented Madhya Pradesh voters with a choice between tikau (stable) and bikau (corrupt). The contest, Nath said, was between gaddars who had “sold themselves” to the BJP in their bid to enjoy power and “those who remained steadfast to the Congress ideology of public service”.

On November 10, as results for the bypolls poured in, the electorate in these 28 assembly seats made their choice known, but with its own interpretation of tikau and bikau lawmakers. The results determine who gets to run MP for the remaining three years of the Vidhan Sabha’s tenure. The voters chose the BJP, which had given MP 15 years of stable (tikau) government over a Congress that couldn’t keep its flock toge­ther for even 15 months.

The BJP, which needed to win just nine of the 28 seats for a simple majority, notched up an additional 10 to square-off its tally at a comfortable 126 seats in the 230-member assembly. For the Congress, the battle for power was tough to begin with. With just 87 MLAs left in its kitty against the 114 it had won in December 2018, it needed to win all 28 seats for a simple majority or at least bag 20 in order to woo back ind­ependent, SP and BSP MLAs.

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However, the Congress won just nine seats. Though Congress candidate from the Bhander constituency, former BSP leader Phool Singh Baraiya, lost to Congress-turned-BJP leader Rakesh Saroniya by a slender margin of just 161 votes, several other Congress candidates lost against their former comrades by massive margins.  

The bypoll result puts the BJP firmly in control of the state once more. The Congress, which has been wrecked by defections—one (Damoh MLA Rahul Lodhi) even in the middle of the bypoll campaign—will now have to guard its lawmakers, many with poli­tical migration on their minds, constantly. Indeed, there are already rumours of nearly a dozen other MLAs negotiating a saffron handshake.

For 73-year-old Nath, who was outwitted by a 49-year-old Jyotiraditya Scindia this March in MP’s game of thrones, the embarrassment of the defeat can’t be overstated. He ran a highly centralised bypoll campaign, projecting himself as the victim of Scindia’s betrayal and the BJP’s “auction politics”; telling voters that he fought against the state’s sand and adulteration mafia and that he ens­ured a loan waiver for over 27 lakh farmers. Nath campaigned more aggressively than he had in any election in the past 40 years of his political journey. He handpicked candidates, dismissing doubts raised by old friend Digvijaya Singh over the winnability of some former BJP and BSP leaders who were obliged with Congress tickets.

Shivraj Singh Chouhan and his wife offer prayers at a temple after the victory.

Photograph by PTI

Kamal Nath ran an aggressive campaign, claiming good work and victimhood. The loss is a blow to him.

Singh, who has battled for his exclusive political dominion in the state’s Gwalior-Chambal region for decades against the simultaneous claim of the Scindia clan, was largely kept away from the bypoll campaign, though 16 of the 28 bypoll-bound seats fell in this region. To be fair to Nath, the state had not seen the Congress run such a high-pitched poll campaign ever since it lost MP to the BJP back in 2003. Nath engaged survey agencies to give him regular inputs on the political mood, addressed well-attended public rallies and had countless social media managers amplify his campaign on Twitter and WhatsApp groups. Yet, nothing paid off.

“The people have rejected Nath and the Congress. In Gwalior-Chambal, the anger of people against Nath and Singh for humiliating Scindia has given us a mandate bigger than what we got in 2018. They have voted for the development model of Shivraj Singh Chouhan and proved that Nath’s claims of welfare schemes and loan waivers were all false,” energy minister Pradhuman Singh Tomar tells Outlook. Tomar was among the first batch of 22 Congress MLAs who defected to the BJP in March along with Scindia. He won the bypoll from Gwalior, defeating the Congress’s Sunil Sharma by over 25,000 votes.

Chouhan, who returned as the state’s CM for a fourth term when Nath was ousted, would be relieved. Though 26 of the BJP’s 28 bypoll candidates were Congress turncoats, with a majority Scindia loyalists, Chouhan was the face of the campaign. And it was he who had the most to lose—arguably even more than Scindia, who had to prove afresh that he retained his command on the electorate despite changing parties. The result gives Chouhan a chance to reassert his popularity with the masses, rein in rivals within the state BJP and, perhaps most importantly, shed the impression that he is merely a mukhauta for the state government while Scindia was the emerging power centre.

Chouhan will now have to contend with Scindia, who’s unlikely to play second fiddle after saving his government.

The bypoll result will boost Scindia’s profile within the state BJP—if not the central organisation, though his supporters have already begun murmuring about the possibility of a plum ministerial post in the Union cabinet as a “belated reward for bringing down the Congress”. The bypolls were a litmus test for Scindia and he passed despite setbacks, as his key aides like ministers Imarti Devi and Giriraj Dandotiya, former MLAs Raghuraj Kansana, Ranvir Jatav, Munnalal Goyal and Jaswant Jatav lost their re-election bids. Adal Singh Kansana, another Congress turncoat and minister in the Chouhan cabinet, also lost his Sumaoli seat, though he entered the Scindia camp only shortly before the coup in March.

The BJP’s victory may, however, pose a fresh challenge for both Chouhan and Scindia. Chouhan will still have to contend with some interference by Scindia in affairs of government and the BJP. The titular Gwalior Maharaj is unlikely to play second fiddle to Chouhan after just ensuring that the latter remains in power. Similarly, BJP veterans uneasy with the influx of Scindia and other Congress turncoats could get more restless if their political ambitions are continually thwarted. These are challenges that Chouhan, Scindia and the BJP can fight another day as the euphoria of the present victory is likely to give them some breathing space.

The Congress has more reasons to worry. An underlying factor in the bypoll results and the reverses for the Congress has been its inability to strike a working relationship with the Bahujan Samaj Party, unlike the BJP, to which BSP supremo Mayawati has been warming up lately. Like in UP, Mayawati chose to contest the bypolls. The decision cost the Congress dearly, as the BSP weaned away a massive chunk of non-BJP votes in five other seats (Bhander, Jaura, Malhara, Mehgaon and Pohari) to hand the BJP victory. In another four seats, BSP candidates ensured only a slender win for Congress rivals. While campaigning for the bypolls, Nath routinely dismissed the BSP as a ‘non-player’ in the contest—a mistake that he will rue for some time now.  

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