Elections 2019: Months after Assembly wins, heartburn in heartland for Congress

Hamza Khan, Dipankar Ghose, Milind Ghatwai
Congress President Rahul Gandhi addresses as senior party leaders Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh look on, at the Congress Working Committee (CWC) meeting, in New Delhi, Saturday, May 25, 2019. (PTI)

When most political watchers made their back-of-the-envelope calculations ahead of the exit polls, they factored in the Congress s good showing in the December 2018 Assembly elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh to say that the party would at least do reasonably well in these states. But the assessment ended up being entirely off the mark with the party winning a mere two out seats in Chhattisgarh, one in MP and drawing a blank in Rajasthan.

Rajasthan

Over a year ago, the Congress had won the bypolls for Ajmer and Alwar Lok Sabha as well as Mandalgarh Assembly seat. The party had won each of the eight Assembly seats in Ajmer and Alwar, apart from Mandalgarh, and so the trends indicated a largely similar voter mood across the state.

Cut to May 2019 and Congress has lost all the Lok Sabha seats in the state, in a repeat of 2014. What s worse, the BJP had increased its vote share in 20 of the state s 25 seats.

The story of the Congress s collapse is also the story of the BJP s diligent election management in the state.

Months before the bypolls, the anti-Raje feeling had reached a peak, a sentiment the Congress rode on to win the bypolls. Ahead of the December Assembly polls, the BJP worked hard to check the anti-incumbency, with Modi, who addressed 12 rallies in the state, exhorting voters to vote for the lotus, as opposed to seeking votes for inpidual MLA candidates.

Meanwhile in the Congress camp, as the Assembly elections drew near, the camps led by Sachin Pilot and Ashok Gehlot first jostled over tickets, then over the CM post, choice of ministers, and finally over their portfolios.

Many in the Congress feel the party should have kept its focus on Raje, since the party s 2018 win was through a vote against her. The sentiment is reflected in the BJP s own decisions the party fielded her b te noire Diya Kumari in Rajsamand and Hanuman Beniwal in Nagaur, both of whom have won.

Chhattisgarh

The story of the Congress s poor performance in the Lok Sabha can be traced back to the second day of its victory in the December Assembly elections, when three claimants for the CM post Tamradhwaj Sahu, T S Singhdeo and Bhupesh Baghel engaged in a public display of discord. Though Bhupesh Baghel was eventually made CM, the bitterness stayed.

Congress leaders in the state blame this barely functioning relationship between the three main leaders for the party s performance in the just concluded elections. Look at what happened. Both Baghel and Sahu are from Durg, and that s where our candidate lost with the highest margin, says a Congress leader. Even during the Modi wave in 2014, Sahu was the only MP who won. The loss this time is because the Sahus didn t vote for us. In Surguja (where Singhdeo is from), Singhdeo didn t even campaign, using Odisha, where he was general secretary, as excuse. And in that region, there was definite anger that he was not made CM.

Amit Jogi of the Chhattisgarh Janata Congress (CJC), which did not contest the elections despite an eight per cent vote share in the Assembly elections, said that if they had, the Congress would have been wiped out. Even the two seats the Congress won was because we didn t contest. Especially in Korba, their leads have come from Marwahi, where my father Ajit Jogi is MLA, he said.

The knives are beginning to come out for Baghel. Within the party, there are claims that Baghel has turned the party into a one man show . There is also criticism of a perceived vendetta politics with SITs being set up to probe alleged corruption cases.

Madhya Pradesh

When the Congress wrested power from the BJP in Madhya Pradesh after 15 long years, it rode on the promise of crop loan waiver, made in the wake of the farm unrest in the state. Five months later, the tardy implementation of the promise seems to have cost the party in the Lok Sabha elections.

The Congress s sole seat in the state came from Chhindwara, where Chief Minister Kamal Nath s son Nakul won, while the CM himself contested the Assembly by-election from Chhindwara to validate his stay in office.

While the Congress government claimed it had waived off loans of about 40 per cent of the potential beneficiaries, before the code of conduct forced them to halt the process, the BJP countered that, with former CM Shivraj Chouhan taking it up at every poll rally, asking for a show of hands from beneficiaries of the waiver.

Frequent power failure was another issue that the BJP took up, reminding voters of the condition that prevailed before 2003. The Congress government cracked the whip against hundreds of employees and daily wagers alleging that they were deliberately causing power outages to bring disrepute to the government. The deterioration of law and order and allegations that money was changing hands before effecting transfers of government officials were other topics that dominated the BJP campaign the PM often referred to the emergence of transfer industry in the state.