With days to go before Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh go to polls, the Congress is struggling to make an impact in the two key heartland states which have been ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party for two successive five-year terms.
And if reports from the states are anything to go by, the BJP is poised to beat back anti-incumbency in these states for the third time.
After waiting in the wings for a decade, it should have been easy for the Congress to dislodge Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan and Chhattisgarh chief Minister Raman Singh. After all, they have been in office for 10 years and there is an element of dissatisfaction with individual legislators and ministers.
But the Congress has just not been able to get its act together. The grand old party has been singularly unsuccessful in building a campaign against the two chief ministers, whose personal popularity remains unchallenged even after 10 years in office.
Although several corruption scams have surfaced during this period, the Congress has not been able to pin down the two chief ministers who have acquired a Teflon image.
Besides, the Congress campaign has lacked the necessary punch as it has not been able to centre its campaign around any one “big bang” issue.
As in the case of its campaigns in Karnataka, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand, the Congress effort is to keep the focus on the misdemeanours of MLAs and ministers in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh but unlike the earlier elections, the popularity of the chief ministers is working in BJP’s favour.
The Congress campaign in the two states is also being hampered by its organisational weaknesses, which have not been addressed over the years the party has been in the opposition.
This is in sharp contrast to the campaign run by the BJP a decade ago when it succeeded in ousting the Congress party’s high-profile chief minister Digvijaya Singh by focusing on the lack of development in Madhya Pradesh.
BJP’s mass leader Uma Bharati’s thunderous speeches lambasting the Congress for the poor quality of roads and the lack of power dealt a body blow to the party which suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of the saffron outfit.
Bharati was a disastrous chief minister, but the BJP went quickly into damage control and replaced her with Chouhan. As it happened, it turned out to be a wise move as the low-key chief minister soon endeared himself to the electorate with his humble persona and his social sector schemes.
The same story has been repeated in neighbouring Chhattisgarh whose chief minister Raman Singh remains a favourite with the people.
Besides running a lacklustre campaign in the two states, the Congress units here have been beset with factionalism. The party’s inability to project a chief ministerial candidate made matters worse.
The Congress did eventually name Union Power minister Jyotiraditya Scindia as the poll panel chief, which was seen as his indirect projection for the top post, but it has not helped as the decision came far too late.
Moreover, Scindia’s campaign has not made much impact as he has been confined to areas around Gwalior after the BJP fielded his aunt Yashodhra Raje from the neighbouring Shivpuri constituency.
The Congress should have been better placed in Chhattisgarh as it had secured only 1.4 per cent less votes than the BJP in the last elections. The party suffered a serious blow when its top state leaders were killed in a deadly Maoist attack earlier this year.
However, it has since managed to rein in its rebellious former state chief minister Ajit Jogi by accommodating his son Amit Jogi and wife Renu Jogi. Although Jogi agreed to the party leadership’s compromise formula that he should sit out in the assembly polls and contest the Lok Sabha elections instead, the former CM is on the warpath again.
Jogi has given a series of interviews in the past few days complaining about the infighting in the party’s Chhattisgarh unit.
Jogi is basically unhappy over the denial of tickets to his nominees and at being blacked out in all party election posters rendering him virtually invisible in the ongoing campaign.
An unhappy Jogi is not good news for the Congress as the former leader has the potential to damage the party. He had proved this some months ago when he ensured the defeat of the party’s official candidate in a Bastar Nagar panchayat election.
The Congress is focusing on the mismanagement of the state’s Public Distribution Scheme and the challenge posed by Naxals, but the response to these issues is at best lukewarm. Soon after the Maoist attack on Congress leaders the party had hoped to generate a sympathy wave in its favour, but it has failed in this effort.