With crucial assembly elections round the corner in four states, Congress leaders are currently debating whether to project chief ministerial candidates in the poll-bound states.
It is proving to be a tough decision, as there are strong backers in the party for both options, though the argument is loaded in favour of announcing a CM candidate.
Polls are scheduled to be held towards the end of this year in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan, Delhi and Mizoram. The results of these elections could well set the tone for the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.
It is imperative for the Congress to shed its present ambivalence and prop up effective leaders.
While Delhi and Rajasthan pose no problem as they have incumbent chief ministers who are automatically perceived to be the party’s CM candidates, the Congress has to address this issue squarely in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, where it has been out of power for the past decade.
Such a decision is not going to be easy because of the ongoing factional battles in these state units. The party leadership is reportedly inclined to project Union Power Minister Jyotiraditya Scindia in Madhya Pradesh, but any such move will be stiffly opposed by veterans like Parliamentary Affairs Minister Kamal Nath and former chief minister
Divijaya Singh, who continues to dabble in politics and is keen on promoting late Arjun Singh’s son and present Congress Legislature Party leader Ajay Singh.
There is a growing view in the party that the only way it can counter Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan is by presenting a new face and promising change.
The situation in neighbouring Chhattisgarh is even more complicated where the Congress appears helpless in the face of relentless infighting in the state unit.
It does not know how to deal with former chief minister Ajit Jogi, who has been stirring up trouble in a bid to pressurise the leadership into declaring him the CM candidate and giving him a major say in the distribution of tickets.
Jogi has indicated that he may even split the party if his demands are not met. He ensured the defeat of the party’s official candidate in a recent municipal by-poll to send out a clear message that he has popular support in the party and the leadership would be ill-advised to ignore him.
The Congress leadership is wary of Jogi given the strong-arm tactics he used during his last stint as CM and the emergence of his son as an extra-constitutional authority. Jogi is both the party’s strength and weakness in Chhattisgarh.
Unless there is an incumbent chief minister, the Congress has always preferred to keep up the suspense -- on who the chief ministerial candidate will be -- till after the election results are declared.
The standard line taken by the rank and file is: The matter will be decided by the legislature party after the elections.
The newly-elected legislators, in turn, invariably leave the decision to the Congress “high command”, enabling the party leadership to retain its stranglehold over the state units.
Unlike the Bharatiya Janata Party, which has fared much better on this front, the Congress has traditionally been wary of promoting strong leaders.
The party thrives on sycophancy and patronage which demands that chief ministers should be seen as the choice of the high command.
There have been exceptions to this rule in recent times -- late Andhra Pradesh chief minister Y S Rajasekhara Reddy powered the party to two successive wins because he was declared the party’s CM choice before the elections.
In contrast, BJP’s Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh chief ministers -- Shivraj Singh Chouhan and Raman Singh respectively -- were juniors in the party hierarchy when they were sent to head their respective states but proved to be popular and effective leaders.
As elections become more presidential in nature, it is becoming increasingly important to showcase an effective, clean and credible leader. The Congress or any other political party can no longer afford to run a faceless campaign.
This was proved during the 2009 Lok Sabha elections and the assembly polls in Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh.
Before the last general election, the Congress party, for the first time, made an emphatic declaration about its prime ministerial candidate -- Manmohan Singh -- well before the national polls.
Nobody can forget the sight of Congress President Sonia Gandhi holding up a copy of the party’s election manifesto at the release function, placing a hand on her own picture and pointing to Manmohan Singh’s image while responding to a question on the party’s PM candidate.
It turned out to be an astute move as Dr Singh’s credibility, integrity and pro-reforms image went down very well with the urban middle class, which has been the biggest beneficiary of the economic liberalisation he ushered in during the nineties.
Similarly, the string of recent assembly elections demonstrated that besides party ideology, it helps to have a charismatic personality at the helm, who the voters believe has roots in the state and will speak up for their aspirations.
In Uttar Pradesh, Samajwadi Party leader Akhilesh Yadav was perceived to be close to the people while Trinamool Congress leader Mamata Banjeree was seen as a leader who would stand by West Bengal citizens through thick and thin.
Similarly, the election outcome in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh proved that it helps to have strong charismatic leaders. The BJP victory in Gujarat was powered by Chief Minister Narendra Modi while the Congress’s win in Himachal Pradesh would not have been possible if the campaign had not been led by its veteran leader Virbhadra Singh.
The Congress was, in fact, pushed into fielding the five-time chief minister only after he threatened to defect to the Nationalist Congress Party.
Clearly, the Congress has to realise that it needs regional satraps.
Congress leaders privately acknowledge that the party succeeded in the hill state because it projected a leader and failed in Gujarat because it could not field a candidate who could prove to be an effective challenge to an aggressive Modi.
The Congress party’s biggest undoing has been that it has not groomed younger leaders in the states.
Congress leaders who are keen on continuing with the old system argue that the projection of a chief minister does not necessarily guarantee a victory for the party.
They point to Congress Vice-President Rahul Gandhi’s public declaration during the Punjab election -- that Amarinder Singh would be appointed chief minister if the party came to power.
But this move did not help as the Congress lost the state to the incumbent Akali Dal. Similarly, its decision not to project a chief ministerial candidate in Karnataka did not alter the results in favour of the BJP in the recent assembly poll.