Whatever destiny may have in store, Chouhan cannot be faulted for resting on his laurels. Poll or by-poll, he campaigns hard. In fact, he is already in the thick of stumping even as the moribund Congress struggles to find its feet under Kamal Nath, the new MPCC chief.
Woh qismat ka dhani hai (he is lucky)! This is the numbingly prosaic reaction of critics and backers alike when asked to assess the chances of Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s comeback in poll-bound Madhya Pradesh later this year. Barring a few political pundits who had likened him to a horse destined to run a long race at the commencement of his innings in 2005, almost nobody thought Chouhan would end up ruling the State for close to three terms, and be on the verge of winning another with the continued blessings of Lady Luck.
Only this time he may have to go down on his knees. Going by the string of recent electoral losses, both civic and at the State level, she has been playing hard to get. The consolation is that most were Congress-held seats, and retained by vastly reduced margins.
Whatever destiny may have in store, Chouhan cannot be faulted for resting on his laurels. Poll or by-poll, he campaigns hard. In fact, he is already in the thick of stumping even as the moribund Congress struggles to find its feet under Kamal Nath, the new Madhya Pradesh Congress Committee chief. The chief minister’s ongoing Jan Aashirwad Yatra has been drawing huge crowds. Admittedly, this is in good measure due to the BJP’s deep organisational reach and mobilisation skills coupled with the advantage of the government’s machinery on its side. Even then it would be churlish to deny Chouhan’s continued connect with the hoi polloi despite his regime’s obvious failings and personal foibles. And there are quite a few his party colleagues enlist in private.
Systemic graft has scaled hitherto unknown heights in 15 years.
The immediate reason for this is Chouhan’s complete dependence on the bureaucracy, his guiding light. This is in sharp contrast to the style of functioning of his predecessors Sunderlal Patwa and Virendra Saklecha who never allowed civil servants to get the upper hand. Insiders say it will be difficult to find a single original noting in government files in Chouhan’s own hand. Not for nothing do his closest confidantes belong to the State civil service. They are temperamentally more amenable to being ‘ordered’ compared to their IAS cousins. Most district collectors hail from the ranks of the former.
Chouhan, however, has the knack of papering over administrative blunders with alacrity when caught unawares, be it periodic farmer upsurges or scams which threaten to explode, the most recent involving the e-tendering process. The influence of an active kitchen cabinet is no secret. Again, while a few schemes like the Ladli Laxmi Yojna and Mukhyamantri Kanyadaan Yojna have given Chouhan considerable traction with voters, there are umpteen more which remain confined to files. To critics, he is a compulsive ghoshnavid (announcement expert).
Fortunately, none of his drawbacks have affected his mass appeal. He is still seen as a sincere and humble son of a farmer — barring the odd show of hauteur. One amusing instance was when he threatened to hang slack officers upside down (ulta taang doonga) if his policies and programmes were not efficiently implemented.
By habit, Chouhan is hard working, nimble footed, and perennially on the move. Small wonder, people call him the paon-paon wale bhaiyya (brother on foot) and a dependable maama (maternal uncle) of the needy. His time-tested image may have gathered some dust, but remains unsullied. So much so that even Congressmen concede it has helped the chief minister deflect direct blame for the shoddy record of governance in many areas. Anger, instead, is directed at the party’s non-performing MLAs. Well over half of the sitting 165 may possibly need to be denied nominations this time.
Ground realities alone had compelled BJP president Amit Shah to change his mind on letting the sangathan (organisation) commandeer the coming battle this winter. He realised in the nick of time that going into poll mode without Chouhan as the party face could prove costly so late in the day.
A recent C-Voter-ABP survey commissioned gave the ruling party 106 of the 230 seats — just eight short of a simple majority. This, despite more than a decade of that old chestnut, anti-incumbency, whose prevalence is not as widespread as claimed. The public may be bored of the Chouhan regime, but unwilling to dislodge it. With Amit Shah's ruthless election machine yet to commence carpet bombing the rural interiors, it is improbable that the BJP's vote share will show a significant downturn from the 45 per cent polled in 2013 as against 36 of the Congress. Especially with no homegrown Hardik Patel or Jignesh Mevani snapping at the ruling party’s heels.
Even a single point advantage can bring the BJP back to power like the Congress victories in both 1993 and1998.
Mistrust within the triumvirate helming the dysfunctional State Congress may also help Chouhan’s comeback. Even though Kamal Nath has injected some life, party regulars feel his choice was both wrong and criminally late. Nath’s writ in State politics has never extended beyond Chhindwara (his bastion since 1980) and its immediate environs. He surfaces only when polls are due. Running the party was never his lot, much less reviving an organization in tatters.
Adding to his woes is an empty treasury and acute shortage of dedicated workers. Besides there is no “burning” issue beyond corruption and overblown farmers’ anger, constants in every election. Nath will be hard put to finding winnable candidates capable of pushing the party tally from the current 56. Hoping to win the poll solely on the strength of anti-incumbency can at best be a pipe dream.
Nath’s colleague, former chief minister Digvijay Singh, remains the party’s sole grassroots leader with a Statewide connect. This was more than evident from the crowds accompanying him during his Narmada parikrama (circumambulation). As a seasoned political fox only too well aware of his declining fortunes, he was by most accounts “working” to put a Nath led regime in place till he smelt a rat: the increasing probability of the more youthful J. Scindia getting the top job should a majority be rustled -- a prospect welcome to neither veteran. Hence, the diffidence of either to dig their heels into the fledgling campaign before the actual ticket distribution.
The Bahujan factor may also kick in, not necessarily to the Congress’ advantage. Though the Congress is hoping for a tie-up, the BSP’s unpredictable supremo Mayawati will not settle for crumbs since she really has nothing to lose. Mollycoddling her beyond a point could upset the Congress’ electoral arithmetic. The BSP has a stable 8-9 per cent vote share in MP. It won just four seats in 2013, but ran second in another 15 odd. The catch is that while BSP votes are non-transferable, moving Congress votes to the BSP will be next to impossible in case of an alliance.
Given the imponderables a Gujarat like outcome is blowing in the wind. The BJP’s return to power with a slim majority seems the surest possibility at this juncture -- with some help from Chouhan’s famed qismat.
The writer is a political commentator
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Last Updated Sep 9, 2018, 9:07 AM IST