Caste to welfare, all cards fall flat for Congress in heartland
The Congress party in India suffered a dismal performance in the recent assembly elections in the Hindi heartland states.
New Delhi Sunil Singh is jubilant. The Bharatiya Janata Party MP from Jharkhand was a district in-charge for the party in Chhattisgarh, where it won comfortably. He points to two schemes launched by outgoing Congress chief minister Bhupesh Baghel, Ram Van Gaman Path and Godhan Nyay Yojana, the first a tourism circuit retracing Lord Ram’s path through the state, and the second, a cow protection plus organic farming plan. Both were tuned to appeal to Hindu sentiments, which Singh finds strange. “When the original shop of Hindutva is with us, why would people go to their fake shop?”
It wasn’t just Chhattisgarh -- the Congress’s Kamal Nath tried to leverage soft Hindutva for electoral gains in Madhya Pradesh, where the party was routed — and it wasn’t just Hindutva. Across the three Hindi heartland states where election results were declared on Sunday, the Congress’s dismal performance was the result of multiple factors.
At one level, on issues such as Hindutva and welfare, the Congress found itself being outdone by the BJP.
At another, neither its election machinery, nor its own attempt at social engineering paid off — and once again, on both, the BJP did better.
And at still another, the Congress’s inability to effect a generational change in leadership in two of the three states (Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan), contrasted poorly with the BJP’s hard call of not announcing chief ministerial candidates in all three heartland states, one with an incumbent chief minister from the party and two with seemingly obvious candidates in former chief ministers.
It was almost as if Murphy of the famed law had written Sunday’s script.
The only silver lining for the party was Telangana, where strong (and new) local leadership, an effective election management plan crafted by strategist Sunil Kanugolu, and anti-incumbency against the ruling Bharat Rashtra Samithi came together in a sweeping win.
In a party where three of the top four leaders, president Mallikarjun Kharge, former president Rahul Gandhi and general secretary (organisation) KC Venugopal, represent south India electorally, the Congress’s national leadership found limited appeal in the campaign in the Hindi heartland. “It is once again clear that Rahul Gandhi has little to offer as a vote catcher in north India,” quipped a non-Congress leader who asked not to be named.
While Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra may have helped the Congress consolidate its votes in southern India, especially in states such as Karnataka and Telangana, in north India, it failed to translate into extra votes for the Congress, observed another leader.
The Congress response to this, articulated by a senior Congress leader who travelled in all three states for campaign was that “national leadership had limited role to play in these elections”.
And there too, the party was found wanting.
“State-level leaders were crucial for the party’s prospects and they disappointed,”added this person who asked not to be named.
Indeed, in both Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, Kamal Nath and Ashok Gehlot pretty much ran their own campaigns.
“In Madhya Pradesh, our biggest problem was that Kamal Nath didn’t believe in collective leadership. He wanted to do things in his way. But against an organised party such as the BJP, a collective effort is required. Nath even forced the high command to shift JP Agarwal as MP in-charge,” said a second senior Congress leader, who too asked not to be named.
Some Congressmen said Randeep Surjewala, who replaced Agarwal, should have asserted himself more against Nath’s pressure. “Surjewala should have concentrated on Vyapam and other corruption charges against the Shivraj Singh Chouhan government. Our party didn’t sufficiently raise issues such as the firing on farmers in Mandsour or on the rape in Ujjain,” said another Congress veteran, speaking on condition of anonymity.
In Madhya Pradesh, the party had pretty much lost the option to effect a generational change after the last assembly election and the exit of Jyotiraditya Scindia to the BJP. In Rajasthan, again, it opted for veteran Gehlot over Sachin Pilot. And while the party claimed to have resolved the issues between the two, it merely papered over the cracks. “The BJP put its house in order while we remained divided,” said a third Congress leader.
Even in Chhattisgarh, where there was a similar battle for leadership between Baghel and TS Singh Deo, the Congress acted far too late. “We could have done better, especially among the Thakurs and Tribals but the decision to appoint TS Singh Deo as deputy CM came too late. By that time, the damage has already been done,” said the first Congress leader.
A senior Congress leader from Karnataka involved in elections in all three north Indian states, said the party simply mishandled caste equations in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh.
“Madhya Pradesh has the largest number of Scheduled Tribe (ST) MPs in India. Yet, our party neglected tribals, Dalits, OBCs (other backward classes) and minorities and focused on soft Hindutva. We should have specially focused on these castes as our two top leaders, MPCC chief Kamal Nath and CLP leader Govind Singh represent upper castes. But our approach didn’t auger well among the voters,” added this person.
In Chhattisgarh, too, the party ignored social engineering. A Congress veteran who has handled Chhattisgarh affairs said, “The party alienated tribals and as a result, lost in places such as Bastar (last time the Congress won all 14 seats in the region; this time, it could manage only nine). “Naxalites went against us. Sahus, a key community in the states were reluctant to support the party and Thakurs didn’t vote for us as Singh Deo was not given his due.”
More importantly, the Congress’s push for an OBC caste census failed to find traction. “We focused too much on OBCs even as our OBC leaders (Gehlot or Karnataka CM Siddaramaiah) are no match for Narendra Modi. In this process, we alienated other castes, especially the SC, ST and the general castes,” said one of the top SC leaders in Congress.
A welfarist manifesto may have contributed to the Congress victory in Karnataka earlier this year, but it failed to deliver in this round of the assembly polls because the BJP did as much, if not more, according to analysts. “The BJP offered a better package and the voters trusted the BJP’s promises given the stellar record of the Modi government in delivering ,” said R Banu, a political analyst.
Indeed, the Congress’s track record may have worked against it.
Sunil Singh, the BJP lawmaker, said, “The commitments backfired as they didn’t fulfil their earlier promises. In Chhattisgarh, the farmers didn’t get money for their produce for two previous years. But Baghel refused to give them the arrears. We announced we would give the arrears too.”
Singh identified Matri Vandana Yojna, which promises cash incentive of ₹ 5000 directly to pregnant women and lactating mothers and ₹6000 if the second child is a girl child as a key welfare scheme. “In Chhattisgarh, there was a rage among women to fill up forms which we provided all across Chhattisgarh.”
The third Congress leader pointed out that soon after Congress won Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan introduced a number of schemes. He singled out the state’s Ladli Behna scheme in which women get ₹1,250 every month, as one that contributed heavily to the BJP’s success.
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