Collective leadership is the new buzzword in the Congress these days.

Faced with the difficult task of picking a chief ministerial face for the year-end Assembly elections in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, Congress president Rahul Gandhi is said to be veering around to the view that no one should be named for the top post, and that the emphasis should instead be on teamwork.

A beginning of sorts has been made in Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh, which are also headed for Assembly polls at the end of the year. In Chhattisgarh, while retaining Bhupesh Baghel as president of the state unit and TS Singh Deo as leader of the Opposition, Rahul Gandhi expanded the team with the appointment of two working presidents, Ram Dayal Uike and Shiv Kumar Dahariya. In Jharkhand, the Congress appointed five zonal coordinators who have been given charge of specific regions.

Even before he took over as party chief, the organisational rejig in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh was known to figure high on Rahul Gandhi’s to-do list. The Congress units in these states have seen infighting for several months now. This needs to be addressed lest it harms the party’s prospects in the upcoming elections. The matter has acquired urgency because the Congress stands a good chance of dethroning the Bharatiya Janata Party-led governments in both these states if it can put its house in order.

Rajasthan and MP battles

In Rajasthan, battle lines are drawn between Rahul Gandhi nominee Sachin Pilot, who heads the state unit, and former chief minister and veteran leader Ashok Gehlot, who is fighting to get back his old job. In Madhya Pradesh, the Congress faces the problem of plenty. While the big three – former chief minister Digvijaya Singh and former ministers Jyotiraditya Scindia and Kamal Nath – have their eye on leading the state if the Congress wins the election, others like Ajay Singh, leader of the state Congress legislature party and former Madhya Pradesh Congress chief Suresh Pachauri, also fancy their chances for this post.

The Congress leadership has been under increasing pressure to replace its Madhya Pradesh unit chief Arun Yadav with a more dynamic and charismatic leader who can energise the party rank and file and also be projected as the party’s chief ministerial face. The choice has narrowed down to Nath and Scindia but neither former Congress president Sonia Gandhi nor Rahul Gandhi could take a final view in this matter.

Nath, the seven-term Lok Sabha MP from Chindwara, is known to be an excellent manager, but the Congress leadership is not convinced that his appeal will extend beyond his constituency. Scindia, on the other hand, may not possess Nath’s managerial skills but, as a younger face, he has the potential of pulling in the youth vote and creating a buzz among voters. And then there is Digvijaya Singh, the X-factor in the Madhya Pradesh Congress. The former chief minister has often ruled himself out of the race but has proved, with his ongoing Narmada yatra, that he cannot be ignored, and that even 15 years after his government was ousted in the state, he still has a dedicated band of supporters in the party. Singh is known to be rooting for Nath and can be depended upon to place sufficient roadblocks in Scindia’s way in case the younger leader is picked as the party’s choice for the chief minister’s position.

Given this complex situation in Madhya Pradesh, there has been no word so far on who will take on the three-term BJP chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan in the coming Assembly polls. This is even as talk of “collective leadership” is gaining ground. Those who favour this formula argue that all the contenders for the chief minister’s post should be told in no uncertain terms that if they are interested in becoming chief minister, they should first ensure a respectable electoral score in the areas where they have a strong presence.

“What is the point of naming a chief ministerial candidate if he cannot deliver a sufficient number of seats for the party,” remarked a senior Congress functionary. He cited the recent example of Gujarat where all the party’s chief minister hopefuls lost their seats.

Jyotiraditya Scindia, Kamal Nath and Digvijay Singh.
Jyotiraditya Scindia, Kamal Nath and Digvijay Singh.

Fear of infighting

The Congress perhaps also fears that the infighting in the state unit can intensify if a chief ministerial nominee is identified as that leader’s rivals will work overtime to see that the candidate does not succeed.

However, Congress leaders from Madhya Pradesh are not convinced with this argument. Pointing to examples of Punjab and Himachal Pradesh where the Congress declared its chief ministerial candidates before the elections, they maintain that it is imperative for the Congress to do the same in Madhya Pradesh, especially since the party organisation in the state is not in the best of health.

“We need a face to paper over our internal deficiencies and let the voter know who will replace Chouhan if the Congress succeeds in wresting the state from the BJP,” said a party leader from Madhya Pradesh. He said even when no one is named for the top post, it is generally understood that the president of the state unit will be the chief minister if the Congress wins.

The Congress leader said that state chief Arun Yadav is not a very inspiring leader and if Rahul Gandhi persists with him, the other contenders will ensure that the party does not do well in the elections. “None of the others are going to work for the party’s victory just to see Arun Yadav walk away with the spoils,” he added.

Similarly, in Rajasthan, the Congress has to act fast to defuse the tension between Pilot and Gehlot. While Rahul Gandhi picked Pilot to head the state unit, Gehlot is not willing to give up his claim to the top post. As a two-term chief minister, Gehlot has a strong support base among the party cadres and has a reputation of bouncing back. Like Digvijaya Singh in Madhya Pradesh, the senior leader in Rajasthan has the potential of playing spoiler and ensuring that Pilot is not allowed to succeed.

Clearly, Rahul Gandhi has a tough call on hand as his leadership is on test in these important poll-bound states.