In an informal conversation with journalists shortly after his party won three bye-elections in Rajasthan early this month, Congress president Rahul Gandhi remarked that the victory had been possible because the party’s various factions in the state had put aside their differences and worked together. Gandhi said there was “all-round realisation” among Congress leaders that instead of fighting each other, their priority must be to take on the Bharatiya Janata Party. This is indeed the case, or so it seems from recent developments in several state Congress units. Yet, the party still has a long way to go to build harmonious organisations in crucial states such as Madhya Pradesh.
Last week, long-time rivals Ajay Maken and Sheila Dikshit, Delhi Congress president and former Delhi chief minister respectively, buried the hatchet and addressed the media together, vowing to launch a united fight against Arvind Kejriwal’s ruling Aam Aadmi Party. The Congress is banking on this new-found unity to put up a hard fight in bye-elections to 20 Assembly seats vacated by the AAP legislators who were disqualified for holding offices of profit last month.
It is the same story in Karnataka, where the Congress is going into this year’s election as a united front. There were murmurs about differences between Chief Minister Siddaramaiah and Karnataka Congress president G Parameshwara, but they have made peace with each other and are working together. Parameshwara was upset he had been upstaged by the chief minister but quickly realised that the Congress would only succeed in keeping the BJP from wresting power if the two leaders put an end to infighting in the party’s state unit.
In Gujarat, the Congress worked as a cohesive unit for last December’s Assembly election and, as a consequence, ran the BJP close. That Gandhi took personal interest in the election, helped leading the campaign from the front, helped.
Clearly, Gandhi has succeeded in containing infighting in many states. But he is having a hard time of it in some states, particularly Madhya Pradesh. There, senior Congress leaders seem to have disregarded Gandhi’s directive to bury their differences. This does not bode well for the Congress, not least because it senses a good chance of unseating the three-term Shivraj Singh Chouhan government in the Assembly election scheduled for later this year. State Congress leaders maintain this election is their best chance to beat the BJP as there are clear signs that people are in the mood for change provided they are presented with a credible alternative. Chouhan’s popularity is wearing thin and fatigue has set in among the BJP cadre, Congress leaders argue. But the Congress rank and file fear the party could deny itself a shot at power if its senior leaders do not resolve their differences, and soon.
A house divided
The rift in the Madhya Pradesh Congress resurfaced recently when Jyotiraditya Scindia suggested that the party should project a chief ministerial candidate in the coming election. “Every party has different policies for each state,” the Guna MP told PTI. “I am not saying that we have to project a face in every state, but where you have faces, you have to project one.”
The proposal was immediately shot down by senior state leader Ajay Singh. He pointed out that the Congress does not have a tradition of naming a chief ministerial candidate except in rare cases such as when Amarindar Singh was declared the party’s pick for the top job in Punjab last year. “In Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Delhi or other states, Congress never contested polls by announcing CM candidates,” Ajay Singh said.
His position is shared by state Congress chief Arun Yadav, who points out every chance he gets that the party does not believe in projecting a chief ministerial face.
Given his proximity to Gandhi, Scindia is seen as the Congress’s first choice for chief minister. On his part, Scindia is working overtime to ensure the party’s victory in the upcoming bye-polls in Kolaras and Mungaoli Assembly seats in Guna. “Like Sachin Pilot, Scindia will become a hero if the Congress wins these two seats,” remarked a Congress leader, referring to the Rajasthan Congress chief.
Scindia has competition, however. Kamal Nath, the seven-term MP from Chindwara, is also keen to be projected as the chief ministerial candidate. With the central leadership seemingly unable to chose them, Ajay Singh senses he could emerge as the “compromise choice”.
It gets more complicated. Before he can zero in on any of the chief minister-hopefuls, Gandhi has to contend with Digvijaya Singh, the veteran leader and former chief minister. Currently leading an apolitical Narmada Yatra, Digvijaya Singh is not in the running for his old job, but it is common knowledge within the Congress that he is fiercely opposed to Scindia, and will do everything in his power to thwart the young leader’s ambitions. To this end, he is said to be already backing Nath. By using the Narmada Yatra to connect with the masses, the former chief minister has demonstrated he remains politically relevant in his state, thereby sending a message to the leadership that it can ill-afford to ignore him. Further, he has declared he will return to “active politics” after his yatra ends next month. “I have been in active politics all my life,” he said about his plans recently. “Obviously I will not be selling pakodas.”
Gandhi has a tough task at hand.