It was a scorching 42 degrees Celsius in Bhopal on Tuesday, but that did not deter the Congress from taking out a six-hour long road show to welcome its newly-appointed state president Kamal Nath to Madhya Pradesh.

Political songs, including one set to the beats of the track Jai Ho from the film Slumdog Millionaire, blared from speakers balanced on vans as the convoy made its way from the airport to the Congress headquarters, 15 km away. Camels and horses, bedecked in finery, marched to the music. Congress workers rode bullock carts – a move to project the party as farmer-friendly in contrast with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, which faced intense farmer protests last year.

A decorated truck led the cavalcade. It carried Nath, the nine-time MP from Chhindwara who was appointed state president last week. He was flanked by two other senior party leaders, Digvijaya Singh and Jyotiraditya Scindia. At various intersections along the route, Congress workers showered flowers on the three leaders.

The roadshow comes nearly six months ahead of the Assembly elections in the state, which are due in November. The Congress has been out of power in Madhya Pradesh for 15 years, partly because of internal factionalism between groups led by Nath, Singh and Scindia, each of whom are known to nurse chief ministerial ambitions.

Jyotiraditya Scindia and Kamal Nath on a roadshow held to welcome Nath to Bhopal on Tuesday.
Jyotiraditya Scindia and Kamal Nath on a roadshow held to welcome Nath to Bhopal on Tuesday.

When the convoy reached the Congress headquarters, Kamal Nath took to the stage set up outside the office. Amid heavy gusts of wind caused by a storm that ripped off posters and shook the tent, Nath challenged the chief minister. “I would like to tell Shivraj Singh Chouhan that the time for launching schemes is over,” he said. “The time to account for them has come.”

Jyotiraditya Scindia, who will lead the party’s election campaign as its committee chief, cautioned party workers against the politics of religious polarisation. “The BJP is not the sole custodian of the Hindu religion,” he said. “Our job is to rid MP [Madhya Pradesh] of the BJP.”

Former Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Digvijaya Singh – who ended his Narmada Yatra last month after covering more than 3,000 km on foot over six months – backed Nath and urged him to “keep the party united”. Singh said, “The BJP says the Congress is divided. Look at this stage. Does it look divided to you?”

The sentiment was echoed by other Congress leaders, who said that factionalism in the state unit was now a thing of the past. “Congress workers have been persecuted for the last 15 years under this regime,” said Congress MLA and All India Congress Committee member Hukum Singh Karadia, who stood at a spot on Bhopal’s Link Road to greet Nath’s convoy. “I feel the disease of factionalism in the Congress has been cured. You will see how everyone will come together and work for the common cause of the party.”

Nath’s son, Nakul Nath, a businessman, was spotted sitting behind his father at a press conference held later.

Reaching out to women

Wooing women voters is a challenge for the party as it is up against the BJP’s populist women-centric schemes like the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojna, which offers free gas connections to the rural poor, and flagship state schemes like Ladli Lakshmi, which promises financial assistance to the girl child from poor families.

Manvi Sharma, the state’s Mahila Congress chief who was waiting to welcome the motorcade near the Congress headquarters, said if the BJP is so women friendly “then why was Uma Bharati pushed into political oblivion after winning the party the 2004 election?’

She added: “Why is it that despite being an MP from Madhya Pradesh’s Vidisha, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj goes on fewer foreign trips than the prime minister?”

Asked about her own chances of getting a ticket, she fell back on the usual rhetoric: “The party will decide.”

Manvi Sharma (in blue), the chief of the Mahila Congress in the state.
Manvi Sharma (in blue), the chief of the Mahila Congress in the state.

Women workers like 45-year-old Radhika Prajapati, who lives in a Bhopal slum, explained how a local Congress leader helped fund the rebuilding of her house. She could not say under which scheme this was. Prajapati explained she is from Uttar Pradesh’s Basti district but exercises her right to vote in Madhya Pradesh.

When leaders unite

A prominent poster in the city places the photographs of Nath, Scindia and Singh in descending order.

Asked which of the three leaders he would prefer as chief minister, 25-year-old Asim Daad Khan, who recently joined the party, said, “all are equal in my eyes and those of the workers”.

The roadshow today would not have been such a success if these ambitious leaders did not unite. It is this newfound unity in the party that begs the question: What is the Congress really trying to do by appointing Nath its state chief? Is Nath the leader who will keep the flock together while Scindia works to woo the youth, and Singh revives the party cadre?

Tuesday’s roadshow may have been big on optics, but the big question is whether the Congress’s attempts to revive the party in the state will succeed or turn out to be just another another optical illusion.

Perhaps its leaders should have carefully listened to the lyrics of another political song that blared from the loudspeakers during the roadshow. “Hum apas main lad gaye toh desh ko kaun bachayega.” If we fight among ourselves, who will save the country?

Photographs by Anant Rajendra Zanane.