Faced with the ticklish task of naming chief ministers in the states it wrested from the Bharatiya Janata Party on Tuesday, Congress president Rahul Gandhi looked set to repose faith in senior and experienced leaders instead of the party’s younger faces.

Three-time chief minister Ashok Gehlot was being mentioned as a clear front-runner for the top post in Rajasthan while senior Congress leader Kamal Nath was expected to be the party’s choice for the chief minister’s post in Madhya Pradesh.

Though the election results for Madhya Pradesh appeared to be a neck-and-neck race through the day on Tuesday, the Congress appeared confident of dethroning the Shivraj Singh Chouhan government. In fact, Rahul Gandhi went as far as to claim a victory in Madhya Pradesh along with Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh at a late evening press conference on Tuesday.

Sachin Pilot and Ashok Gehlot after the declaration of Rajasthan Assembly election results in Jaipur. Image credit: PTI

Advantage Gehlot

Rajasthan Congress president Sachin Pilot, the other contender for the chief minister’s post in the desert state, appeared to have lost out to his senior colleague. It was the same in Madhya Pradesh where Kamal Nath had emerged as the leadership’s pick instead of the younger Jyotiraditya Scindia. It was argued in both cases that Pilot and Scindia have age on their side and need to gain more experience before being given charge of a state.

The Congress had deliberately decided not to name chief ministerial candidates in these elections to ensure that all aspirants worked unitedly for the party’s victory.

The leadership’s decision was conveyed to Pilot by Congress office bearers KC Venugopal and Avinash Pande, who were hurriedly rushed to Jaipur to tackle the leadership issue once it became clear that the party was on course to victory. There was an initial suggestion that Pilot be named deputy chief minister but it was shot down by Gehlot who felt such compromises are usually resorted to in a coalition government and that this would only end up creating two power centres.

A final decision will be taken on Wednesday.

Gehlot’s name was firmed up when the final tally showed a narrow win instead of a far more decisive verdict for the Congress that was predicted for the party. The leadership took the view that Gehlot’s experience and political management skills would be needed to tackle such a situation, especially in reaching out to the large number of independent winners, which includes as many as 10 Congress rebels.

With an important Lok Sabha election coming up next year, it was felt that Gehlot was best placed to helm the party at this critical juncture. Making a case in his favour, Gehlot loyalists claimed the former chief minister had helped steer the party to a massive victory in the 2009 Lok Sabha election that followed shortly after the 2008 assembly polls in the state, which the Congress had won by a narrow margin.

Digvijaya Singh, Kamal Nath, Jyotiraditya Scindia with Rahul Gandhi. Image credit: PTI

The Digvijaya factor

In Madhya Pradesh, several factors appear to be working in favour of Kamal Nath. While Congress leaders acknowledge that Scindia is popular with the youth, the party could hardly ignore the claim of the seasoned Kamal Nath, nine-term MP from Chhindwara.

Kamal Nath’s candidature has the backing of former chief minister Digvijaya Singh, who was also instrumental in his appointment as Madhya Pradesh Congress president. The bulk of the MLAs who have won owe allegiance to Digvijaya Singh as he had ensured tickets for his loyalists during the selection of candidates. The party leadership will find it difficult to ignore this aspect since Singh is well networked with the party cadre in the state despite the fact that he has been out of power for the last 15 years. Above all, Singh is determined to keep Scindia out. As in the case of Rajasthan, Rahul Gandhi has to keep the upcoming Lok Sabha election in mind while picking the party’s chief ministerial candidate.

Rahul Gandhi with Bhupesh Baghel and TS Singh Deo.

Bhagel vs Sahu vs Singhdeo

In Chhattisgarh, the top contenders include the party’s state chief Bhupesh Bhagel, the leader of opposition in the outgoing assembly TS Singh Deo, former Union minister Charandas Mahant and the party’s lone MP Tamradhwaj Sahu.

Bhagel may lose out because he was embroiled in a series of controversies in the run-up to the elections.

Sahu is known to be close to Rahul Gandhi, who appointed him head of the party’s OBC cell and entrusted him with the responsibility of weaning away the backward classes from the BJP.

Singh Deo has a strong case because he drafted the party’s election manifesto in which the Congress promised loan waivers and better renumeration to farmers for their produce, which turned the tide in favour of the Congress.