THE most visible change in Madhya Pradesh since the Shivraj Singh Chouhan government was ousted on December 11 in the assembly election is in newspapers and local news channels—they are conspicuously without state government advertisements. Unlike his publicity-hungry predecessor, new Chief Minister Kamal Nath has completely shunned publicity.
Since December 17, when Kamal Nath took the oath as the 18th Chief Minister, not a single Madhya Pradesh government advertisement has appea-red in media. This is in sharp contrast to the Chouhan’s 13-year rule when even routine government announcements or decisions would be displayed as full-page advertisements across media platforms in the state with the Chief Minister’s huge photograph adorning them on top. More often than not, two to three government advertisements could be seen in newspapers with one full page on the front page.
Chouhan’s over-the-top show of apparent narcissism through multi-billion advertisements was a major butt of joke in the Congress campaign. MPCC chief Kamal Nath would often ridicule his predecessor’s penchant for self-advertisement at the taxpayers’ money.
As Chief Minister, Kamal Nath has consciously eschewed the previous government’s practice. Even when he visited his citadel in Chhindawara on December 30 to a rousing welcome from the people he is representing for the last 38 years, his government chose not to advertise the momentous visit.
He unveiled broad contours of the much talked-about Chhindwara model of development which primarily hinges on an efficient delivery system without publicity. The Chief Minister dropped enough indications that the Chhindwara model will be his calling card when the Congress will take on the BJP in the Lok Sabha election in Madhya Pradesh.
“We will make Chhindwara a model for development of the state,” he told officials in a meeting in the home town.
He recalled that in the past he had a highway built in and trains connected to Chhindwara, but he neither announced these projects nor inaugurated them after completion.
In a clean break with the practice in the BJP government, the Chief Minister has put the onus of announcing development works and ensuring their completion on field officers. In the Chief Minister’s presence, Chhindwara collector Niwas Sharma promised 33 development works worth Rs 268 crore in a rally on Sunday, which was organised to express gratitude to the people for supporting the Congress.
During the just concluded assembly election, Chhindwara-versus Budni model of development was a major talking point. Former Chief Minister Chouhan represents Budni assembly seat. The Congress taunted the “Budni model of development” as epitome of hollow promises and a lot of publicity.
The newly elected Chief Minister hit the ground running. He had asked top bureaucrats to pull their socks up for implementing the promises in the Congress manifesto even before being sworn in as Chief Minister. Nearly a dozen election promises, most notably the farmers’ loan waiver, had been fulfilled in a week after the oath-taking ceremony.
IN his first press conference after taking over as Chief Minister, the industrialist-politician focussed on creating an ecosystem in Madhya Pradesh where industries are compelled to provide jobs to locals. His rich contacts in the corporate world and experience as Commerce Minister in the Manmohan government give hopes that he could come true on the promise.
As state Congress president, Kamal Nath transformed the moribund organisation into efficient election-fighting machinery, leveraging his experience in the corporate world. He ensured that each one of the Congress leaders felt invested in the goal to oust the 15-year BJP rule. It helped that the party high command, particularly party president Rahul Gandhi, trusted Kamal Nath un-questionably all through the campaign.
Given his well known family connection with the Gandhis, Kamal Nath is looked up with awe and expectation among Congress cadres. His reputation as the “third son” of late Indira Gandhi has endured all through the 38 years he has been representing Chhindawara Lok Sabha seat. A lot of real and apocryphal anecdotes of Kamal Nath’s go-getter and do-gooder image are in circulation among the party men. That explains why he was unreservedly accepted leader even though Kamal Nath plunged into rough and tumble of street politics only six months ahead of the just-concluded assembly election. Till then, he was known as high-flying, uncrowned king of Chhindawara, his pocket-borrow.
The 72-year-old Congress veteran has raised high expectations among people. As days pass, his reputation will come under increasing scrutiny of the nine crore people who have reposed trust in his leadership.
First challenge to his leadership came from within the party. Intra-party squabbles over cabinet formation and allocation of portfolios to new ministers cast an ominous shadow on the Congress’s plan to improve its performance in the 2019 Lok Sabha election in Madhya Pradesh.
After being sworn-in on December 25, Kamal Nath’s 28 cabinet ministers had to wait for three days for department allocation. The Chief Minister was under pressure from Digvijay Singh and Jyotiraditya Scindia to allot key portfolios to their staunch supporters.
While Scindia was keen on getting his close confidante Tulsi Silawat one of the key departments, Singh was batting for his son Jaivardhan Singh to be given finance portfolio. After Congress president Rahul Gandhi’s intervention, the Chief Minister had his way in portfolio allocation which bears his clear stamp.
at the taxpayers’ money
Cabinet rank to all 28 ministers has also caused heartburn among senior ones as they feel slighted over being treated at par with nearly half-a-dozen young cabinet colleagues who are in their thirties.
Over a dozen aspirants, including two BSP and one Samajwadi Party MLAs, have openly expressed displeasure over their exclusion in the Kamal Nath’s first cabinet expansion. They, however, are still hopeful that the Chief Minister will accommodate them in his team soon.
THE BSP and SP have extended unqualified support to the minority government of Kamal Nath. The Congress managed to cobble together a majority by co-opting three independent MLAs, one of whom has been made a minister. Two others are also eyeing ministerial berth.
The resurfacing of Congress’s factional infighting after initial euphoria over the party’s victory has infused energy in the otherwise demoralised BJP. Its leaders, led by outgoing chief minister, are ridiculing the newly formed government for its inability to keep the house in order.
As a veteran Congress leader, Kamal Nath has weathered many a storm within the party. He is not unduly worried about potential threat to his leadership from Singh or Scindia. What are chiefly occupying his mind are the tall expectations from the people.
His biggest challenge is to arrange enough funds to fulfil the most populist promise the Congress made in its manifesto for the 2018 assembly election—loan waiver for the farmer. The promise is believed to have made the Congress return to power possible after a gap of 15 years in Madhya Pradesh. The state is under a staggering debt of nearly 1.85 lakh crore and the loan waiver promise would require Rs 57000 crore to fulfil.
Kamal Nath must also be acutely conscious of the fact that the next Lok Sabha election is barely four months away. Therefore, dilly-dallying on the election promises could not only rob the sheen of the Congress’s victory in the assembly poll but also imperil the party’s prospects in the coming parliamentary election.
THE loan waiver was the biggest election plank credited for the Congress’s victory in the election. So high was the expectation of the farmers, who comprise nearly 70 per cent of the state’s 9 crore population, from the Congress that they had stopped repaying instalments of loans owed to them soon after the waiver was promised. They also suspended sale of their farm produce in anticipation of waiver. Suspension of loan repayment and sale of crops were indications enough that the farmers expectations have translated into votes for the Congress.
In the last 16 years, over 21,000 farmers committed suicide in Madhya Pradesh, according to National Crime Record Bureau. Significantly, whereas number of suicides has gone down by 10 per cent nationally, Madhya Pradesh registered 21per cent rise in this period. Between February 2016 and February 2017, at least 1,900 farmers or farm labourers ended their lives. In most of the cases, debt was the reason behind the extreme step.
The startling statistics about farmer suicides nail the ousted Chief Minister’s oft-repeated boast that he salvaged Madhya Pradesh from the quagmire of Bimaru status. On most other human development indices such as health for all, malnutrition and education, the Chouhan’s record has been dismal.
Yet, the former Chief Minister managed the media to build a disingenuous narrative about Madhya Pradesh’s spectacular transition from ‘Bimaru’ to developed state.
The narrative was essentially woven around the fact that agriculture growth rate in the state has been consistently in double digits in the last 15 years. The Shivraj government won Krishi Karman Award of the Union Agriculture Ministry a record five times for excellent crop production, specially wheat and pulses. While the BJP government loftily took credit for agriculture growth, it paid little attention to the problem of plenty that the growth had bred.
The demonetisation in November 2016 completely disrupted the agriculture market. Farmers suddenly ran out of cash. Mandis forced them to do business through digital platforms. But the farmers were reluctant as they find the digital transaction rather cumbersome. The ensuing tug-of-war between the mandis and the farmer escalated. As a result chaos reigned supreme in agriculture market. It was the time when effective and meaningful government intervention was needed most to relieve the farmers from their woes that had be fallen them in the shape of demonetisation. But the Chief Minister had other plans.
Amid burgeoning agrarian crisis, Chouhan embarked on Narmada Yatra. He covered 144 assembly segments spread in 16 districts along the banks of the holy river. It was a political pilgrimage which the Chief Minister undertook with great panache. For nearly six months, the Chief Minister’s much-hyped pilgrimage kept the government and the media focussed on the religious extravaganza.
Meanwhile, farmers’ woes compounded and remained unattended. Demonetisation had played havoc with their hard work. Crops were unable to fetch half the prices the farmers anticipated.
By the time the Chief Minister ended his six-month long tryst with the Narmada in April 2017, farmers’ unrest had turned into a full-blown crisis. Farmer organisations gave a call for ten –day stir from June 1. The government took no notice of them, much less invite the union leaders. In desperation, farmers in western part of the state staring from Sehore to Mandsaur threw vegetables and spilled milk on streets.
Then only the government woke up; not to resolve the crisis but to quell the agitationists by police force. On June 5, farmers turned violent and police fired bullets on them. Six Patidar youths were killed. The Mandsaur police firing signalled the Chief Minister’s irrevocable downhill journey.
Farmers’ anger provided the Congress much-needed impetus to resurrect itself. Scindia took the lead to revive the moribund party by espousing the farmers’ causes. Realising that the Congress protests are evoking positive response in public, party leaders began raking up old issues of corruption, Vyapam scam, illegal sand mining, unemployment, etc.
THE growing people antipathy did not reflect as much in mainstream as in social media. Fed on abundant government advertisements newspapers and electronic channels were still singing paeans of the BJP government. However, on social media platforms such as Facebook and Whatapps, trust-deficit between the people and the government was unmistakably visible.
Even as the Chief Minister’s fire-fighters were busy dousing the fire within the BJP house, the government got caught in a caste conflagration. In March 2017, the Supreme Court diluted some of the provisions of the scheduled castes/ scheduled tribes (prevention of atrocities) act, 1989, banning instant arrest of the accused under the act. The decision widened the caste schism along Dalit-Upper caste line. In Chambal-Gwalior region, which is notorious for violent caste-conflicts, the court decision caused widespread social unrest. On April 2, Dalit organisations called Bharat Bandh. The Gwalior region saw massive violence during the Dalit protests. Eight youths were killed in police firing in Bhind and Morena districts of the region. The government was caught unaware. Intelligence failure was glaring.
The police firing was a severe blow to the Chouhan government’s pro-Dalit image. Scheduled castes, which comprise 21 per cent of the state’s population felt betrayed by the BJP. The ruling party had made a deep inroad in Dalit vote banks, winning two-third of the 35 seats reserved for them in the previous election in 2013.
Four months on, it was upper castes’ turn to violently demonstrate their mistrust in the government. Provocation for their protests came from Parliament which reversed the Supreme Court judgement on the SC/ST (atrocities) act through unanimous adaptation of a constitutional amendment in August. The amendment spawned a plethora of pro-upper caste organisations. Anti-reservation youths under the banner of little-known upper caste-denoting organisations harassed leaders of both the BJP and Congress throughout September month this year.
WHILE caste cauldron was boiling, challenges to the Chief Minister multiplied from within the BJP on one hand and from the Congress, on the other.
In May, Rahul Gandhi sent Kamal Nath to lead the state unit. Within months he transformed the Congress from a moribund, faction-ridden organisation into a united and fighting election machine. Scindia took the charge of casting charm offensive, using his popularity. He was made head of the campaign committee. Singh, who had recently completed six-month long Narmada Yatra, was tasked with coordination among workers. Singh’s pan-Madhya Pradesh network helped him in good stead in the task assigned to him.
By July, both the Congress and the BJP were fully into election mode. Chouhan embarked upon Jan Ashirvad Yatra on a vehicle transformed into a chariot and studded with most modern gadgets. The yatra evoked poor public response. Till the model code of conduct had not kicked in, the official machinery somehow managed to provide the yatra a semblance of success with sponsored crowds. But after the code came into effect on October 6, the bureaucracy recoiled from helping the yatra under the watch of the Election Commission. Suspension of the official help rendered the yatra off colour, so much so that the Chief Minister suddenly announced abandoning it in Jabalpur.
Sensing trouble for the BJP, its president Amit Shah deployed an array of human and material resources. The BJP hired a swanky hotel to set up its media centre. National spokesmen led by Sambit Patra were drafted to brief newsmen. All newspapers and electronic channels were inundated with BJP advertisements. The Congress, on the other hand, was forced to make do with limited resources.
HOWEVER, in terms of strategies, Kamal Nath’s team outwitted the resourceful BJP at every step as electioneering began to peak. The Congress scored a significant point over the BJP on Hindutva when it announced to open cowsheds in all 23,000 village Panchayat. The move unnerved the Chouhan government whose track record on cow conservation is far from satisfactory despite BJP’s deification of the holy cow. The Congress took the wind out of the BJP sails on reverence of Lord Rama by announcing construction of the mythical path which the God is believed to have traversed through Madhya Pradesh during his 14-year exile. It was an old BJP promise which the outgoing chief minister did not bother to keep. Rahul Gandhi’s much-publicised temple-hopping during the campaigning pitted the Congress’s soft Hindutva against BJP’s hard Hindutva.
Before the narrative of soft versus hard Hindutva in the media escalate to the detriment of the Congress, a shrewd Kamal Nath swiftly turned the discourse on secularist issues. He began asking questions on Chouhan’s alleged failures on the fronts of education, health, women safety, farmer suicides, etc.
As campaigning entered the final phase in November, focus shifted to candidate selection and election rallies of star campaigners. On both the counts the Congress outsmarted the rival. The Congress displayed remarkable unity among factions in selecting candidates. The party also succeeded in quelling rebellion to a great extent. The BJP’s rebels proved to be far more recalcitrant. It reflected in the poll results. While three of a dozen Congress rebels won, nearly two dozen BJP rebels queered the pitch for the party candidates.
As far campaigning was concerned, the Congress heavily banked on Rahul Gandhi. The strategy worked. Rahul stayed focussed on issues such as misgovernance, corruption, Vyapam, women security and farmer unrest. He also repeatedly took on Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Rafael issue. Modi, on the other hand, resorted to largely personal attacks on the Gandhi family which did not go well with the audiences. His 10 rallies in the state converted into victory in only five seats.
AMIT Shah’s long stay in Madhya Pradesh and overdependence on his high-tech team for strategising campaign only antagonised local workers who are used to indigenous ways of door-to-door contacts.
Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath sought to communalise the election with his characteristic vitriolic rhetoric, but people were unimpressed with his Bajrang Bali versus Ali style of divisive speeches.
In the hindsight, Chouhan has reason to believe that but for the election speeches of the Prime Minister and overbearing presence of Amit Shah, the BJP could have scrapped through for him to form the government for a record fourth time.
Assembly election in the bi-polar polity of Madhya Pradesh has never been so close. Just 4,000-odd more votes to the BJP would have afforded outgoing Chief Minister Chouhan an opportunity to retain his government for a record fourth time. The BJP needed just seven more seats to reach the magical figure of 116 in the 230-strong assembly. In the Congress’s 114 tally seven seats were such where combined victory margin was 4327 votes. By luck the Congress managed to scrape through in the election against the formidable rival which had won the previous three assembly election by huge margins.
The unlucky BJP trailed the main rival by seven seats despite garnering 37,000 more votes. With 41 per cent votes polled, the BJP managed to pip Congress (40.09 per cent) by just 0.1 per cent votes.
The voting pattern makes the Congress look more fortunate than deserving of victory. However, looking from a different perspective, the Congress’s feat would appear quite impressive. The party has wrested 56 seats from the main rival to reach 114. It was possible because the Congress’s votes surged from 36.38 per cent in 2013 to 40.09 per cent this time round. Based on the increase in vote share, the Congress could win 18 out of 29 Lok Sabha seat in the stat, if parliamentary election were held with that of the state assembly.
What is more, the Congress won more seats across the regions, across the rural-urban divide and across the reserved-general categories, except in one region—Vindhya. Had it not been for quite an unexpected setback to it in the Vindhya region, the Congress tally could well have crossed the 125 mark.
In all regions across urban-rural divide, the Congress surged head of the BJP. In Malwa-Nimad (66) Congress seats rose from 11 to 35, in Gwalior-Chambal (34) from 12 to 19, in Mahakoshal (38) 13 to 21, in Madhya Bharat (36) six to 13 and in Bundelkhand (26) from 10 to 16. But in the Vindhya region (30), the Congress shrunk to six from ten. Thus, the Congress, overall wrested 60 seats from the BJP in other regions and conceded four in the Vindhya.
A fairly uniform rise of the Congress across the regions, except Vindhya, could not have been possible without a dent in popularity for the ruling party. That said, it was still possible for Chouhan to somehow scrape through with a vastly reduced margin for a record fourth time. But the double whammy of demonetisation—which angered the farmer—and the Goods and Service Tax (GST)—which hit the trader—shattered Chouhan’s hopes to retain power. Therefore, a disappointed Chouhan can justifiably blame his defeat on Modi whom he, otherwise, called “god’s gift to India.”
All the woes that befell the ousted Chouhan government had their genesis in the Modi government’s disastrous policy decisions. Madhya Pradesh was no stranger to agrarian crisis, but it was aggravated only after farmers ran out of cash due to demonetisation two years ago.
Chouhan’s own plight aptly reflected his party’s vulnerabilities. Like the 2008 and 2013 assembly elections, he was the pivot around whom the electioneering revolved in the state. The BJP put all its eggs in his basket, and the Congress targeted Chouhan more than his party. However, unlike the previous polls, Chouhan didn’t look like the knight in the shining armour, with his juggernaut rolling thunderously across MP.
Chinks in the armour became more visible as the campaigning started to peak. What was unthinkable in the past became apparent this time: a beleaguered Chouhan. He faced former MPPCC president Arun Yadav in the Budni constituency where he had sailed through breezily four times in the past (1990, 2006, 2008 and 2013).
HE was booed by the public during his Jan Ashirvad Yatra at many places; a slipper was hurled at him in a town; he abruptly aborted the yatra owing to poor public response; his brother-in-law, Sanjay Singh Masani, defected from the BJP to the Congress; his wife Sadhna Singh got an earful on two occasions from angry women while campaigning in her husband’s constituency.
All these developments clearly indicated that Chouhan was battling severe anti-incumbency. He had been ruling the state since 2005, unencumbered of any visible dissent within the ruling party. In the 13 years as Chief Minister, Chouhan had seen to it that none within the party rose high enough to pose a challenge to his leadership.
Chouhan’s failures are good lessons for his successor. To begin with, Kamal Nath has learnt not use sycophant media as an echo chamber for the government’s achievements. Unlike Chouhan, the Chief Minister is also desisting from making promises.
But the real test for the Chief Minister is how he handles the bureaucracy. So far, Kamal Nath has indicated that he would not allow himself to be surrounded by a coterie of favoured bureaucrats. His one-month rule seems to have inspired confidence in the top echelons of the bureaucracy that their new boss means business and is keen to give everyone a fair chance to prove himself or herself.