News from a Congress party rally in Chhindwara on Saturday that suggests commerce minister Kamal Nath would lead the party in Madhya Pradesh assembly elections is a major departure from the party’s tradition of not projecting chief ministerial candidates ahead of results from state assembly elections.
It now appears that the Congress party is veering around to the view that projecting leaders during elections does indeed give an electoral edge, a realization that stems from the party’s defeats in successive elections.
Elections are scheduled by year-end for five key states —Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Delhi and Jammu and Kashmir (J&K). Given the volatile situation in J&K, timely elections there appear unlikely. Of the remaining four states, the Congress is in power in Delhi and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the rest.
Of all the chief ministers in the BJP-ruled states headed to polls, Shivraj Singh Chouhan remains the most popular. His extensive tours of Madhya Pradesh, his accessibility and a development agenda have helped Chouhan emerge as a people’s chief minister.
As a result, while voters in the state complain bitterly of many non-perfoming and openly corrupt BJP MLAs, the party has a serious shot at returning to power entirely due to Chouhan’s personal appeal and popularity.
In contrast, the Congress party’s Digvijay Singh, who ruled the state for 10 years, is considered to be an awful chief minister. This is the opinion of not just ordinary voters but also the cadres and active supporters of the Congress party. Any perception that Singh would return as chief minister, if the Congress won, would have been fatal to the party’s chances.
So, will projecting Nath as the party’s chief ministerial candidate help improve Congress prospects in Madhya Pradesh?
Nath may not fetch additional votes—he was never really a force in state politics nor has any caste-led mass following—but putting him in the forefront is likely to help the party consolidate its support, keep rampant infighting in check and help the party simply focus on the BJP.
What remains to be seen is if Nath’s projection as a future chief minister is an exception or whether the Congress party has decided to switch strategy on this front. Take Rajasthan. While BJP chief minister Vasundhara Raje is also popular, unlike Chouhan, voters belonging to some castes are unhappy with her leadership. The Gujjars, especially, are unhappy with the Raje government for her unhelpful stand on their inclusion in the scheduled tribes reservation category. And the Jats are openly demanding a Jat chief minister.
The Jats backed the BJP in the last elections, rewarding the party for including them in the other backward caste category and also to punish the Congress party for not making a Jat as the state’s chief minister.
Based on my current assessment of the state, the Jats are likely to be the swing voters who will decide the outcome of the elections in Rajasthan.
If the Congress declares a Jat candidate as their chief ministerial candidate, it could very well be curtains for the Raje government and the BJP. If the Congress shies away from declaring a chief ministerial candidate, then the party will find the election a difficult hurdle.
In Chhattisgarh, former Congress chief minister Ajit Jogi is a popular choice. In a state with a large tribal population, the BJP has a Thakur chief minister. If Jogi—a scheduled tribal if you believe him and a scheduled caste if you believe his rivals—is projected as the Congress chief minister, it could give the party a decisive edge.
While I have said before that projecting a strong chief ministerial candidate has helped the BJP and others in various elections, projecting a clear leader doesn’t always help in winning elections as only certain kinds of leaders seem to help in furthering electoral prospects of a major party that has a lot of baggage.
Two factors seem to weigh heavily on voters’ minds when they consider voting for a party because of its projected leader: trust and community connections. Leaders such as the BJP’s Atal Bihari Vajpayee can swing support in their party’s support based on their personal appeal and people’s trust in them. But caste and community also play a huge role as every community aspires to have its fellow castemen occupy high positions.
Leaders such as Mulayam Singh Yadav, Mayawati, Om Prakash Chautala receive huge support from their respective communities who want them to become chief ministers.
Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s recent suggestion that implied Manmohan Singh would be the United Progressive Alliance’s prime ministerial candidate may have been prompted by the decision of rival alliances to declare their prime ministerial candidates. But it could have signalled a shift in thinking that is being reinforced by the Nath news. Whether the party’s new tack will help it end an electoral drought will, in the end, come down to public trust and a favourable social or caste background.
G.V.L. Narasimha Rao is a political analyst and managing director of a Delhi-based research consulting firm. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org