Analysis | Why did Congress lose in Hindi heartland?

Madhya Pradesh Congress President Kamal Nath with party leaders Randeep Singh Surjewala and Digvijaya Singh addresses a press conference after party's defeat in MP Assembly elections, in Bhopal on Sunday. Photo: PTI

The 2023 Assembly election results approximate the Assembly verdicts in 2013, the year before the start of the Modi era.

Then, like now, the BJP had won big in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh. If 2013 heralded the arrival of Narendra Modi, do the big wins in 2023 signal a far mightier Modi in 2024? Does it mean that the Congress 'vanvas' from the Hindi heartland has been extended for at least another 10 years?

This time, it looked like Congress had many things going for it. A hugely popular chief minister in Ashok Gehlot in Rajasthan and a reasonably popular one in Bhupesh Baghel in Chhattisgarh. Welfare schemes of the both were well received. The delivery of the schemes was especially commendable in Rajasthan. It was rational to believe that anti-incumbency was in check.

And in Madhya Pradesh, it was thought a four-time Chief Minister had induced deep voter fatigue. The BJP central leadership's decision to downgrade Shivraj Singh Chouhan as just one of the leaders in the fray and project Modi as the face of the party was proof that even the BJP thought that the voters have had enough of Chouhan. On top of this, the BJP was also torn apart by internal conflicts in both Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan.

Yet when the results were out, the BJP was seen riding a wave in Madhya Pradesh and romping to comfortable majorities in Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh.

If the governance provided by the Congress was satisfactory and its leaders had mass appeal, what would have caused the Congress to crash so badly? Here are some pointers.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with BJP National President JP Nadda, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh (left) and Union Home Minister Amit Shah (right) during celebrations after BJP's victory in elections to the Legislative Assemblies of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, at the party headquarters in New Delhi on Sunday. Photo: PTI

Captaincy challenge
The BJP seemed to have employed the finest weapon in their arsenal to neutralise the public acceptance of leaders like Gehlot, Baghel and Kamal Nath: Narendra Modi.

Right at the outset, the BJP decided not to go with a Chief Minister candidate for any of the states going to poll. Collective responsibility was the mantra but Prime Minister Narendra Modi was the mascot.

What this meant was that hugely popular leaders like Gehlot and Baghel were not compared to any of their local BJP counterparts but to Modi himself. This is a test from which no regional Congress satrap in the Hindi heartland, however popular he is, can hope to come out in one piece.

In contrast, the Congress's decision to go with a CM face might have even messed up the party's campaign communication in a state like Madhya Pradesh. For instance, caste census for the OBCs was the big war cry of the Congress but its CM candidate Kamal Nath came from the upper caste. Even its other big leader, Digvijay Singh, is upper caste.

On the other hand, all the big local leaders the BJP had lined up -- Chouhan, Narendra Singh Tomar, Prahlad Patel, Kailash Vijayvargiya and Faggan Singh Kulaste -- were from OBC communities or tribals.

Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot; Sachin Pilot. Image Source: Manorama Online

At least in two states the Congress had lost -- Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh -- infighting was one of the factors that did them in.

In Rajasthan, the Congress high command has consistently undermined Gehlot's position by being too sensitive to Sachin Pilot's demands. In more than quarter of the seats, Pilot was given a free hand to choose his candidates. As it turned out, Congress did badly even in Gujjar areas where Pilot is supposed to wield immense clout.

The battle for supremacy between Baghel and T S Singh Deo had even caused administrative impasse, leading to poor delivery of welfare services. Take the implementation of the PESA (Panchayat Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, for instance. The PESA rules were not properly formulated as the Chief Minister was busy undermining his rival. The Department of Panchayats was under T S Singh Deo. Had the rules been formulated, the tribal regions of Chhattisgarh would have had at least a semblance of self-governance. Result: The Congress lost badly in tribal constituencies.

The high command tried to intervene by making Deo the deputy CM. But that was clearly not enough to heal the deep fratricidal wounds.

Competitive Hinduism
The Congress wanted to look more Hindu than the BJP, especially in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh.

Chhattisgarh Governor Biswabhusan Harichandan receives Congress leader Bhupesh Baghel's resignation as the state chief minister, at Raj Bhavan, in Raipur on Sunday. Photo: PTI

Kamal Nath, the Madhya Pradesh Congress Committee chief and the party's CM face, made the Congress nearly indistinguishable from the BJP. Images of him in saffron shawls with Hindu symbols were given wide publicity.

Nath proudly declared himself a devotee of Lord Hanuman and erected a 101-foot statue of the deity in Chhindwara, his constituency. He said he is happy that Ram temple was being constructed in Ayodhya. The other big Congress leader, Digvijay Singh, went on to say that he had donated more for the Ayodhya Ram temple than even Chief Minister Chouhan.

In June this year, in a move that seriously mocked the Congress's secular claims, a Hindutva organisation that militantly pushed for a 'Hindu Rashtra', Bajrang Sena, merged with the Congress in the presence of Nath.

In Chhattisgarh, Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel invested heavily in projecting a pro-Hindu image. The opening of the Ram Van Gaman Path is a telling example. The path is supposed to be the route taken by Ram when he was sent on exile.

When the Congress CM launched the first phase of the path in December 2021, he chose a spot that would make even the most deadpan Hindu emotional: Chandkuri, Ram's mother Kaushalya's birthplace. There, Baghel erected a giant-size statue of Lord Ram.

Now, if voters are asked to choose between two Hindutva parties, it is a no-brainer where their fingers would go.

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