Raipur: Nominations for the first round of voting in Chhattisgarh on November 12 have begun, but the Congress suddenly seems to be losing the plot. Its own internal Olympics have landed the party in an avoidable logjam, as the Bharatiya Janata Party unveils its plans of pre-election trading with impunity. A ‘Kambal Baba’ from Gujarat, who is the guiding light of state home minister Ramsevak Paikra, has begun offering cash to sitting Congress MLAs and possible candidates.
An audio CD with details of offers being made by the baba has gone viral locally, and though T.S. Singhdeo alleges BJP president Amit Shah’s recent visit to the state may have been for this purpose, another CD which went viral involves Pradesh Congress Committee president Bhupesh Baghel heard trading party tickets. So far, executive president of the Congress Ramdayal Uike has jumped ship, but indications are that several more have been made the offer. Some of them may eventually bite, as Congress is still struggling to stitch together a coalition. The Bahujan Samaj Party did not come on board, and it appears Gondwana Ganatantra Party may also finally join the Janta Congress Chhattisgarh-BSP-Communist Party of India alliance.
Unfortunately, the only time Chhattisgarh comes into focus for the Congress high command is during elections, and at other times only because of the Jogis. For five years, it lets the state drift into an ennui which slowly erodes the party’s base, allowing it to be captured by a few clever regional leaders with almost zero stature. And their combined wisdom produces only one game: Kaun banayega pappu ko pappu (Who will make a pappu of pappu).
The storyline is always the same. All Congress leaders from the state know that by default, the Congress president depends upon an information relay system through loyalists, rather than a foolproof party apparatus like the BJP or through a vibrant media. A lack of interest from national news organisations in Chhattisgarh politics has meant that channels of information flow are limited. The Pradesh Congress Committee presidents usually co-opt the general secretary in charge from Delhi, resulting in only positive information about the state body and functioning of its leaders being relayed to the high command.
Charandas Mahant became Pradesh Congress Committee president just before the last elections in 2013, after the whole top brass of the state Congress was gunned down by the Naxalites. This included then PCC president Nandkumar Patel, V.C. Shukla and Mahendra Karma. Stunningly the UPA-II did not have the courage to dismiss the Raman Singh government even in the face of such unprecedented massacre of opposition leaders. Apparently, a correct picture had not been conveyed to Sonia Gandhi even then. Congress leaders opposed to Ajit Jogi themselves conveyed what the BJP machinery had started spinning: that the whole massacre was actually planned by Jogi!
Both Mahant and Congress general secretary in charge B.K. Hariprasad spent their time trying to sack the Jogis, convinced that they were helping the BJP. Both lacked the stature and both failed and sank the boat at the hustings. Mahant, who lost the subsequent Lok Sabha polls in 2014 despite being a Central minister, was swiftly relieved of his post and replaced with big-talking OBC leader Baghel.
Hariprasad continued for some time till he was replaced by P.L. Puniya early this year. Puniya came in with a plan and the state leaders lacked the stature to oppose him, while Jogi had already been ousted from the party. Everyone played along and for a while it looked like Puniya may unite the party and actually pull it off. But soon, rumours of a CD involving him dampened his enthusiasm, and he too fell into the rut of misinforming or not relaying fully the ground conditions to Rahul Gandhi.
Rahul Gandhi has remained handicapped when it comes to picking the right leader or focus for the state. Every leader he trusted has ended up desecrating the ladder he climbed in an attempt to further his own grip on the party. His trusted Baghel and Puniya have fallen by the way side. After the close loss (0.75% vote margin) in 2013, a surprised Sonia had said: “We expected not to win Rajasthan, but Chhattisgarh was a surprise.” Rahul too has been “surprised”, but fortunately before the elections.
He has constituted a seven-member committee to look again at the ticket distribution and re-examine the lists prepared by Baghel and Puniya. Not many changes are likely at this late stage, but if the Congress is unable to fight off a 15-year anti-incumbency against the same chief minister and same set of discredited ministers, he will have only himself to blame for not having reached out to a larger section of people with a better feedback mechanism in the run-up to the elections.