Congress trying hard to pin down BJP in the BJP-ruled States

The Congress’s strategy for the five forthcoming Assembly elections is to keep the spotlight sharply on local issues and not allow the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) electoral build-up for next year’s general elections, centred round the personality of Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, to dominate the conversation.

The party is very conscious that the BJP is trying to convert these State elections into what one Congress insider described as “a testing ground for 2014” and it is therefore trying hard to change the narrative: pin the BJP down in the States it is in power while projecting the Congress’s achievements in States where it is in command.

Asked whether the overall anti-Congress mood, thanks to a slew of financial scandals that have tarnished the ruling United Progressive Alliance government’s image, would not adversely affect its prospects, a Congress functionary told The Hindu, “Well, don’t forget we ousted the BJP in Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh and Karnataka over the last two years despite all the negative propaganda against us. In State elections, the issues are local.”

In four – Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan, Delhi - of the five States going to the polls over the next one month, the Congress’s principal rival is the BJP. If the Congress is defending its record in Rajasthan, Delhi and Mizoram – where it is currently in power – it is trying its hardest to unseat the BJP in MP and Chhattisgarh.

Of these five States, party insiders say that its chances are poorest in Rajasthan, where the BJP’s Chief Ministerial candidate Vasundhara Raje has galvanised the campaign: the Congress, therefore, is pinning its hopes on retaining the State by focusing on Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot’s record in implementing social sector schemes, especially the measures on the medical front, and reminding the electorate of the many shortcomings in Ms. Raje’s last stint that led them to vote against her government in 2008.

In Delhi, where the Congress has been in power for 15 years, the party started out with a distinct edge: there was Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit’s record on the one hand, and a divided BJP on the other. But with the BJP now having settled on Harsh Vardhan as its Chief Ministerial nominee, and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) running a fine-tuned campaign, Congress insiders say they are concerned that the elections could produce a fractured mandate. If the Congress initially believed that the AAP would cut into the BJP’s votes, now they admit that the new party could make inroads into its support base as well. Besides, it is in Delhi that the Congress is finding it hardest to localise the elections, as it is the national capital.

In the BJP-ruled States of Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, the Congress feels it has recovered some ground, particularly in the latter.

In Chhattisgarh, in the last elections, the BJP was just 1.4 per cent ahead of the Congress, a senior party leader recalled, stressing it would therefore not be so hard to bridge the gap. The party received a setback a few months ago when a large section of its State leadership was wiped out in a Naxal attack. In the current campaign, the party is, therefore, focussing on the poor law and order in the State.

The Congress is also trying to puncture holes in Chief Minister Raman Singh’s record of running a well-oiled PDS system by pointing out that in the Left Wing Extremism districts, much of the rations are captured by middlemen. A Congress functionary told The Hindu, “Raman Singh is often praised for his managerial skills and his clean image. But the ground reality is very different – and that is what we are drawing voters’ attention to.”

The party leadership has also tackled the “rebellion” led by former Chief Minister Ajit Jogi by giving his son, controversial Amit Jogi, a party ticket: as a party insider put it, “Mr. Jogi may not help us to win more seats, but he could certainly help to sabotage our campaign.”

In Madhya Pradesh, on the other hand, the Congress is placing the spotlight not on Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chauhan who, they concede, remains popular but on many of his ministers who have been accused of corruption.

And even though union MoS for power Jyotiraditya Scindia has not been named the Congress’s Chief Ministerial candidate, the fact that he heads the campaign committee has given him the prominence that has lifted the party’s prospects, they say.

The Congress is hoping to win at least two of the five States going to the polls as it knows that if it loses all of them – as the opinion polls are predicting – it will become a part of the BJP’s campaign for 2014.