The ’98 tally: BJP - 30
Next best party: Congress - 10
It is a historic occasion," says Digvijay Singh. So the Madhya Pradesh chief minister walks with the crowd in pouring rain, chanting slogans alongside 75-year-old former chief minister Shyama Charan Shukla’s car as he proceeds to file his nomination papers from Mahasamund. It is historic indeed as three-time chief minister Shukla seeks to enter Parliament for the first time in his career and Digvijay, who was brought into the party by him way back in ’72, plays the best man. The endearing best man may also have bested the Shuklas at their own game of one-upmanship within the party. Sixty km away in Raipur the original claimant of the Mahasamund seat and nine-time parliamentarian V.C. Shukla is licking his wounds and telling all and sundry how ‘Raja’ had tricked him by first promising the seat to him and then supporting his elder brother’s nomination.
Most believe that this may be the end of the road for the Shuklas who have dominated the state politics since independence. VC is out of the way, SC has been kicked upstairs and his son Amitesh may at best end up in Raja’s lap as a minor mla sometime in the future. At least six of VC’s supporters have got tickets this time and those that win may have no choice but to look up to Digvijay for leadership. With Arjun Singh not contesting, Madhavrao Scindia undergoing the ‘humiliation’ of changing his seat for the first time in seven elections, Motilal Vora and Suresh Pachauri confined to their constituencies and Kamal Nath only a shadow of his former self, Digvijay has finally emerged as the tallest Congress leader from Madhya Pradesh. In fact, a credible TV poll survey puts him just four percentage points behind Atal Behari Vajpayee in the popularity ratings in the state. Sonia is a distant third. Nothing could be better from Digvijay’s point of view.
That’s all very good for the chief minister, but what of the Congress’ prospects itself? For, the infighting and bloodletting may have strengthened Digvijay’s hand and brought cheer to his camp, but it’s not done the party image much good. And there is still the general elections, where victory is all-important. A loss can not only embarrass but has an unpleasant propensity to trigger a series of personal setbacks for the leader. All the games being played will come to naught if the results are a repeat of the last two elections, when the BJP took 27 and 30 (out of 40) seats respectively from under his nose. Digvijay would then hold the dubious record of losing three parliamentary elections as a sitting chief minister. And after that, his hopes of holding on to much else—including his chair—would be wishful thinking. The daggers are drawn and launch pads for attack have been prepared as VC showed when his supporter Somnath Sahu withdrew from the contest from Raipur after getting the final nod from Sonia Gandhi, plunging the party into minor crisis. "Sahu showed that he considers VC a greater force than Sonia," says BJP spokesman Prabhat Jha.
The BJP, on the other hand, has done its homework. After it was laughed out of the assembly elections, it’s taking no chances. The first thing it has been quick to accept is the limited appeal of Kargil. It works in the urban areas but the villagers will have none of the military fatigues and patriotic songs. The supposed activities of ‘videshi bahu’ Sonia amuses them more.And Vajpayee’s name is still sterling. No one has read the situation better than BJP national vice-president Sunderlal Patwa.
"We are a people who believe in apshagun (bad omen). After Sonia entered the Gandhi family, she has brought only death. First Sanjay Gandhi, then Indiraji and then Rajiv. And this time it will be Congress," he tells a captive audience in Misrod village in his Hoshangabad constituency. But it’s not as if the BJP doesn’t have its share of problems. The sanyasin Uma Bharti has caused enough bad blood in the party with her insistence on not contesting from Khajuraho, from where she has won four times. Worse, she made sure that the other contender for the seat, Baby Raja, did not get a ticket either. Both Uma and Raja belong to the Lodhi caste, who dominate the seat. A miffed Raja has since revolted and is fighting on an SP ticket.
While that means it’s a virtual cakewalk for Congress nominee Satyavrata Chaturvedi, it also gave rise to some red faces in the BJP. Party president Kushabhau Thakre had asked former chief minister Kailash Joshi to prepare for filing his nomination from Bhopal but to his great embarrassment Joshi was later asked to withdraw in favour of Uma Bharti. Now Joshi and sitting MP S.C. Verma are unlikely to go all out for Bharti who is pitted against Seva Dal president Pachauri. If she’s unable to retain Bhopal, she would be squarely blamed for losing two party-held seats. Of the long-serving BJP politicians, only Sumitra Mahajan, Satyanarain Jatia and Laxminarain Pandey have been able to retain their tickets as well as constituencies.
No elections in MP is complete without the Scindia intrigue and it cuts across party lines. The Scindias have traditionally controlled at least four parliamentary seats—Gwalior, Guna, Bhind and Morena—and 36 assembly seats in the erstwhile Gwalior state. This time, with Rajmata Vijayaraje out of the fray from Guna, logic had it that her heir in the BJP, Yashodhara would contest. But big brother Madhavrao wanted a change from Gwalior, some say because of Jaybhan Singh Pavaiyya’s presence there. The former Bajrang Dal president had given him a close run in ’98, even when the local BJP was not united. Nevertheless, Madhavrao’s shift to Guna led to several recalculations. Yashodhara then wanted Gwalior, but the BJP would not oblige. It was then briefly rumoured she would switch to the Congress to protect the family fiefdom. But Madhavrao settled the issue by a warped extension of the logic, nominating a non-entity, Nagori, thus ensuring that Gwalior will never be won by a non-Scindia for the Congress. Unfortunately for Scindia, his other nominees—Satyadev Katare from Bhind, Tulsi Silawat from Ujjain and Rajendrasingh Gautam from Mandsaur—are also lightweights, who would be the most surprised if they do win.
The bsp, which has been managing a good 8 per cent of the votes in the last three elections without any seats to show, may come up with a couple of surprises. The unfortunate part for the party is that none of its leaders have been able to make a mark for themselves. Its electorate does not even bother with the name of the candidate when they vote for Hathi in Rewa, Satna, Bhind and Morena. In a triangular contest in Rewa, where assembly speaker Shriniwas Tiwari’s son Sunderlal faces sitting BJP MP C.M. Tripathi, the benefits may be reaped by the bsp. The candidate’s name is not important. That it’s a Brahmin vs Brahmin contest is.