To win a heartland state will improve the Congress’s national standing and its ability to bring together a wider anti-BJP alliance nationally. Gandhi has set the stage for a fierce battle. The outcome will shape national politics.
Congress president Rahul Gandhi kicked off his party’s campaign in Madhya Pradesh’s Malwa-Nimar region on Monday and Tuesday. This is a particularly crucial belt in the state’s politics, for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had won 56 of the 66 seats here in the last elections. If the Congress is to displace the BJP from the state, it has to make a dent here. Gandhi, along with state leaders, Kamal Nath and Jyotiraditya Scindia, visited the Mahakal temple in Ujjain; addressed public rallies in Ujjain and Jhabua; and did a road show in Indore on Monday. And on Tuesday, he had public meetings in Dhar, Khargone and Mhow.
In all his public utterances, certain themes were common. These are now clearly emerging as an integral part of Gandhi and the Congress’ campaign messages for both the state elections and the 2019 battle. One, he launched a sharp attack on Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, for siding with rich industrialists, waiving their loans, letting them flee the country, and engaging in corruption and cronyism on Rafale. These allegations were interspersed with the cry of “chowkidar chor hai” (the watchman is a thief), a slogan that Gandhi and the Congress have made their own. This is a high stakes gamble. Modi’s biggest strength has been the electorate’s faith in his intent and integrity; the Congress wants to shatter that. If it works, Rahul will deserve credit for persistence and changing the narrative. But there is an equally high possibility of this backfiring, for there is no evidence to indicate that Modi is today seen as personally corrupt and he could well play the victim card. The second theme in Gandhi’s speech was his claim that as opposed to the BJP, the Congress was for the poor, farmers, Dalits and tribals. The Mandasur killings and agrarian distress have given the Congress ammunition to make this claim. The BJP, however, hopes to neutralise this with its range of both central and state welfare schemes. Gandhi’s third line of attack centred around Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s governance record and “corruption”. Chouhan hit back at a factual inaccuracy in Gandhi’s speech, when the Congress president claimed that the CM’s son was named in the Panama papers.