Mallikarjun Kharge, Sonia Gandhi, Priyanka Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi
Congress chief Mallikarjun Kharge with the Gandhis in a file photo: PTI

What is stalling Cong’s candidates list for MP, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Telangana polls

Among reasons are risky proposition of benching sitting MLAs, and a wave of disgruntled leaders from rival parties jumping ship

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Hectic lobbying by influential state leaders, conflicting feedback in constituency-wise grassroots surveys, the risky proposition of benching several sitting MLAs and the anticipation of a wave of disgruntled leaders from its rival parties making a beeline to join its ranks have collectively delayed the announcement of the Congress party’s candidates for the ensuing assembly polls in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Telangana.

Sources privy to the party’s discussions on screening of candidates have told The Federal that the Congress will not be repeating its Karnataka strategy of declaring nominees for the assembly polls in these states well before the Election Commission’s announcement of the election schedule. The first lists of candidates for each of these states, and for poll-bound Mizoram, are expected to be out only in the first fortnight of October, possibly coinciding with or closely following the announcement of the election schedule by the Election Commission (EC), sources said.

No Karnataka strategy at work

It may be recalled that the Congress had declared a bulk of its candidates for the Karnataka assembly polls, held earlier this year, nearly a month before the EC announced election schedule for the state. The strategy in Karnataka was a break from the Congress’s traditional praxis of withholding its candidate list till the final days ahead of the deadline for filing election nominations.

The Karnataka plan had been hailed by many party leaders as well as political observers as a welcome change in the party’s electoral planning as it gave candidates ample time to campaign in their respective constituencies. Soon after the Congress’s stunning Karnataka victory, its leaders from poll-bound Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Telangana as well as the party’s in-charges for these states had publicly claimed that at least the first list of candidates for these assemblies will be declared within the first fortnight of September.

That deadline is now past. While the BJP seems to have taken a cue from the Congress’s Karnataka strategy and declared 78 candidates for the Madhya Pradesh polls and 21 for the Chhattisgarh polls, the Grand Old Party has chosen to revert to its earlier practice, at least partially, of delaying announcement of candidates till the process of filing nominations for the election begins.

BJP, BRS leaders mull switchover

Manikrao Thakre, the Congress’s in-charge for Telangana told The Federal, “candidate selection discussions are on track; we have held several meetings at the state and central level and we will, hopefully, announce the candidates in the first of October... we may even announce all our candidates, or at least 95 percent of them, in one go”.

Thakre admitted that though he, like in-charges for Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan, had initially said that the candidates will be announced in early September, “this could not be done because of various issues... our leaders were also busy with preparations for the Congress Working Committee meeting (held on September 16 and 17 in Hyderabad), the Vijayabheri rally and subsequent mass outreach program that was conducted on September 18 and 19”.

Congress sources said a common factor in the delay in declaring candidates for the four state polls are the party’s ongoing talks with several disgruntled leaders from the BJP (and also the Bharat Rashtra Samithi in Telangana) who have expressed willingness to switch to the Congress in the coming days.

“Several leaders from other parties have already joined the Congress in Madhya Pradesh, Telangana and Chhattisgarh and many more are likely to join now with the BJP announcing its lists... in Rajasthan also many BJP leaders are in touch with us. Obviously, these leaders will come with the expectation of being fielded on a Congress ticket because we are going to win in all these states and we have to be careful about who we promise a ticket to; not everyone who joins can be given a ticket because our Congress president (Mallikarjun Kharge) and Rahul Gandhi have told clearly that our workers have to be given priority... so we have to do some adjustments and readjustments after which we will announce (the lists),” a senior Congress functionary told The Federal.

‘Shopping spree’ of disgruntled leaders

The Congress leadership, particularly in Madhya Pradesh and Telangana, has been on a shopping spree of disaffected leaders from its rivals in recent months. A number of those who have already left their parent parties and hopped on to the Congress bandwagon have done so on the assurance of being fielded as candidates in their respective electoral fiefs.

A senior Madhya Pradesh Congress leader told The Federal that nearly half a dozen electoral warhorses of the BJP from different regions of the state are expected to switchover to the Congress in the first week of October and state Congress chief Kamal Nath has already assured them a party ticket.

Similarly, sensing that they may be benched by their party in the forthcoming polls, a string of BJP leaders in Rajasthan are reportedly in talks with chief minister Ashok Gehlot. These Rajasthan BJP leaders, a number of them said to be confidantes of former chief minister Vasundhara Raje, have decided to wait till the BJP officially declares its candidates for the seats they presently hold or have laid claim to before they take a final call on whether or not to defect, sources said.

The Congress is hopeful of victories in these four states. At a function organised by a media group last week, former Congress chief Rahul Gandhi had asserted that his party is “definitely winning” Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh while claiming that the party’s prospects in Telangana and Rajasthan were bright too, even though the contests in these two states were close.

BJP’s predicament in MP, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh

Of these four states, the BJP currently rules Madhya Pradesh, where it had lost the election in December 2018 but had manoeuvred its way back to power in March 2020 following mass defections of MLAs loyal to Jyotiraditya Scindia. However, the BJP is now facing a combination of palpable anti-incumbency against the Shivraj Singh Chouhan government and dissentions within the party organisation, particularly because of friction between old party warhorses and the more recently-minted Scindia loyalists from the Congress. The BJP’s decision of fielding three Union ministers, four sitting Lok Sabha MPs and its national general secretary Kailash Vijayvargiya in the assembly polls is also being viewed in Madhya Pradesh’s political circles as a panic reaction by the party against the possibility of imminent defeat.

In Rajasthan, the BJP central leadership’s decision to visibly sideline Raje, the party’s tallest leader in the state, and instead fight the polls in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s name, has only exacerbated the saffron party’s problems. This has given the Congress, which until two months ago was struggling to keep its house in order in wake of the recurring turf war between Gehlot and Tonk MLA Sachin Pilot, newfound confidence of breaking the state’s three-decade long tradition of incumbent governments being voted out every five years.

In Chhattisgarh, the BJP never reconciled with its shock defeat of 2018. The sidelining of three-term former chief minister Raman Singh by the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah duo in the aftermath of the party’s 2018 rout, the inability to offer a satrap who can replace Singh and a failure to win back support in tribal-majority northern and southern regions of the state has plagued the BJP. These internal troubles have also prevented the BJP from taking political advantage of the feud between Congress’s chief minister Bhupesh Baghel and his deputy TS Singh Deo that had begun to hurt the Congress’s prospects in some districts until the Congress high command only recently stepped in to broker a truce between its two heavyweights.

Congress’s factional feuds

Congress sources say a major factor boosting the party’s hopes of imminent victory in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh (as also in Telangana, where BRS founder and chief minister K. Chandrasekhar Rao has also been besieged by rebel leaders and corruption allegations) is, thus, the disarray within the rival party. However, the anticipation of an influx of disgruntled leaders from its rivals aside, the Congress leadership also has other reasons to delay announcing its candidates, not all of which portend happy tidings for the party.

A party veteran involved with screening of potential candidates told The Federal that the Congress continues to face its age-old problem of factional feuds over ticket distribution in each of these states. Like in Karnataka, the party had roped in election strategist Sunil Kanugolu for giving inputs regarding poll strategy, conducting ground surveys and identifying winning candidates in Telangana and Madhya Pradesh.

Sources said in Madhya Pradesh, Nath has largely been dismissive of Kanugolu’s inputs on candidate selection and selective in accepting the findings of ground surveys. Additionally, factional leaders such as former Union ministers Suresh Pachouri and Arun Yadav and former leader of opposition Ajay Singh have also been unhappy at Nath’s style of functioning, particularly since they were kept out, until earlier this month, from discussions on candidate selection.

A senior Congress MLA said Yadav, son of former deputy chief minister and backward caste leader, late Subhash Yadav, has also been sulking ever since Kharge chose Sihawal MLA Kamleshwar Patel over him as a member of the CWC from the OBC quota – a decision Yadav believes was influenced by Nath.

The MLA added that Nath has established such a “stranglehold” over the party unit in Madhya Pradesh that even former chief minister Digvijaya Singh and the Congress high command are often overruled by him in matters related to the assembly poll strategy. A prime example of this was Nath’s supposedly vetoing against the idea of the INDIA coalition holding its first joint rally in Bhopal since he did not wish to share a stage with either DMK (due to the controversy over Udhayanidhi Stalin’s Sanatana Dharma remarks) or Arvind Kejriwal, whose AAP has decided to field candidates in the Madhya Pradesh polls.

A second Congress MLA told The Federal that Nath has “informally” informed those leaders whose candidature is guaranteed to start their respective campaigns but on “over a dozen seats he wants to field BJP rebels instead of loyal Congress leaders, including some sitting MLAs”. The intra-party squabbles and Nath’s machinations have only contributed to the delay in finalising candidates.

Troubles in Telangana, Rajasthan

In Telangana, Kanugolu’s feedback on the victory prospects of various candidates has led to a furore by a section of party leaders who claim that the results of these surveys are “misleading and have been designed to boost the credentials of (Telangana Congress chief) Revanth Reddy,” a senior Telangana Congress office bearer said.

The office bearer also claimed that though Kharge and Rahul had “specifically told Revanth Reddy to ensure good number of backward caste candidates, there is an attempt by some of our leaders to undermine the claim of people from these communities in many constituencies”.

The situation in Rajasthan is no different. A member of the party’s candidate screening committee in Rajasthan told The Federal that Kharge had informed Gehlot “over two months ago” that there were reports of heavy anti-incumbency against many sitting party MLA, including some ministers and that these leaders will have to be denied tickets.

“Gehlot had agreed with the Congress president, but he is now pushing for tickets for the same people,” the screening committee member said, adding that the “expected problem” of Gehlot and Pilot vying for tickets for their respective loyalists was the other hurdle that the Congress was struggling to sort out. With Jananayak Janata Party founder and Haryana Deputy Chief Minister Dushyant Chautala announcing his party’s decision to field candidates in over 30 Jat-dominated seats of the state, the Congress has also been forced to reassess the candidature of some of its potential nominees in such constituencies.

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