The delicate dance of state duopolies

The Congress has combative duos at the top of its teams in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. In managing them, the party should learn from Karnataka
Image used for illustrative purposes only. (Express illustration | Soumyadip Sinha)
Image used for illustrative purposes only. (Express illustration | Soumyadip Sinha)

It is a truism in Indian politics that a party consigned to the opposition at the Centre and besieged with challenges must turn to the states it controls for sheer survival. The BJP suffered this plight for the decade it was out of reckoning at the Centre. LK Advani, Arun Jaitley, Sushma Swaraj and other central leaders orbited the state chief ministers who commanded the principalities that elected these leaders to the Lok Sabha or Rajya Sabha.

The Congress and the Gandhis have faced the same predicament since 2014, notwithstanding the party’s glorious legacy and an aura around the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty that in earlier times persisted even during spells out of power. Over the last decade, as the grammar of politics and the terms of engagement with it have been radically altered, the Congress’s history has become a baggage. The Gandhis must now turn to the provinces to restore a semblance of their bequest and assure themselves that everything is not yet lost.

Managing regional leaders in these changed circumstances is an onerous task. A weakened centre cannot dictate. Indeed, the use of the term ‘high command’ is inappropriate today. At best, the provincial bosses can be expected to pay token obeisance to the Delhi leaders. If it was just a question of issuing commandments to the states, the Gandhis and M Mallikarjun Kharge would be in a sweeter place.

But the Congress-ruled states have become stomping grounds for their leaders to play cut-throat politics, realise ambitions, unleash egos and allow vested interests to run riot. Each state governed by the Congress or with a significant presence has seen an interesting trend: the emergence of a duopoly. It’s not apt to term these as parallel power centres because creating one would be the sole privilege of the central command to restrain a chief minister, a state party chief or an opposition leader through a counterweight.

The Gandhis and Kharge are not placed to use such a stratagem even if they wished to, the way Indira and Rajiv Gandhi at their peaks blithely used an ‘off-with-their-heads’ approach on chief ministers. The rivals have come up by circumstances peculiar to the states, with little prod from Delhi.

Ashok Gehlot is up against a younger Sachin Pilot in Rajasthan. In Madhya Pradesh, Kamal Nath has to contend with Digvijay Singh. In Chhattisgarh, Bhupesh Baghel must glance now and then to watch TS Singhdeo’s manoeuvres. And in Karnataka, DK Shivakumar still cannot get over the fact that Siddaramaiah beat him to the top post. Barring Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh will elect their next legislatures in November along with Telangana and Mizoram.

Rajasthan classically illustrates the aftermath of a skewed power balance between the Congress’s centre and the state CM who has spent the best part of his tenure battling Pilot. Elections are a crunch time for the Congress—unlike the BJP, where nominations are highly centralised with little or no role for the central election committee and the central parliamentary board— in that the party’s duopoly has to prove its worth in selecting nominees. Pilot has consistently clamoured for cancelling tickets to MLAs facing corruption allegations and it seems the brass has gone along.

But Gehlot was a tough nut for the Gandhis and Kharge, having devised a campaign rhetoric where Rajasthan became synonymous with him, with no space for another leader. The Rajasthan saga bears retelling from September 2022, when the Congress hung in a caliginous space between the Gandhis’ manifest reluctance to head the party and Gehlot’s obduracy in accepting the party president’s post. Gehlot did not want to be turfed out of Rajasthan by Pilot, of all people. It appeared that Pilot was backed by Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, a party general secretary. Gehlot’s reflexes kicked in. He shed the mien of a Gandhi family loyalist, stirred his followers to a rebellion against the bosses, and publicly traduced Pilot. The mantle fell on Kharge to assume the president’s office.

The speculation was that the Gandhis would retaliate during the elections and deny Gehlot the prerogative of choosing his candidates. Yet, despite the feedback that many of his favourites had unsavoury records, he managed to retain a majority of his legislators and ministers and will likely secure tickets for the BSP and independent MLAs loyal to him. Where did Gehlot’s assertion leave Pilot? His followers were accommodated but the selection undermined his anti-corruption agenda.

About the only moment when Delhi exerted itself vis-à-vis Gehlot was by denying tickets to the trio of Shanti Dhariwal, Mahesh Joshi and Dharmendra Rathore, who had engineered the revolt against the Gandhis in 2022. That was small consolation for Pilot who surfaced on October 26 to address the media at the AICC headquarters after the Enforcement Directorate’s crackdown on Gehlot’s son, Vaibhav (in an alleged money laundering case) and the state Congress president Govind Singh Dotasra, also a Gehlot cheerleader. It appeared as though Pilot did a command job aimed at signalling unity at the top after his anti-corruption campaign against the Gehlot government.

In Madhya Pradesh, the Nath-Digvijay sparring is not new, although the photo-ops of the smiling twosome were devised to send a message that the “exchanges” were more wisecracks than putdowns. Nath has not been formally anointed the putative chief minister should the Congress wrest the state, but there are enough signs that the 76-year-old would make it again.

The larger point in encouraging the Bhopal duo was in tapping their complementary attributes to the party’s advantage. “One sheath, two swords” was how a Madhya Pradesh commentator described the pair. Nath’s project to wed a national image with a regional base has not always worked to his advantage. But his pragmatism and ability to match the BJP’s Hindutva rhetoric—idiom for idiom, sentiment for sentiment—went down well with Hindu voters, unlike Digvijay’s provocative pronouncements. The central command gave latitude to Nath and Digvijay to name the candidates, with a greater say for Nath.

In neighbouring Chhattisgarh, the appointment of Singhdeo as deputy CM was aimed at appeasing the veteran who felt slighted at being passed over for the CM’s post. He and Baghel had the privilege of selecting candidates in their respective strongholds to minimise rebellion and sabotage. Baghel hardly remonstrated, knowing he has much more at stake in winning the election than anyone else.

The moment of truth will arrive if the Congress swings Madhya Pradesh, and retains Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh. It cannot ignore the existence of the duopolies while electing the leaders. Notice how the Siddaramaiah-Shivakumar tensions relentlessly haunt Karnataka.

Radhika Ramaseshan
Columnist and political commentator

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