In Madhya Pradesh, Shivraj Singh Chouhan may benefit from Congress' lacklustre campaign, failure to tap into anti-incumbency

Who gets a cakewalk in Madhya Pradesh and who is left with egg on the face depends on who learns the moral of a 2003 story about Lord Hanuman, Uma Bharti, cakes and eggs, and who learns it in time for Assembly elections scheduled in December.

So, what is the ande ka funda?

As the story goes, in 2003, the then Madhya Pradesh chief minister Digvijaya Singh was trying to be holier than cow. To counter the Hindutva appeal of his saffron-clad rival, saadhvi Bharti, he was propagating the salubrious effects of gau mutra and demanding a ban on killing of cows for beef. To neutralise his Hindutva spin, Bharti decided to publicly celebrate the birthday of Lord Hanuman with a cake and candles.

In Madhya Pradesh, Shivraj Singh Chouhan may benefit from Congress lacklustre campaign, failure to tap into anti-incumbency

File image of Shivraj Singh Chouhan. AFP

With Arun Jaitley by her side, Bharti went to a temple in Chhindwara on Hanuman Jayanti. There she cut a cake, lit a few candles and sang 'Happy Birthday' for Lord Hanuman.

Her rival Digvijaya immediately dumped cow urine, which he claimed to have quaffed once in life, and turned the cake into an election issue. "How could she offer a cake made with eggs in a temple to Lord Hanuman?" Digvijaya asked, calling her act a sacrilege — egg on the face of Hindus, literally.

Bharti immediately went on the defensive, proffering explanations. The most ingenious of them: It was a milk cake, and thus a perfect offering to the Lord. But it did not stop here. Digvijaya kept cooking the BJP's omelette and Bharti kept responding, turning the election debate into a comic farce.

While this went on for a while, a wise head in the BJP asked Bharti to stop responding. "Let him eat cake and egg, you grill him on development," somebody advised Bharti. And the rest, as they say, is history, just like Digvijaya himself.

In the run up to the 2018 polls, somebody in the Congress needs to remind its MPs of the ande ka funda — talk development, talk performance. Do not turn the campaign into a comic farce. Because it suits the incumbent to always deflect attention from real issues and concentrate on emotive ones.

Madhya Pradesh is a ripe case of anti-incumbency. After 15 years of BJP rule, people — especially farmers and unemployed youth — are willing to question Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan's performance and think about an alternative. They are ready to evaluate other options.

Many factors point to the voters' Chouhan fatigue. One, the BJP lost four consecutive by-elections in the state in the last two years. Two, the Congress made major gains in recent bypolls for elections to local bodies. These setbacks seem to be consistent with the findings of a CSDS survey that predicted a 15 percent lead for the Congress in May 2018.

But despite this, the Congress has refused to learn the funda of anda. Its leaders are busy serving Chouhan emotive issues on a platter, allowing him to discuss everything except his own performance. A classic example of the Congress egg-on-the-face syndrome was a party MLA's vicious attack on the chief minister, comparing him with a sex worker.

Prior to this, he was also called a madari (juggler) and nalayak (incompetent), allegedly by state Congress chief Kamal Nath.

Calling a politician names works in politics only if voters hate the recipient of colorful epithets. If the target is somebody like Chouhan — not despised, even if not universally revered — he turns the name-calling into a ruse to hardsell himself as a victim, to generate sympathy and tug at heartstrings.

But the Congress, it seems, has not learnt from its disastrous attacks on Prime Minister Narendra Modi and its after-effects during the Gujarat campaign. So, like Modi, Chouhan too has used Congress' attacks to turn the election into a referendum on his own asmita. He is counter-attacking the Congress by borrowing from Modi's playbook of turning the pejorative monikers hurled at him into badges of honour.

Around the time Modi proudly called himself a bhaagidar, claimed to be a friend of corporates to counter the Congress, Chouhan too wore the names given to him with pride. "Yes. I am a madari. I turned the state around," he argued.

A personality-centric election always hurts the Congress. This is because the BJP has towering leaders with proven credentials. The Congress, on the other hand, either has no face to project or still relies on leaders who were discredited and discarded years ago.

The BJP is thus playing the personality card smartly. While it is using Congress' attacks on the chief minister to elicit sympathy and support, it is also attacking Congress leaders like Digvijaya Singh to neutralise their campaigns on the ground. A good example of this strategy is Chouhan's alleged "traitor" jibe at Digvijaya, that BJP insiders say was part of a strategy to discredit the Congress leader, paint him as anti-Hindu and anti-India to negate the impact of his ongoing 'Ekta Yatra' that aims to mobilise the Congress cadre.

The consensus within the state is that the Congress needs to shine the spotlight on issues that could hurt the BJP. It needs to talk about the plight of farmers that has led to a spate of protests. It needs to highlight unemployment — joblessness has gone up by 50 percent in the last two years. It needs to seriously question Chouhan's 15 years in power. It needs to stoke anti-incumbency, not sympathy for Chouhan.

Otherwise, Chouhan looks set to inaugurate his fourth tenure with candles and a cake, with or without eggs.

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Updated Date: Aug 10, 2018 09:29:35 IST

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