Early in September, the Madhya Pradesh chief of the Congress, Kamal Nath, announced that if the party came to power it would build a gaushala in every panchayat in the state, which amounts to a staggering 23,412 gaushalas. A fortnight later, as the party president, Rahul Gandhi, headed to Bhopal for his first speech on the campaign trail for the state’s upcoming election, billboards of him doing a Shiva abhisheka dotted the town. For a party fighting Shivraj Singh Chouhan, a three-time incumbent chief minister of middling popularity, this seemed an odd electoral strategy—defending its own religious credentials rather than attacking the government for its failings.
The choice of Kamal Nath as party chief embodies all the Congress’s weaknesses in Madhya Pradesh—most notably, a lack of regional leadership and a serious crisis of funds—which mirror its problems nationally. Nath is known across the state but his political appeal is restricted to his parliamentary constituency of Chhindwara. During the 1984 massacre of Sikhs in Delhi, he led a murderous mob that burnt two Sikhs to death within a kilometre of parliament. Each time Gandhi tries to explain the party’s involvement in the killings, Nath’s record tarnishes his credentials.
In 2016, Nath had to step down as the party’s Punjab in-charge over the 1984 charges, but found himself in favour once again as the Madhya Pradesh elections approached. Now, in the same way his presence silences the party nationally on the 2002 Gujarat pogrom, it also silences the party from raising any questions about the financial dealings of the BJP or Chouhan. His long association with the businessman Gautam Adani has been cited often in media reports, and problems with land acquisition and construction of an Adani power plant in his constituency are well known in the region. Issues such as the Vyapam scandal, which had a resonance across the state, are now notably absent from the Congress campaign.
That the party opted for Nath despite these evident failings reflects the Congress’s weakness in a state where it had long been the default party in power. Since the 2002 defeat of the Digvijaya Singh-led Congress to a BJP campaign spearheaded by Uma Bharti, the party has largely withered away in Madhya Pradesh. Long bereft of ideological moorings, it has largely been dependent on sustaining a patronage structure by letting its supporters share in the spoils of power. Having spent three terms out of power, its local leadership consists largely of those who have not been able to find space within the BJP.
The party has found Jyotiraditya Scindia to be the only real alternative to Nath. In Delhi, Jyotiraditya is often sold by some pliant journalists as a young and dynamic leader. However, his prominence resembles that of Gandhi—both lack any evident political talent and both have inherited prominent political names. His following is limited to one part of the state, the Gwalior region, but even here the BJP’s strength has meant that the Scindia name ensures victory in but a single parliamentary constituency.