The road ahead for Kamal Nath won’t be easy
The alacrity with which Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister, Kamal Nath, has announced the new government’s two decisions — farm loans waivers and limiting government incentives to industries that employ 70% locals — has stunned the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which lost its seemingly impregnable strongholds in the Hindi heartland states of Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan in recent assembly elections.
Jayant Malya, former finance minister in the state’s outgoing BJP government, has dubbed them as decisions taken in haste and without proper homework.
Kamal Nath, a canny political strategist, knows that he has no time to lose as the 2019 Lok Sabha elections are not far away. The newly installed Congress government has to fulfil the two main poll promises the party made to electorates in the three states to retain their support.
Nath also realises that the challenge from the BJP is more formidable in Madhya Pradesh. Despite losing the numbers game, the BJP’s vote share was 0.1 percentage point more than that of the Congress and the party has a strong base across the state.
In as many as 10 seats, the margin of victory was less than 1,000 votes. The Congress won seven of these. Two of the other three seats were decided by margins of less than 350 and 121 votes. The Congress came third in 14 seats in Madhya Pradesh and fared even worse in five seats.
In the current Lok Sabha, only two of the 29 seats are with the Congress — Chindwara. represented by Nath, and Guna, represented by Jyotiraditya Scindia. If the results of the recent assembly elections are extrapolated on the Lok Sabha post-2019 elections, the Congress can snatch at least 10 BJP seats.
Nath’s first test in the coming Lok Sabha elections will be not only to retain this edge but improve upon it, if possible.
This will not be easy. Apart from providing good governance, he will also have to tone up the party organisation in Malwa, Gwalior, Mahakoshal and Vindhya regions of the state. His seniority and acceptability across different factions are an advantage.
An even trickier question for the Congress in the run up to Lok Sabha elections will be to revisit the issue of its alliance with the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), a move that would have significantly improved its performance in recent elections.
Though the BSP could win only two seats in the 2018 Madhya Pradesh assembly elections compared to seven in 2008, at the aggregate level, it has improved its performance by winning 10 seats across the three states, which is two more than what it had won in 2013.
The issue of alliances with regional parties like the BSP and the Samajwadi Party (SP) is all the more relevant for the Congress in the post-2019 election strategy of forging a grand alliance against the BJP.
The announcement of loan waivers for farmers and more jobs to the locals in the state’s industries by the Nath government may be a good start. However, it will have to ensure that these promises and implemented immediately and effectively.
By setting up a 22-member committee for implementing farm loan waiver, the Madhya Pradesh chief minister has shown that he is earnest. But he will have to go beyond these populist measures, if the Congress has to consolidate its gains in the state.
His first task now is to pack his council of ministers with those who have required administrative skills and political sagacity besides representing different regions and social groups in the state. He must then set up a road map for his government, translating Congress poll promises into a time bound, actionable plan.
Farm distress was one of the key reasons for the BJP’s loss in Madhya Pradesh, Chattisgarh and Rajasthan. The state government must ensure that the promised loan waiver percolates to the marginal farmers. It must also ensure the kharif crop is purchased from farmers at the promised minimum support price.
As for jobs, cajoling the state industries to employ 70% of the natives of Madhya Pradesh is not enough. The government has to ensure that the state’s young people are better equipped with skills that make them employable.
Madhya Pradesh is the Hindutva party’s oldest traditional stronghold and the opposition led by former chief minister, Shivraj Singh Chouhan, cannot be written off.
Moreover, the Congress government in Madhya Pradesh will know that it would soon run out of time. In fewer than four months, the Code of Conduct for the general elections will be enforced. Nath will really have to race against time.