The October 21 byelection in Jhabua (ST) assembly constituency in Madhya Pradesh is a must-win contest for the Congress government as its outcome may decide the fate of the Kamal Nath government which is in minority.
Digging his heels in at the top post, Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Kamal Nath is trying to counter the Opposition BJP in its own language by facilitating the opening of probes against saffron party leaders, a strategy he has devised just before the October 21 byelection in Jhabua (ST) assembly constituency to target the BJP on corruption and assert his growing authority in a state hit by factionalism in the ruling Congress party.
Former CM and BJP stalwart Shivraj Singh Chouhan is the latest victim of the sudden aggression shown by anti-corruption investigation agencies in Madhya Pradesh. Chouhan is facing heat for alleged corruption in an afforestation drive executed under his previous government along the banks of the Narmada in 2017.
The stakes are very high for the Congress in the bypoll as its outcome may decide the fate of the Nath government which is in minority. Nath's decision to make alleged corruption by the BJP a poll agenda has also successfully deflected attention from governance issues raised by the BJP.
Realising the importance of raising the Congress tally by one in the Assembly, the Chief Minister seems to have given a free hand to investigation agencies to book BJP leaders in the anticipation that registration of cases against BJP leaders would keep them on the back foot and prevent them from attacking him over governance issues during the bypoll campaign. While the BJP has cried political vendetta, Nath has called the registration of the plantation scam case a normal procedure. The Chief Minister also vowed to end corruption regardless of the political affiliation of the culprits.
The probes initiated against BJP leaders, including Chouhan and his former forest minister Gauri Shankar Shejwar, in the plantation drive case have given explosive anti-corruption ammunition to the Congress just before the bypoll which it desperately needed to win the seat to get close to the halfway-mark in the Assembly. The Kamal Nath government enjoys support of 114 MLAs in the 230-member House. It has survived on support from two BSP legislators, one SP MLA and four Independents while the Opposition BJP has 108 MLAs.
The BJP's hurried clarification on the alleged corruption charges has seen the saffron outfit call the charges against Chouhan as a “propaganda exercise’ by the Kamal Nath government ahead of the Jhabua assembly bypoll. BJP spokesperson Rajnish Agrawal said, “Congress leaders are contradicting the state government's earlier statement in the assembly ruling out any irregularity in the plantation drive.”
But as political temperatures continue to rise in the bypoll campaign, the Congress has started highlighting the alleged corruption case that took place under the previous Chauhan-led BJP government. The investigation into the plantation drive of 2017 has also cast a shadow over former minister Shejwar and some bureaucrats and forest officials who allegedly fudged figures and inflated the numbers of saplings bought and planted during the drive.
Kamal Nath's forest minister Umang Singh confirmed that the Chief Minister has given his consent to pave the way for an investigation by the Economics Offence Wing (EOW) of the MP police into the scam.
By opening the probe against Chouhan just before the crucial bypoll, the MP government's investigators have offered an opportunity to Congress leaders to attack the BJP on the sapling scam involving Rs 455 crore. The matter is related to Chouhan's ambitious plan to plant 6 crore saplings along the banks of the Narmada on a single day to set a Guinness World Record.
According to Umang Singh, the parameters for such a plantation drive were ignored and only 4.5 percent saplings were planted as per the requirement. He alleged inflation of price of saplings brought from Maharashtra and Gujarat and additional expenditure on hiring JCB machines to dig up pits for the saplings.
Pointing to a contradiction in claims made by the previous Chouhan government and official confirmation from Guinness World Record authorities, the minister said Guinness officials said there were 5,540 plantation sites and over 2.20 crore saplings were eventually planted at these sites. But, the BJP government went on to trumpet its achievement by claiming that over 7.10 crore saplings were planted at 1.21 lakh sites, he said.
The Congress has also sought to capitalise on the almost-simultaneous raids by Lokayukta police against senior excise department official A K Khare, believed to be close to BJP stalwart Chouhan, to unearth alleged seven illegal property worth Rs 100 crore. The properties raided by the anti-corruption watchdog included two properties in Bhopal, two properties in Indore, two in Raisen and one in Chhattarpur.
To continue its anti-corruption campaign, the Congress has also stepped up its attack on the BJP alleging that its leaders were involved in an alleged “honey trap scandal” in which five women and a man were arrested in Indore and Bhopal on September 18-19 for allegedly running the racket that involved blackmailing politicians and officials for awarding government contracts.
Meanwhile, both the ruling Congress and the BJP are all set for an intense fight in Jhabua (ST) bypoll for which Congress has shown confidence in veteran and former MP Kantilal Bhuria against green horn Bhanu Bhuria fielded by the BJP. Kantilal Bhuria got Sonia Gandhi's nod for the ticket after beating Javier Medha in the race. Medha had quit the Congress to join BJP on the eve of Lok Sabha elections but recently returned to the Grand Old Party expecting to get a party ticket for the Jhabua by-election. Fearing that Medha may jump into fray as a rebel candidate, Nath used his persuading skills to quell the infighting. However, reports from the ground indicate that Medha’s supporters are staying away from campaigning for the party's official candidate Kantilal Bhuria.
The BJP, on the other hand, is countering the Congress by highlighting the alleged infighting in the Congress and the shaky nature of the Kamal Nath government, an allegation which the Congress has vehemently denied. To counter this poll plank of the BJP, Congress leader Digvijaya Singh, who is perceived to be involved in a power tussle with party colleague Jyotiraditya Scindia, took to Twitter in the run-up to the bypoll and sought to present a united face of the party. He said all leaders stand together to serve the people who have given the party the mandate to rule.
However, the unity bid in the Congress suffered a blow when a poster sprung up in Bhind recently, showing Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Scindia together. In an embarrassment to the Congress, the poster hailed Scindia as a true son of India for supporting the decision to dilute Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir.
Apart from taking on the BJP over the corruption issue, Nath has also started projecting himself as a harbinger of development in a state that was under BJP rule for 15 years. With the intention of highlighting his development model, Nath interacted with industry leaders at Magnificent Madhya Pradesh Investors’ Summit 2019 at Indore on October 18. The state government's flagship event offered a platform to investors to connect with the state government and help it enhance ease of doing business. Nath also highlighted his government's special focus on inviting investments in textile, food processing, logistics and warehousing space.
The result of the byelection in Jhabua on October 24 will be a virtual report card for the Nath government which is pursuing its soft Hindutva agenda along with liberal farm waiver policies to address distress in the rural economy. The bypoll, necessitated by the resignation of MLA G S Damor after he was elected to the Lok Sabha from Ratlam-Jhabua parliamentary seat, may give Nath the much-needed shot in the arm to consolidate his position as the CM and cement the road for continuing Congress rule in the state for the full five-year term with a comfortable strength in the Assembly.