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The Congress’s chief ministerial face, Kamal Nath, is a man in a hurry as he attempts to wrest back the office he had to vacate midway through in 2020 when his government fell after 22 Congress lawmakers defected to the Bharatiya Janata Party. Now the state unit president of the Congress, Nath spoke to Hindustan Times even as scores of supporters of leaders denied the party ticket stood protesting outside his Shyamla Hills bungalow. Edited excerpts:
What’s your projection for the Congress in the upcoming elections?
I have faith in the voters of Madhya Pradesh. These elections are not about merely a candidate or a party. They are about the future of MP (Madhya Pradesh). I’ve seen elections for the last 45 years of my life. Here, after 18 years of rule by the BJP and after they having toppled our elected government, there’s complete difference in the (approach of) the voter. The voter of today is very different from the voter of five or 10 years ago. Today a voter understands a lot. To think that he/she is unaware and not sensitive (about the prevailing political situation) will be a very big mistake.
You won’t put a number to your tally?
I’m not Shivraj Singh (Chouhan; the current CM) who puts numbers to tallies.
But Digvijaya Singh with whom I spoke the other day projected 130 seats for the Congress in the 230-member state assembly.
That is Digvijaya’s assessment. I don’t make such assessments. My assessment is that the voters of Madhya Pradesh will secure their future.
Where exactly does your optimism come from? Do you hope to ride on anti- incumbency, a negative vote against the BJP or will it be a positive vote for the Congress in these elections?
I’m expecting both. A confidence vote for our party for the 15 months of our rule when I was CM, in which two-and-a-half months went in code of conduct (restrictions ahead) of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections (which followed the 2018 assembly polls). In (the remaining) months, people understood what the Congress is. They have faith and confidence in our party. In the extensive touring that I am doing, I see voltage in the eyes of people.
In MP, you have not accommodated smaller parties which are part of the INDIA grouping. The Samajwadi Party is in the fray here as also the Aam Aadmi Party and the Gondwana Gantantra Party. Keeping them out doesn’t help the combined national cause of the anti-BJP Opposition as is evident from the SP’s Akhilesh Yadav’s angry outburst.
We tried (seat sharing) with the Samajwadi Party. The question was not of the number of seats, the question was which seats. After all I’ve to see — which seats? Just saying so many seats doesn’t get you anywhere. So we couldn’t arrive at a consensus on the particular seats they wanted. Where other parties are concerned, this is an election between the BJP and the Congress. People are not going to waste their vote by going with others. Why will they vote for them? They know that they (smaller parties) can’t form the government. They know that if any of their MLA wins, he cannot do anything and will be in the Opposition. So why will they vote for such a candidate?
But in 2018 you formed the government with an SP MLA…
No, we were in majority, we got 2-3 extra. Every election is different. This time the people know that it’s between the BJP and the Congress. They’re not going to waste their vote.
I was here in 2018 elections and I see a major difference in your public outreach this time. There’s heavy religious symbolism in your campaign now unlike the last time. What has changed to prompt the switch?
What’s the religious symbolism? We have no religious symbolism. If I built the largest Hanuman Mandir 15 years ago in Chhindwara, I didn’t build it for any election. It’s the BJP which tries to bring religion into politics. Everybody has his own religious sentiments and we respect that.
Haven’t you set up an actor, Vikram Mastal, who played Hanuman in Mahabharata, against Shivraj Singh? Isn’t that religious symbolism?
If we set up a candidate who’s a very well known person who played Lord Hanuman, does it mean it’s a religious card? I don’t understand the logic.
MP has been a traditional BJP-RSS bastion where they put in a lot of hard work to build a support base over the years. This is especially so in the Malwa-Nimar region which sends 66 legislators to the state assembly. They’re strong also in Central Madhya Pradesh (36 seats). How do you rate the Congress’s chances in these two regions with over a 100 seats in the 230-member House? The fight seems tough.
As I said, I only see the voters of MP. I have confidence that they will secure their future, whether it’s Malwa-Nimar, whether it’s Gwalior-Chambal, Mahakaushal or Bindhya. I see them voting for their future.
Would you say your contest isn’t with Shivraj Singh Chouhan, but with Prime Minister Narendra Modi?
My contest is against the BJP. It’s a Vidhan Sabha election, so obviously Shivraj Singh is in the forefront. That’s it.
How are your guarantees better than the promises on which the CM claims to have delivered?
He has made 2,500 announcements. The people know how much to believe him. We’ve made certain promises. People know what I committed last time, I delivered in 11 months