Congress must force a mini-poll in MP

Updated: Mar 16, 2020, 07:22 IST | Ajaz Ashraf | Mumbai

While audacity and action have never been Congress' style, it has an opportunity to create a narrative that will be in its favour

Security personnel seen at the Madhya Pradesh Legislative Assembly ahead of the March 16 floor test, in Bhopal on Sunday. Pic/PTI
Security personnel seen at the Madhya Pradesh Legislative Assembly ahead of the March 16 floor test, in Bhopal on Sunday. Pic/PTI

Ajaz AshrafThe political crisis in Madhya Pradesh offers the Congress an opportunity to take the fight to the Bharatiya Janata Party's camp. If Chief Minister Kamal Nath fails to save his government, as is likely, the grand old party should ask its MLAs to resign from the Assembly. This will compel the BJP to face by-elections in 114 out of the Assembly's 230 seats, and enable the Congress to portray that the 2018 mandate in its favour was stolen.

Audacity of action has never been the Congress's style, which is defined by caution and circumspection. The party must dig deep within to go on the offensive to stave the existential challenge it faces. It is likely that some Congress MLAs will balk at the idea of exchanging the four years they still have in the Assembly for the uncertainty of an election. Yet the Congress must get as many MLAs to quit as possible because the party, for a change, can craft a narrative to claim the high moral ground.

The BJP was never reconciled to having been pipped at the post by the Congress in the 2018 elections to the Assembly. The Congress had bagged 114 seats to emerge as the single largest party and crossed the majority-mark of 116 with the outside support of seven MLAs. Yet the BJP sought to destabilise the Nath government from its very inception.

As early as January 2019, Anand Rai, the whistleblower in the Vyapam scam, did a sting operation on a senior BJP minister, who was caught on camera offering R200 crore to a clutch of MLAs willing to ditch the Congress. The video was, however, released only this month, a few days before 22 Congress MLAs, under the stewardship of Jyotiraditya Scindia, resigned from the Assembly and shifted their allegiance to the BJP.

The BJP has dubbed Rai's sting operation as fake. Yet the charge that the BJP offered a quid pro quo to 22 Congress MLAs is bound to stick, not least because Scindia was nominated as a Rajya Sabha candidate of the BJP on the very day he formally joined that party.

The resignation of 22 Congress MLAs from the Assembly (plus the death of two MLAs) reduces the grand old party's strength to 92 and, more importantly, brings down the majority-mark to 104 MLAs, three less than the BJP's strength of 107. Herein lies the catch: the Speaker has accepted the resignation of only six of the 22 MLAs. They cease to be members of the Assembly and cannot participate in the vote of confidence tomorrow. The remaining 16 remain members of the Assembly. Nath hopes to win them back to his side. They will, however, risk disqualification in case they defy the whip to vote for the Nath government. The decision on their disqualification will have to be taken by the current Speaker before he resigns or is replaced.

There could thus be 22 vacancies in the Assembly. These will have to be filled, under the Representation of the People Act, 1951, within six months. All these 22 MLAs will have to contest in the by-elections to return to the Assembly. The Congress can always appeal to the voters to punish the turncoats for betraying the popular mandate, but the party, after losing power, will likely be too demoralised to sustain the campaign for over six months.

By contrast, the resignation of all Congress MLAs will turn the State's political climate electric. Not only would it lead to holding by-elections to all 114 constituencies, but the Opposition's absence in the Assembly will also be a constant reminder of the BJP's increasingly undemocratic style of functioning and erode the legitimacy of its government.

Critics will point to Karnataka where the BJP persuaded 17 MLAs of the Janata Dal (Secular)-Congress coalition to resign from the Assembly to wrest power. The BJP then fielded 13 of the 17 turncoats in the by-elections to 15 seats, winning 12. But Madhya Pradesh is not Karnataka, where the BJP was perceived to have been wronged as it had emerged as the single largest party in 2018 but was tripped because the Congress and the Janata Dal (S) forged an alliance post-election.

It is for the Opposition to convince people that the ruling party lacks legitimacy. This is exactly what the Opposition parties in the Lok Sabha did in July 1989 — they resigned en masse in protest against Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi's refusal to relinquish office in the wake of the Comptroller and Auditor General's indictment of his government in the Bofors deal. The mass resignation galvanised the Opposition to overcome their differences and create a united front against the Congress, which was voted out of power months later.

Analysts have been crying hoarse for the Congress to revive its moribund organisation, fill the leadership vacuum, and hard-sell its ideology. The Congress can achieve all these goals by displaying chutzpah. Indeed, the party has been in a free-fall for so long that it cannot lose much by risking a mini-election in Madhya Pradesh.

The writer is a senior journalist

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