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Jaitley mantra woes for Digvijay

Bhopal/Jabalpur, Nov. 23: His credibility is under strain, his caste equations have not gelled and his communication skills have faltered. Things have not panned out the way Digvijay Singh would have liked them to. But as opinion polls place the BJP ahead of the Congress, the chief minister’s party workers are hoping he will pull a rabbit out of his sleeve on polling day, December 1.

“He (Digvijay) is a pious person and has not done anything outrageous or immoral. We hope god will be merciful to him,” says Ramamurti Mishra, chief of the Jabalpur Congress, as he watches the chief minister tackle his toughest test yet.

Congressmen admit that Digvijay’s troubles began when the BJP followed Arun Jaitley’s advice to focus on “bijli, sadak, pani (power, roads and water)” and not allow his “soft” Hindutva to undermine their campaign.

Until then, the chief minister had been “able to counter the BJP on everything it raised like (the) Bhojshala (dispute) and cow slaughter. But Jaitley proved more than a match for him”, a Digvijay aide said.

Union commerce minister Jaitley, aware that development or the lack of it would be a very effective poll plank in Madhya Pradesh, has made sure that BJP chief ministerial candidate Uma Bharti focuses on little else during campaigning.

“On the economic front, there was total non-performance. Digvijay misled himself to believe that it was an either/or situation, that is either perform in the social sector or economic sector. There is no either/or,” Jaitley said. “The social sector can progress only if things happen on the economic front because economic activities generate the funds for infrastructure and social development,” he added.

Digvijay’s aides say three of his “major” achievements could still see the Congress through in rural areas, which record a higher voter turnout than cities and towns. These achievements include an enhanced devolution of grassroots power from the sarpanches and pradhans to elected samitis which have the final say on critical matters concerning expenditure, irrigation, health and education.

Another accomplishment is the waiver of electricity dues worth Rs 800 crore from farmers and dues amounting to Rs 175 crore from shanty dwellers. The third achievement is the conferring of ownership rights to grazing land on Dalits and tribals.

But the BJP has rubbished them. State party chief Kailash Joshi said: “The 73rd constitutional amendment to the panchayati raj act already listed 29 powers for panchayats. Digvijay implemented only 17 and that too, half-heartedly. He packed the samitis with his men and, in any case, these exist only in tribal areas.”

During the last Assembly elections, the Congress derived full advantage from Digvijay’s move to make local elected leaders more powerful than district officials. “Now that the sarpanches and pradhans form a formidable network, they resent giving power to the samitis. Since they are the power-brokers in an election, the chief minister’s latest step could in fact go against him,” a government official said.

Even an objective assessment has it that “it is a case of too little, too late. No doubt farmers and jhuggi-jhopdi dwellers benefited from the power dues’ waiver, but even they are sceptical of his intention because they see it as a knee-jerk response to the BJP’s campaign”.

As for land rights, Joshi said: “Only those who already possessed land gained from it. The majority of the landless did not.”

Congress critics say the party’s explanation that it lost most of its operating thermal power plants to Chhattisgarh and could not make up the shortfall because of “non-cooperation” from the National Thermal Power Corporation and “bad quality” coal do not wash. A former Madhya Pradesh electricity board official said Digvijay’s “greatest” blunder was to allow a “well-connected outsider” to run the board for 10 years because “he obliged the whims and fancies of his political masters in Bhopal and Delhi and left an empty coffer”.

Digvijay resorted to belated damage control by sacking the head, but this left the board directionless. The chief secretary doubles up as its chairman currently, but has little time to resolve the power crisis.

Making matters worse is the presence of two IAS officers chosen by Digvijay who call the shots at the board instead of the technocrats.

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