Congress leader Digvijaya Singh after a chopper tour earlier this week. Picture by Saeed Faruqui
Despondency is in the air but some are soldiering on, day after day, by road or foot or chopper
Nothing quite beats the view from a helicopter window. On an airplane, the earth quickly becomes a blur and comes into view, very briefly, only at take-off and touch down. From a moving train or bus, the landscape flashes past a little too quickly. And skydivers and para gliders, I assume, are too enraptured in the thrill of adventure to calmly take in the view.
But a chopper, flying low and cruising slow, offers an unmatched vista to feast on. Truth be told, there is nothing spectacular below — no high mountains or verdant valleys; no wide rivers or thick forests. But it is the very ordinariness of it — fields upon fields upon fields forming a patchwork of brown and gold and green, criss-crossed with small rivers, the occasional pond, and dotted with tiny hamlets — that is strangely heart-warming.
We are, after all, flying over the very heart of India — almost dead centre, slightly to the left. Despite the mobile towers that jut out every few minutes and the toy-like tractors that crawl over lands once ploughed by bullocks, there is something deeply reassuring in this landscape — changeless, eternal, tranquil.
For Digivijaya Singh, who is on a chopper-stop tour spanning four districts between Indore and Bhopal, the scene below must have a special poignancy.
He ruled this land like a king, albeit democratically elected, for an entire decade between 1993 and 2003. He went on a self-imposed exile from electoral and state politics for the next decade. With the BJP winning a third straight term in the Assembly elections at the end of 2013, another decade of oblivion from power beckons him and his party.
But if he is wistful about the past, he takes care not to show it. Yes, he tells me in a matter-of-fact tone, he knows this vast state like the back of his hand; he can recognise the features of a rural outpost or small town long before the chopper lands; he knows the names of most party workers and who gets along with whom and who is out to back-stab the other.
“I travelled a lot throughout the state as PCC chief and then as chief minister. Not just every district, I have been to every block. As chief minister, I had no portfolio and so I travelled all the time…,” he says absent-mindedly, more focussed on the battle ahead than glories past.
If nostalgia is a luxury he cannot afford right now, neither is there room for any despondency — even though he knows that the future is bleak for the Congress in Madhya Pradesh and well beyond.
Instead, there is anger — directed at Narendra Modi, the man he took on frontally long before any other; and there is candour — about his own party’s failure “to speak truth to lies”, at the state leadership’s inability to stand united even in the darkest hour.
“I have never, in all my years in politics, seen so much money being spent on a campaign to promote one man; it is unbelievable,” he says, speaking of the “Abki Baar, Modi Sarkar” blitz. It is a subject he could go on and on about. “Clearly, Modi enjoys the support of all the corporates. And if he captures power in Delhi, it will make their access to capital, to natural resources, to banks so much easier.”
It is the theme song in every one of the eight stops he makes in the punishing April heat. Jumping in and out of the chopper as though he were a sprightly teenager and not touching 70, Digvijaya – or “Raja Saheb” as he is called in these parts — walks briskly to the makeshift stage, has a quick chat with local leaders out in droves to garland him, and then gives his standard speech attacking Modi.
He occasionally mentions issues agitating the farmers of Madhya Pradesh — the loss of crops in hailstorms, the Shivraj Singh Chauhan government’s failure to give the promised compensation, the mounting electricity bills.
But the main target remains Modi. “There was a time,” he tells the gathering at a place called Badnagar, “when the Bharatiya Jana Sangh and RSS workers used to be very strong. They used to go around on their bicycles, on foot, to campaign in the elections. Now they are all confined at home. Now there is no sign of a party, there is no need for party workers. It is all about one man — and he only needs dalals (brokers) and thekedars (contractors.) The big capitalists are backing him. He is their man.”
He never fails to mention Modi’s marital status, underlining the fact that he was the first one to raise the issue and was accused of making things up. “Digvijaya Singh never says anything without proof,” he thunders. “A man who does not admit being married election after election, a man who could not look after his wife, how can he be trusted with looking after the nation?”
Back in the chopper, Digvijaya broods about Modi’s “lies” and his false campaign against UPA’s misrule, but is unsparing of his own party too. “We have got badgered even when we are not at fault. The silence of our leadership has cost us a lot. We have not been able to take the facts to the people,” he says, the feisty public speaker turning sombre in private.
As though the UPA’s defeat is a foregone conclusion even though more than half the constituencies are yet to poll, the Congress heavyweight goes on to list the many achievements of the past decade: “We have delivered on every front — in the power sector, agriculture, rural investment; for the first time in history, rural purchasing power is higher than in urban India….”
Then adds with a sigh: “Yet we have not been able to project our achievements. We have no one to blame but ourselves.”
But is it only the inability to project achievement? Aren’t the people of India, especially the rural poor who still form the vast majority, much too shrewd to be taken in by false propaganda? In Gujarat, hasn’t the Congress party given a walkover to Modi in election after election? Isn’t Madhya Pradesh going the same way?
Yes, Digvijaya admits. “Organisational weakness” is the bane of the Congress party, most certainly in Madhya Pradesh. “Real Congress workers do not find a place because of influence of big leaders who prefer their sycophants,” he says.
He names no names but everyone knows that “big leaders” — Kamal Nath, Jyotiraditya Scindia, Kanti Lal Bhuria, Suresh Pachauri, Arun Yadav and Digvijaya himself — have carved out the party into several warring factions.
The former chief minister insists he is different. “ I am one person who always kept the team together. When I was PCC chief in 1985, I had to deal with towering stalwarts — Arjun Singh, Vidya Charan Shukla, Shyama Charan Shukla, Kamal Nath, Motilal Vora, Madhavrao Scindia. I had to cater to their demands and requests but I kept the team together.”
That was then. In Bhopal, Congress insiders will tell you that in the past 10 years, Digvijaya, too, has played his own factional politics even though he would rather be regarded today as a national than a state leader.
His son is a newly minted MLA and his brother Lakshman is fighting Sushma Swaraj in Vidisha — the constituency where he addresses five of the nine rallies on the penultimate day of campaigning. The remaining four are in the Ujjain seat, where sitting MP Prem Chand Guddu is fighting a tough battle.
During the course of the day, it becomes clear that the Congress is not expecting to retain Ujjain this time and winning Vidisha would be “a miracle”.
Unlike the BJP, which is always gung-ho about its chances of victory in every poll from Kashmir to Kanyakumari, the Congress tends to under-hype itself. And in this election, party leaders freely admit that the momentum is with Modi.
Yet Digvijaya — and he is not the only one — soldiers on, day after day; by road, foot or chopper, addressing endless meetings in this long, gruelling and seemingly hopeless battle.
At the end of the day, I learn an old lesson anew —- that even losing battles have to be fought and that there is a certain grandeur in the battle itself that goes well beyond the glory of victory or despair of defeat.