With Anti-Incumbency in the Air, BJP Is Picking Its Candidates Carefully in MP

As the poll date comes closer, the BJP has to fire-fight on several fronts, including pacifying angry party workers and leaders.

Bhopal: The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is walking a tight rope in poll-bound Madhya Pradesh as it picks candidates for the assembly elections. If on the one hand, the party is attempting to ward off strong anti-incumbency sentiments, on the other, it is trying to pull off complicated, poll-friendly caste equations in choosing candidates.

Against this backdrop, BJP minister of state for horticulture and food processing Surya Prakash Meena’s decision not to contest this time around has predictably raised eyebrows inside and outside the party.

“I have voluntarily decided not to contest in the assembly elections. I intend to work for the victory of BJP candidates in all five constituencies of Vidisha district,” Meena wrote to Madhya Pradesh chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan. Meena represents the Shamshabad constituency in Vidisha.

Given that this constituency, which came into existence in 1977, has generated seven BJP MLAs in nine assembly elections, Meena’s decision set off murmurs within the party. Shamshabad is also part of the Sagar Lok Sabha constituency, which has been a BJP stronghold in the last six elections (1996-2014).

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According to party insiders, one of the reasons behind Meena’s voluntary withdrawal from the polls could be that he was seeking a ticket from the adjoining Kurwai assembly seat, considered to be a safer bet. Kurwai is one assembly segment of the Vidisha Lok Sabha constituency.

For the last 35 years (1989-2014), the Vidisha Lok Sabha constituency has been won by the BJP. It has been represented by high-profile BJP leaders including late Prime Minter Atal Behari Vajpayee, cabinet minister Sushma Swaraj and chief minister Shivarj Singh Chouhan.

Following the announcement of the first list of party candidate, the temperature in the 51 district headquarters of the BJP has been running high. The BJP has announced candidates for 177 of the 230 constituencies, 126 of which were won by the party in the 2013 assembly elections.

There seems to be rising concern about anti-incumbency in the state which the BJP has ruled for the past 15 years. In a bid to neutralise popular anger, the BJP is using a multi-pronged strategy in picking candidates.

For instance, the party has fielded a loyalist like P.L. Tantuway, who had not even asked for a ticket. The story goes like this: Tantuway, who had recently retired from service in the State Bank of India, was on his way to the local market when his phone rang. The BJP had just announced the list of party nominees. Tantuway’s name was on the list as a nominee from the Hata seat.

The ruling party also has to deal with the party workers being unhappy with some candidates. As the poll date comes closer, the BJP has to fire-fight on several fronts, mainly pacifying angry party workers and leaders.

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After the party leadership preferred chairman of Nagda municipality Ashok Malviya, a close aide of Union minister Thavarchand Gehlot for the Ghatiya seat, supporters of BJP leader Shankarlal Ahirwar of Ujjain held an emergency meeting. They complained that the BJP high command, at Gehlot’s behest, is short-shrifting grassroots cadres. Around 300 party workers burnt an effigy of Gehlot in front of the party office. Faced with large-scale disaffection, the BJP leadership was forced to retract their decision about Malviya.

In the Agar district, BJP leaders and workers organised a meeting at Gandhi Upwan to protest the candidacy of MP Manohar Utwal from the Agar assembly seat. Utwal is currently representing the Dewas Lok Sabha seat.

Former MLA and vice-president of the Gau Samvardhan Board (Cow Protection Board) Santosh Joshi has announced his decision to contest as an independent from Susner assembly seat after the sitting MLA, Murlidhar Patidar, was renominated as the candidate. Patidar had led a teachers’ agitation on the eve of the last assembly polls in 2013.

Armed with nomination papers, Joshi said, “I have decided to contest as an independent candidate from the Susner seat. I have taken this decision on the advice and support of party workers.”

In the Ratlam rural seat, newcomer candidate Dilip Makwana was given the cold shoulder by MLA Mathuralal Damar. Makwana, a government employee, had gone to Damar’s house to seek his blessings.

The BJP, however, has chosen to play down these incidents, calling them “minor protests”. Party leaders, unsurprisingly, have denied reports of cadre disgruntlement.

Trying to get its caste equation right, the party in its first list picked 28 Thakur, 24 Brahmin and 35 OBC candidates.

According to a recent Centre for the Study of Developing Societies study, 65% in MP vote on the basis of caste, the highest in the country. The BJP has traditionally got the backing of upper castes and OBCs, who make up about 55% of the population in Madhya Pradesh.

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Constituting 37% of the electorate, Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes have traditionally supported the Congress. In 2013, the BJP managed to get a foothold in the SC/ST communities, and is now drawing more support than the opposition Congress.

However, anti-incumbency continues to dog the BJP. Just how deep the party’s concern on this count is can be gauged from the fact that it has denied tickets to eight sitting women legislators, including minister Maya Singh, a Scindia family member.

According to former chief minister and MLA Babu Lal Gaur, the pro-BJP wave is no longer visible.

“The wave which propelled the party to power in MP in 2013 and the Centre in 2014 general elections is no longer there. Right selection of candidates will be the key to which party eventually emerges victorious in the polls,” he told media persons in the state capital.

In 2013, the BJP had won 165 seats while the Congress had bagged 58 seats. The Bahujan Samaj Party had won four seats while independent candidates clinched three seats.