New Delhi: Even the bitterest critics of Shivraj Singh Chouhan wouldn’t question his welfarist inclinations. Despite allegations of large-scale corruption and nepotism against his three-time government, the BJP chief minister, fondly called mama (maternal uncle), has enjoyed considerable popularity among Madhya Pradesh’s predominantly rural electorate.
Chouhan, however, is now fighting the toughest battle of his political life. A resurgent Congress – led by the trio of Kamal Nath, Jyotiraditya Scindia and former chief minister Digvijaya Singh – in the state has put up one of its fiercest campaigns to wrest power from the saffron party in the November 28 assembly polls.
Locked in a bitter contest over the last few months, the two parties have almost turned the state election into a prestige issue.
Canvassing for the polls ended on November 26 and the state’s 230-member assembly is now preparing to get a new make-up.
How the campaign unfolded
The Congress party kicked off its campaign with what many call soft Hindutva, seemingly to counter BJP’s Hindutva. Congress president Rahul Gandhi, who recently returned from Kailash Mansarovar Yatra, was projected as a ‘Shiv bhakt‘. This was clearly to neutralise the icon of Lord Ram that the BJP has been successfully using.
The manifesto, which the Congress calls Vachan Patra, touched upon some issues which resonated with the BJP’s politics. It promised to build cow sheds in every district and launch a ‘Ram Van Gaman Path’ tour – of the mythical route said to have been taken by Lord Ram.
However, as the campaign matured, the party soon pushed these issues to the back burner and focussed primarily on rural distress across the state. The tactical shift was driven by the consideration that a large chunk of rural MP is going through a massive agrarian crisis.
While taking up farmers’ issues up front, the Congress attacked the Chouhan-led state government and Narendra Modi-led Centre. The grand-old party held demonetisation and alleged faulty implementation of the Goods and Services Tax as the twin-policies responsible for the deteriorating agrarian economy.
It, therefore, promised loan waivers and better prices to farmers even as it stepped up its rhetoric to revive the farm economy through a multi-pronged approach.
Frequently-occurring corruption scams like Vyapam, illegal sand mining and favouritism under Chouhan also dominated the Congress campaign.
Although the trio of Nath, Scindia and Singh started off as rival factions within the party, it got its act together as the campaign progressed. Ground reports suggest that the party which was practically defunct in the last 15 years had managed to energise its moribund booth-level units in every district.
The BJP, on the other hand, relied mostly on the improvement in the BSP conditions in the last 15 years – meaning, bijli, sadak, paani or electricity, roads and water. It attempted to drive home the benefits people had received because of state government’s diverse social and economic welfare schemes.
Throughout its campaign, it brought up the topic of how poor these basic facilities were in the state 15 years ago, in the process turning Congress chief minister Digvijaya Singh into a villainous figure.
However, battling a three-term fatigue, the saffron party, eventually, fell back on its age-old Hindutva issues to consolidate Hindus even as the national leadership of the BJP maintained that it was only focussing on development-related issues.
For instance, the hardliner and Uttar Pradesh chief minister Adityanath was para-dropped at the last moment to campaign for the party. He did what he does best – flame Hindu passions.
In one of his speeches, he described the MP assembly polls as a contest between “Ali” and “Bajrangbali”, peppering the BJP rhetoric with a good dose of communalism.
However, conspicuously absent from the saffron party’s campaign were former chief minister Uma Bharti and Prahlad Patel. The duo who in the late 1990s and early 2000s had successfully gathered the support of the OBC population. This had catalysed the BJP’s rise and Congress’s fall in the state.
This time around, the BJP entirely handed over the torchlight to Chouhan, who is running for another term at the office. He is the only visible OBC face in the BJP’s stable. As a candidate from Budhni assembly seat, which he has held since 2006, Chouhan is a member of the Kirar community that is electorally influential in many pockets of MP.
The state can be broadly divided into five geographical boundaries – Malwa-Nimar (west and south-west), Mahakoshal (south-east), Vindhya Pradesh (north-east), Chambal-Gwalior (north-west) and Bundelkhand. It is said that whoever wins Malwa, wins the state. Out of the 66 seats in the region, BJP secured a whopping 56 in the 2013 assembly polls.
However, the saffron party is fighting a three-term anti-incumbency as it tests its mettle in 2018. After the police fired at a farmers’ rally in Mandsaur – a part of Malwa – in 2017, it is being said that the Congress has consolidated its base among the farmers and agricultural workers. Rahul Gandhi, in fact, started his campaign from Mandsaur.
Mahakoshal, the largely Adivasi belt of the state, is where BJP has been performing well. However, Congress hopes to gain because of Kamal Nath’s multiple attempts to consolidate the party base in the region.
The largely impoverished stretch shot into prominence as both the Congress and BJP’s state presidents – Kamal Nath and Rakesh Singh – are from here.
Vindhya Pradesh saw an upper-caste uprising in September under the leadership of SAPAKS party. The upper-caste feudal groups were protesting against the Centre’s decision to reinstate the SC/ST Atrocities Act, which was ‘diluted’ by the Supreme Court. The BJP could have a falling out with these groups, which have traditionally voted for the party.
The Bahujan Samaj Party is also an important player in this stretch. As its efforts to ally with the Congress failed, the significant Dalit votes in the region may get divided between the two parties. This may help the BJP neutralise the anger it is facing.
Bundelkhand and Chambal-Gwalior region are similarly known as feudal belts, where upper-caste groups like Brahmins and Rajputs are considered highly influential. Where they swing will largely determine the nature of the results.
As the election came closer this year, smaller parties like Gondwana Gantantra Party (GGP), Jai Adivasi Yuva Shakti (JAYS), and SAPAKS party, which appeared to pose challenges for both the Congress and BJP, lost their steam.
This has yet again led to a situation which former psephologist Yogendra Yadav called “bipolar convergence”, meaning that almost all votes will now be shared between the two parties.
Since 2003, the BJP has trounced the Congress comprehensively. However, the numbers show that the grand-old party has been increasing its vote shares in each of these polls. From around 32% in 2003 in the last decade, Congress increased its vote share to around 37% in 2013.
The BJP, on the other hand, is likely to come down drastically from its around 45% vote share that it secured in 2013. In the past, BJP, despite winning a majority, had seen almost a ten-point decline in its votes. While in 2003 it had secured around 45%, its share crashed to around 36% in 2008.
In this tight contest, therefore, much will depend on how much the Congress gains. The BJP, despite facing strong anti-incumbency, will look to minimise its losses and retain enough to come back to power.
How people vote in reserved constituencies would also be interesting. Forty-seven for scheduled tribes and 35 for scheduled castes – a total of 82 out of the total 230 – will become central to gaining power.
The BJP performed extraordinarily well in these seats last elections, limiting the Congress’s strength in the assembly to a mere 58. The BJP had 165.
Many ground reports suggest that people seem to be upset with the Centre more than the state government. Demonetisation and its fallouts appear to have severely hit the rural economy in MP.
The Lokniti opinion poll conducted in the last week of October showed that MP is the only state among the five going to polls where Gandhi is liked more than Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Alongside, it also says that Chouhan continues to be the most preferred chief ministerial candidate in the state.
On December 11, when the results come out, we will know whether Modi becomes the reason for BJP’s defeat or Chouhan the factor behind its victory.