Bhopal: ‘If the Congress comes to power in Madhya Pradesh, there will be a rise in goondaism and local Muslims will start bullying the poor people.’
This was at the core of what Aryan Sahu, a first-time voter from Sagar district, said when asked why he was not willing to give the Congress a chance in the assembly election, voting for which is on Friday (November 17).
He talked about a case in his constituency, Khurai, where some Muslim families accused of harassing their neighbours were allegedly forced to relocate by a local leader. Sahu accused the Congress of providing patronage to goondaism by the minority community.
Though he could not provide any evidence for his suspicion of the community or how the Congress provided patronage to suspected criminals despite being out of power for the last two decades, he was unwavering in his conviction that the BJP best represented the interests of the Hindus, while the Congress suppressed their true sentiments.
“The BJP has ended all goondaism. There used to be a lot of atrocities. If the Congress comes back, there will be goondagardi again,” said Sahu, who runs a small kiosk. Atrocities by whom, I asked. “The people from the Muslim community. They used to oppress the poor,” he responded.
Madhya Bharat’s commitment to Hindutva
The BJP’s core ideology of Hindutva has deep roots in MP, right from the days of the Jan Sangh. Most of the BJP’s rule since 2003 has been uninterrupted, barring a 15-month stint of the Kamal Nath-led Congress government between 2018 and 2020.
While a substantial section of voters across caste and class expressed a negative sentiment against the Shivraj Singh Chouhan government, either based on fatigue, dissatisfaction or simply a desire for change, the saffron party still enjoys a solid base of committed voters in this central Indian state.
A long association with the BJP’s style of governance – targeted welfare schemes and monetary assistance, especially to women and girls – and the deep roots of the Hindutva ideology with no counter-narrative at the grassroots, have kept the BJP as a dominant, if not hegemonic force in the state over the last few decades.
In 2018, even though the BJP lost the election to the Congress – the BJP got 109 seats against the Congress’ 114 seats – it secured almost 48,000 more votes than the Congress and enjoyed a lead of 0.13% in the popular vote share.
Modi as Hindutva propellant
In Mehatwara town in Sehore, situated roughly between the capital Bhopal and the key city of Indore, Kumer Singh Thakur and others are seated outside a local BJP office, distributing white T-shirts with ‘MP ke mann mein Modi’ printed on them. ‘Modi sits in the heart of MP,’ it roughly translates into.
The T-shirts are targeted at the labourers and working-class people who cross the bus station. They can wear it and advertise the party in the market and also back in their village, says Kumer Singh.
The group praised Chouhan for his ‘simplicity’ and compared his long rule in the state with the 15 months of the Kamal Nath government through a communal lens. “Miya’on ke nakhoon badh gaye thay [Muslims had got emboldened under the Congress government],” said Kumer Singh.
When asked to elaborate, he referred to the controversy that erupted in January 2020 when a sub-divisional magistrate under the Congress rule ordered a temple management in the neighbouring town of Ashta to remove loudspeakers from an old Shiva temple.
While the administration had clarified it was only following rules based on directives of the Supreme Court on noise pollution, the BJP accused the government of being prejudiced against Hindus.
“Shameless appeasement,” said Chouhan then, asking Kamal Nath if the order issued to remove loudspeakers from the temple in the name of noise control would also be implemented in other religious places where speakers were used from 10 pm to 6 am.
Core BJP voters also lauded the Narendra Modi-led Union government for nearing the completion of the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya and abrogating Article 370, which granted special status to Jammu and Kashmir.
The association of Hindutva with the BJP was often coupled with claims that the party had improved the infrastructure of the state, once a part of states dubbed as ‘BIMARU’ for doing poorly in various parameters of development.
In Rahatgarh town in the backward region of Bundelkhand, Jagdish Goswami runs a small dhaba on the highway to Bhopal. He is 68-years-old and has lived through long stretches of both the Congress and BJP rule.
“Zameen aasman ka farak hain. Pehle kuch nahi tha, ab sab kuch hain [They are like the heaven and earth. We had nothing under the Congress rule. Now, we have everything],” said Goswami.
The roads have improved and business has got better, he said, adding that the promises made by the BJP in this election, such as cheaper gas cylinders, were also attractive.
But more than everything else, the BJP government promoted a “Hindutva ki bhavna” or feeling of Hindutva, he said.
“The Congress does not have a feeling of Hindutva. They didn’t solve any of the problems such as Article 370, Ram Mandir or Uniform Civil Code,” said Goswami.
Deep dissatisfaction with Chouhan government
It’s not that core BJP voters did not discuss the shortcomings of the Chouhan government. Across districts, almost all of the pro-BJP respondents The Wire spoke to said they were not fully satisfied and expected some improvements in different sectors, especially inflation, unemployment and local-level corruption.
The BJP’s ideology, the appeal of Narendra Modi and suspicion of the Congress ensured they did not stray.
Sidhnath Singh, a farmer in Sehore, said the Chouhan government had been lax in many departments, especially regarding allegations of corruption, and that it had been riddled with controversies. “The government should be as solid as the one run by Modiji,” he said.
The BJP’s disruptive strategy to not have a ‘CM face’ in MP this time and use Modi as an anchor while creating the feeling that there could be multiple claimants for the CM post, revealed its assessment that it could not bank on the image of the Chouhan government alone. In other words, it was an admission of anti-incumbency.
In campaign banners and posters, Modi overshadows Chouhan, who has been reduced to just another face among the many.
A BJP campaign vehicle in Dewas district illustrated the BJP campaign strategy in one frame. ‘MP ke Mann mein Modi’, it said in large font. Below it was a large cut-out of Modi at the centre of the frame. On his right was a slightly smaller photo of BJP president J.P. Nadda and on his left an even smaller cut-out of Chouhan.
On Chouhan’s left were Narendra Singh Tomar, Jyotiraditya Scindia, Virendra Kumar Khatik and Narrotam Mishra. On Modi’s right were cut-outs of Kailash Vijayavargiya, V.D. Sharma, Prahlad Singh Patel and Faggan Singh Kulaste.
The above names include possible replacements for Chouhan if the BJP wins again. The BJP has fielded three Union ministers, four MPs and one national general secretary in this election. Many see it as an obvious downsizing of Chouhan, the BJP’s most popular face in the state, and an OBC to boot.
However, BJP voters did not seem to care much about Chouhan’s reduced stature, with many maintaining a neutral position.
“If he returns as CM, its good. If he doesn’t, even that works,” said Sajjan Singh Thakur, who runs a kirana shop in Sehore, the district from where Chouhan is contesting elections (Budhni seat) and which is also the CM’s native.
“As long as the CM is from the BJP, be it anybody, I am happy with it,” said Goswami.
Aryan Sahu, an OBC, said he was confident that despite the setbacks, the BJP would have no option but to pick Chouhan as CM. “The BJP may not have declared him as the CM face, but we are confident that nobody else will become CM but mamaji,” he said.
Some BJP voters even argued that a change in guard might do the party well. “Narendra Singh Tomar will be the CM,” quipped Bhairon Singh, an upper-caste farmer in Sehore. Hari Singh, also an upper caste farmer, said ultimately for him, Modi and the BJP’s symbol mattered, regardless of who was fielded as CM.
“The country will remain intact as long as there is Modiji. If the Congress party comes to power, the country will be enslaved,” he said.
In Sonkatch assembly seat in Dewas, young BJP leader Sandeep Patel, campaigning for the party’s candidate, said that all the voters cared about was the lotus symbol.
“The janata only cares about the lotus, meaning Modiji. We are witnessing Ram rajya under him,” he said. “Modiji ji ke diwane hain. Modiji jo bolde wo sarva manniya hain hamare liye. [We are crazy about Modiji. We will accept whoever he picks].”
Less than an hour’s drive from there, in Hathpipliya constituency, a roadside banner also describes another dimension of this election: will the entry of Congress rebels disrupt the BJP’s internal harmony?
The banner features BJP candidate Manoj Narayansingh Choudhary. In 2020, he was among the many Congress MLAs who rebelled and joined the BJP to topple the Kamal Nath government. The banner has a large frame of him with folded hands in its left corner.
Above him is a frame of Modi with a raised hand. In the right-hand corner, above a lotus logo, are frames of two leaders, almost similar in size and dimension: Scindia and Chouhan. The latter is relegated to the extreme end. A telling commentary on the many battles being fought in MP this election.
BJP vs Congress for 2024 will have to be crafted afresh
While Hindutva and the deep roots of the BJP organisation in MP are serving as its bedrock, the party has also developed a strong support base over the years on the basis of its welfare schemes as well as the negative impression built over the years of the last Congress government run by Digvijaya Singh before the BJP’s long run in power.
Bhajan Singh, a farmer in Ashta, said the power supply situation had drastically improved in rural areas after the BJP government was formed. During the rule of the Congress, there used to be frequent power cuts, and farmers were forced to use motors, he said.
“Today, there are separate feeders for the farm and villages. If one stops, the other is not affected. We get 10 hours’ electricity supply in the farms and 24 hours in the villages,” said Singh.
His family also benefits from the Ladli Laxmi scheme launched by the Chouhan government, under which eligible adult women get monetary benefits of Rs 1,000 per month (now increased to Rs 1,250).
“We have five women in the house including my sisters-in-law. We end up earning more than 5,000 each month just through this,” he said.