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In Madhya Pradesh, BJP to Continue 18-Year Old Record

BJP appears to be firmly in position to form the government in MP, with a lead in a number of seats that has breached the majority mark.
Madhya Pradesh chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan. Photo: Twitter/@ChouhanShivraj

This analysis will be updated with poll numbers through December 3.

Bhopal: “Baar baar shakkar bhi gholo toh, phiki ho jati hain (Even sugar when mixed again and again, can start to taste bland),” quipped a poha seller in Bhopal recently when asked if he was happy with the way the Shivraj Singh Chouhan-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had functioned in Madhya Pradesh.

Though unwilling to outrightly dismiss the BJP rule, and reluctant to reveal which party he would vote for, his metaphor in Hindi revealed a sense of disenchantment and a thirst for something new. Which way did he eventually swing? Did he vote for change?

It is these questions that grip us when it comes to Madhya Pradesh, where the BJP has a sweeping lead.

Party Won Leading Total
Bharatiya Janata Party – BJP 160 3 163
Indian National Congress – INC 64 2 66
Bharat Adivasi Party – BHRTADVSIP 1 0 1
Total 225 5 230

The significance of the results

First, it would be a test of the Congress’ ability to replicate its remarkable performance in Karnataka where it dethroned the BJP earlier this year and sent a strong message of ascendancy in the Hindi belt in the months leading to the general elections next year. A victory for the Congress after a long, hard campaign would have a positive bearing on its long-term prospects in the state where it had, till 2018, been pushed to the margins. A victory in MP would also provide it with a successful template to battle the saffron party in the Hindi heartland.

Illustration: Pariplab Chakraborty

Second, the political fate of incumbent chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan, who helmed the state government for the majority of the last two decades, is at stake. So is the success or failure of the BJP’s experiment with a collective leadership to dilute cumulative anti-incumbency in a state where it has ruled continuously since 2003, barring a 15-month gap in 2018-2020.

Third, the result would be a commentary on the political clout of Jyotiraditya Scindia, who had engineered the rebellion of several MLAs to bring down the Congress government in 2020, as well as the acceptability of the 77-year-old Kamal Nath as the declared chief ministerial face of the Congress.

Fourth, given the long and deep association of the BJP and its political ancestor, the Bharatiya Jan Sangh, with MP, the results on December 3, seen together with the verdict of 2018 – when the saffron party lost power for the first time since 2003 – would provide us a glimpse of shifting sands in the state’s political landscape.

Fifth, the success of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s welfare schemes and promise of drastically changing the lives of the common voter would be tested in one of the country’s most backward states with a high population of marginalised Hindu communities.

With him leading the charge as the main face of the campaign, overshadowing the outgoing chief minister, the result would also, to an extent, be a reflection on his leadership and popularity, although in case of an adverse result the BJP is expected to shield him from blame.

PM Narendra Modi at Gwalior in Madhya Pradesh on October 2. Photo: Video screengrab/X/@narendramodi

A strong anti-incumbency wave

While the Congress hopes to repeat, or even better its 2018 performance, when it won 114 seats in the 230-member Assembly, the BJP faces the task of protecting one of its strongest political and ideological bastions in the entire country. Travelling in the state, beneath the maze of grievances and assertions, there were two dominant streams of thought among voters. There were those who appreciated the work done by the Chouhan-led BJP government since 2005 and still trusted Modi as the supreme leader. The BJP’s long-standing link with Hindutva ideology, its organisational structure, welfare programs, particularly for women, financial support, and infrastructural development encouraged loyalty to the saffron party.

Matched against this was a solid and discernible sentiment of anti-incumbency, built on frustration over unemployment, inflation, unsatisfactory crop prices, repeated corruption allegations, scams obstructing recruitment to government jobs and a sense of boredom and fatigue with the way the state has been running under the BJP.

Perhaps, the ruling BJP recognised its deficiencies as it, instead of selling the work done by it in the last tenure, desperately referred to the past, underlining the comparative change it brought about in the state over the two decades – the journey from bimaru to bemisaal.

Also read: Why Congress Has an Edge Over BJP in Madhya Pradesh

In the tribal dominated Dhar district in western MP’s Nimar, Phool Singh, a farmer who hails from the Bhilala tribe, was clear he wanted to give the Congress a chance to rule after two decades. The Congress promise of waiving off farm loans, reducing electricity bills and providing Rs 1,500 stipend to women was a big catch in Singh’s dusty village in Manawar constituency. Sanju, a Bhilala woman, too wanted the Congress government as she felt that despite the long rule of the BJP, educated youth in the state were unemployed. “Everyone has changed sides in this election. So, we decided to vote for the Congress,” said Raila, a Bhil farmer, who had previously supported the BJP.

In central MP’s Sehore district, Dalit farmer Sumer Singh fondly remembered the pre-2003 Congress rule. He was unhappy with his stagnant standard of living, “endless” inflation and rising costs of farming, uncertain rates for his tur and wheat crops and difficulty in procuring urea. “Everyone is troubled by the BJP. Even the monsoon gods have stopped blessing us due to the BJP,” he said, showcasing a hint of personal superstition.

While a substantial section of voters across caste and class expressed a negative sentiment against the Chouhan government, either based on fatigue, dissatisfaction or simply a desire for change, the saffron party still enjoyed a rock-solid base of committed voters in the central Indian state.

BJP supporters hold up Modi posters. Photo: X/@narendramodi

“The Congress suppresses our Hindu brothers,” said Rahul Malviya, a driver in Sehore. When asked to count the achievements of the BJP government, he said: “The government provides us benefits from the moment we are born till we die. Then there is free ration. They also abrogated Article 370 [in Jammu & Kashmir] and built the Ram Mandir.”

In Sagar, an OBC labourer Bharat Patel, though unsatisfied with the state government, felt he was obliged to vote for the BJP and Modi because of what they stood for. “There is a big discussion in my area about changing the government. I’m confused. My aatma (conscience) doesn’t allow me to vote against the BJP.”

In 2018, even though the BJP lost the election to the Congress – the BJP won 109 seats against the Congress’ 114 – it secured 0.13% more votes, showcasing its popular acceptance.

In the last four elections in MP (2003, 2008, 2013 and 2018), the BJP’s vote share in the state has been 43%, 38%, 45% and 41% as against the Congress’ 32%, 32%, 36% and 41%. Although the saffron party has occupied the dominant position, the Congress has made consistent improvement which culminated in a remarkable jump in 2018 when it formed government with the support of three opposition party MLAs and four independent legislators.

A significant aspect of the 2018 elections was the Congress’s six percent vote share increase in the BJP-favoured territories of Madhya Bharat and Malwa North, noted political analyst Ashish Ranjan of Datalok.in in a recent report. This gain translated into 20 additional seats for the Congress compared to the previous election, indicating a deep incision into the BJP’s stronghold, he said.

The government run by Kamal Nath could only last 15 months after the BJP engineered mass defections in the Congress and snatched the reins from it in 2020. The defeat in 2018 and the manner in which he returned to power in 2020 had already reduced Chouhan’s stature. The way in which he was sidelined by the BJP in its campaign – by not declaring him as the official chief ministerial candidate – has raised several questions on Chouhan’s political future. Whether the BJP loses or wins, the result day is a day of reckoning for him personally.

The EVM would not only settle the question whether Kamal Nath would get a second go at running a government but also provide us a glimpse of the battle for leadership within the BJP and how it approaches state elections in the future.

The advantage of the BJP presenting a diverse front

By fielding four MPs, three Union ministers – Narendra Singh Tomar, Faggan Singh Kulaste and Prahlad Patel – and one national general secretary Kailash Vijayvargiya in the Assembly election, the BJP opted for a fresh experiment of projecting a collective leadership under Modi. However, as the campaign took pace and his rivals got caught up in their respective constituencies and controversies, Chouhan tried hard to reclaim his position through extensive campaigning and showcasing confidence.

The BJP’s collective leadership gambit in a state where it already had a popular face, an OBC to boot, had several elements to it.

First, it could be seen as the party’s strategy to provide options to voters disenchanted with Chouhan and looking for a fresh face to lead the government. Second, by fielding these leaders, who hail from different region and castes, the BJP sought to energise its cadre and tease voters across communities. This gave rise to the possibility that if the BJP won, it could provide a new chief minister from a particular caste. In a state with immense regional diversity, both politically and culturally, this tactic, in a tightly-fought battle could offset some loss or anti-incumbency. The third way of looking at the collective leadership was Chouhan’s diminishing stature, under whose leadership the BJP lost in 2018. A new chief minister could provide BJP a fresh outlook and agenda in the state where it already enjoys a strong organisational strength and ideological base.

Also read: Why the Hindutva Card is Not Working for BJP in Poll-Bound Madhya Pradesh

The Congress seized the initiative early-on as the saffron party trailed in the perception game for most of this year. The Congress, by causing defections of core BJP leaders, which coincided with a cloud of doubt hovering over Chouhan’s own future, appeared to be in the driving seat.

The party declared a chief ministerial face, Kamal Nath, and pursued its successful strategy of winning over voters in Karnataka through welfare guarantees and deliverables linked to social security. The party also did well to keep under wraps any signs of infighting and consistently projected a collective front under Nath’s leadership. The possible damage that the rebel candidates and disgruntled leaders may do to each party, and in particular the impact of the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party on the Congress’ tally, would only be revealed tomorrow.

Facing an early onslaught and a united Congress, Chouhan tried to project a counter narrative by launching schemes such as Ladli Behna to woo women voters through monetary benefits. While the Ladli Behna scheme appeared to be popular, it was not enough for everyone. For some, it came too late.  “They started this scheme just a few months before the election. We didn’t get anything before that,” said Rukmini Kushwaha in Indore. In a Dalit busty in Dewas, crippling inflation round-the-year and lack of overall improvement in life mattered more than monetary assistance. “I have not received any toilet or pucca house or water tank. Oil and tomatoes are priced like silver and gold,” said Reena, a Dalit voter.

Since the Congress promised to conduct a caste census if voted to power, the result would also provide opportunity to both parties to reflect on the impact of the counting of the OBC population in the build-up to the general election next year. However, on the surface, the caste census was not a big talking point among voters, with most of their concerns limited to livelihood issues, corruption and regional development.

Jaisa chal raha hai chalne de sanatan dharm (Let the Hindu faith and society function the way it is),” said Kamal Rajak, an OBC farmer in Sagar, who despite wanting to change the government due to unemployment, believed a caste census would hurt the Hindu society. The 2023 MP election result could possibly also impact the way the partners in the INDIA bloc deal with each other in the general elections, especially in the neighbouring state of Uttar Pradesh which has 80 Lok Sabha seats.

High-profile battle

The election featured a number of high-profile and high-stake electoral battles involving top leaders from both parties, in particular the BJP which fielded several national-level heavyweights.In Budhni, Chouhan defended his fort against the Congress candidate Vikram Mastal, a TV actor-turned-politician known for playing the role of Hanuman in the serial Ramayan in 2008. Congress chief minsterial candidate Kamal Nath contested from Chhindwara, his political bastion.

Several leaders of the BJP, also prospective chief minster candidates, were also in the fray this time. While Union agriculture minister Narendra Singh Tomar contested from Dimni against the sitting Congress MLA Ravindra Singh Tomar Bhidosa, another important Union minister, Prahlad Singh Patel, was fielded from Narsingpur constituency where he replaced the sitting MLA and his younger brother Jalam Singh Patel.

Tribal leader and Union minister Faggan Singh Kulaste contested from Niwas seat in Mandla. BJP general secretary Kailash Vijayvargiya was fielded in Indore-1 against the popular Congress MLA Sanjay Shukla in one of the toughest battles in the state.

The result in the Datia constituency would also be well-watched as the BJP’s candidate and senior minister Narottam Mishra, a CM post hopeful, had narrowly won last time.

While senior Congress leader and leader of the Opposition Govind Singh contested from Lahar, a seat he has held since 1990, in Raghogarh constituency, a seat never won by the BJP, Jaivardhan Singh, the son of Congress veteran Digvijaya Singh, would look to repeat his success of 2013 and 2018.

The contest in Hoshangabad seat also intrigued observers as the Congress fielded a BJP rebel and former legislator Girija Shankar Sharma against his brother and sitting BJP MLA Sitasharan Sharma.

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