To understand why Madhya Pradesh (MP) was considered a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) fortress, one has to visit Vidisha.
An important seat of the Magadha empire in the 6th century, the town of 340,000 is today a centre of commerce in eastern MP where crumbing forts and cramped houses jostle for space. Save for the 1980 and 1984 elections, the BJP has held the Lok Sabha seat continuously since 1967. In the town, every second home has a member of working with the BJP, or its ideological fount, the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS). In 1967, when the Vidisha seat was formed, RSS leader S Sharma won on a Bharatiya Jan Sangh (BJS) ticket even though the Congress swept unified Madhya Pradesh. Former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee won in 1991 and external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj has been the MP for last 10 years.
“In 1967, the RSS made its footprint visible in Vidisha and Neemuch (on the Rajasthan-MP border) as leader such as Kushabhau Thackarey and Vijayaraje Scindia worked extensively there. The RSS started working in Muslim-dominated areas, which we called Vidisha model, and then spread to other areas,” said former MP chief minister Babulal Gaur, who joined the RSS in 1951 .
Even when the Congress was in power between 1993 and 2003, the BJP never lost control of the area. And, during the 13 years of Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s administration, the party sunk its roots even deeper in the region.
But in the December 2018 elections, the citadel was breached, with the Congress winning two of the eight assembly segments on its way to a surprise victory. The Congress won 114 seats in the 230-member assembly while the BJP won 109.
The Congress did particularly well in the Gwalior-Chambal region, winning 26 out of 34 seats in an area where Congress general secretary Jyotiraditya Scindia holds sway. It also did reasonably well, winning 24 of 38 seats in chief minister Kamal Nath’s area of influence in Mahakaushal. “The Congress gave the BJP taste of its own medicine in Madhya Pradesh mixing religion with development,” said RSS old-timer and former state minister Sartaj Singh, who joined the Congress from the BJP before the assembly polls.
And, with Lok Sabha polls round the corner, the Congress believes it can win a majority of the 29 seats in the state — despite getting nearly routed in 2014.
In the run up to the assembly polls, the Congress campaign worked on a mix of religion and development. The party promised a pilgrimage circuit in Chitrakoot, more cow shelters while pledging higher crop prices, waiving farm loans and better business infrastructure. Congress chief Rahul Gandhi also made a highly publicised tour of the Mahakal Temple in Ujjain. The party believes this formula will work again in the 2019, and help it tide over a vote-share deficit with the BJP. Despite winning five more seats, the Congress was 0.13 percentage points behind the saffron party .
If the Congress manages to retain anywhere close to this vote share, it will be a huge improvement from the 2014 election, when it got 35.35% votes as compared to 54.76% for the BJP. In the last 12 (Lok Sabha and assembly) elections since 1993, the Congress vote share has been higher than that of the BJP’s only twice — in the 1993 and 1998 state polls. In six Lok Sabha contests in this period, the BJP’s vote share was three to 19 percentage points higher than that of the Congress.
“We got just 22 lakh less votes then the BJP (in 2018 assembly polls) and it was on account of large number of bogus voters in the list,” said former chief minister and Congress candidate from Bhopal, Digvijaya Singh. More than that, he said, the people have not lost “aspirations” during the 70 days of Kamal Nath government, which has delivered on 83 promises.
On June 6, 2017, hundreds of farmers had gathered for a protest in Mandsaur, 350km from Bhopal, demanding higher crop prices, when the state police opened fire and killed five people. The angry demonstrators went on a rampage, pushing the farm crisis under the spotlight. A year later at the polls, the Congress campaign doubled down on the firings and the results, where the opposition party led in predominantly rural seats, showed farm distress was a big factor for the ouster of the Chouhan administration.
Within days of coming to power, the Congress announced a farm-loan waiver for five million farmers, increased the social security pension from R300 to R1,000, announced and employment allowance of R4,000 per month with skill development for urban areas and incentive of R10,000 for industry for three years for employing a local. “On top of it, we have Rahul Gandhi’s minimum income guarantee scheme which will be a game-changer,” Singh said.
But Chouhan thinks the Congress performance has made people “realise their mistake” (of voting out the BJP). “In name of farm loan waiver, the Congress has lied. Announced farm loan waiver for all, kept aside R5,000 crore in the budget and gave only R1,300 crore. Even before the [Lok Sabha] elections were announced, people received messages saying their farm loan will be waived only after Lok Sabha polls because of model code,” he said. Chouhan, who was CM for 13 years, also accused the Congress government of making “transfer of officials” a business in the state. Congress spokesperson Pankaj Chaturvedi refuted the claim and said necessary transfers were done in a transparent manner.
In four districts — Bhopal, Raisen, Vidisha and Sehore — there appears to be some discontent over implementation of the schemes. In Sehore district’s Khushamada village, Bhagmal Meena, a farmer, said he has got only Rs 12,000 of his outstanding farm loan of Rs 2.60 lakh has been waived. But there were many others who backed the Congress government. “The government needs more time to implement their promises and I am hopeful that the promises will be delivered,” said Pritiviraj Meena in Mirzapur village on the outskirts of Vidisha.
In his 13 years as chief minister, Chouhan created a following for himself and was often considered more popular than the party. “Mama [as Shivraj is popularly called] gave us so much. He transferred money directly into our bank accounts,” said Dharmendra Kirar, a farmer at Vidisha agriculture market.
The Congress realises that targeting his image is key for electoral success and is, therefore, working on two fronts. According to a Congress strategist, the first is publically recalling his failures as the chief minister including draining of the state finances and the second is alleging that the BJP sidelined him after the loss. “Those close to Shivraj are now opening fighting with those who opposed him. We will gain from this as the rebel faction will ensure that the BJP candidates lose,” the Congress strategist said. Chouhan does not figure in many BJP posters but party leaders claim he is still the biggest vote catcher. “How can we ignore him?” asked BJP vice-president Vijesh Lunawat, who has been part of party’s campaign team since 2003. “The anger, if any, against him is over. Now people we see his work as against that of Kamal Nath. And that is a plus point for us”.
Political expert Girija Shankar said the BJP needs Chouhan if they have to beat the upbeat Congress, which was ahead in 12 of the 29 Lok Sabha seats in the state, if the assembly results are extrapolated. “He (Chouhan) is the only BJP leader who can stem infighting in the party and boost morale of party workers before the polls.” he said.
The Congress is banking on the weaker sections to beat its previous best record of 12 seats in 2009 . The Congress government issued an ordinance on March 8 to increase the reservation for OBCs, who constitute about 45% , from the existing 14% to 27%. The decision was, however, stayed by the Madhya Pradesh high court but leaders said it will benefit the party.
The government decided to give land rights to tribals, who constitute about 21.1% of the population, under the Forest Rights Act. As the BSP is not a big factor in MP, the Congress believes the scheduled castes, who are about 15%, will vote for the party. “People now know we are for welfare of the backwards,” said minority affairs minister Arif Akeel.
The BJP believes the loss in assembly will prove to be an advantage as the baggage of 15 years in power is gone. The party has replaced its sitting MPs in seven of the 18 Lok Sabha seats for which candidates have been announced. Lunawat said now the Congress will be facing anti-incumbency because of poor governance by the Kamal Nath government and there will be pro-incumbency for Modi government. “Our campaign will revolve around prime minister Narendra Modi. We will take up the issue of farm loan waiver not being provided and state government becoming defunct under Kamal Nath,” he said.