BAT­TLE FOR THE MID­DLE

SHIVRAJ SINGH CHOUHAN RE­MAINS A STRONG CON­TENDER EVEN AFTER 14 YEARS AT THE HELM, BUT THE CONGRESS POSES A REAL CHAL­LENGE FOR HIM

India Today - - ASSEMBLY POLLS MADHYA PRADESH - By Rahul Noronha

With as­sem­bly elec­tions due at the end of the year, Mad­hya Pradesh seems poised for a con­test that could go down to the wire. Though plagued by legacy is­sues, the Congress for the first time in 15 years is in the fight. One in­di­ca­tion of this could be BJP leader and state so­cial wel­fare board chair­per­son Padma Shukla quit­ting the BJP on Septem­ber 24 and join­ing the Congress. It is a sig­nif­i­cant loss for the BJP as Shukla is a leader from the Ma­hakoshal re­gion and some­one who has her ear to the ground.

Yet Chief Min­is­ter Shivraj Singh Chouhan re­mains the BJP’s great­est as­set even after 14-odd years at the helm, even if the same can­not be said of his MLAs. One chal­lenge for the party comes from the up­per caste and back­ward class anger over its sup­port to the amend­ment to the SC/ST (Preven­tion of Atroc­i­ties) Act this year. The up­per castes, es­pe­cially in ur­ban cen­tres, have al­ways voted the BJP. So have a large chunk of the back­ward classes, some­thing the party at­tributes to its choice of OBC CMs: Uma Bharti, Bab­u­lal Gaur and Chouhan.

Be­sides op­po­si­tion to the amend­ment to the SC/ST Act, the back­ward classes and up­per castes are also un­happy over quo­tas in govern­ment jobs. The BJP is hop­ing that an am­bigu­ous pol­icy—back­ward classes can avail of reser­va­tion in jobs but not in pro­mo­tions—will help it re­tain back­ward class votes. As for the up­per castes, the party is con­fi­dent of their sup­port as it feels they have no other op­tion, like the Mus­lims have no choice but to vote the Congress in MP. “Up­per castes won’t go against the BJP,” says former CM Gaur. “They are our vot­ers, we’ll bow our heads and pla­cate them be­fore the polls,” says pub­lic re­la­tions min­is­ter Narot­tam Mishra. CM Chouhan did ex­actly that in Balaghat, say­ing, “No case will be reg­is­tered (un­der the SC/ST Act) with­out an in­quiry.” It prompted Congress MP Kapil Sibal to re­tort: “Shivraj Singh Chouhan made a state­ment. The law does not change by mak­ing state­ments.”

Cor­rup­tion, which in the pub­lic per­cep­tion is allper­va­sive in the govern­ment, is sur­pris­ingly not an is­sue this elec­tion, with the Congress rais­ing no stink over it. The party is like­wise not creat­ing any brouhaha over un­em­ploy­ment. In the past 10 years, there has been a mas­sive jump in seats in en­gi­neer­ing and pro­fes­sional cour­ses, in­clud­ing skill-based learn­ing, with thou­sands of stu­dents get­ting de­grees but fail­ing to find suit­able jobs. “This is an un­prece­dented sit­u­a­tion in the state where ev­ery group, be it the youth, women, SCs, STs or farm­ers, feels cheated,” says state Congress pres­i­dent Ka­mal Nath. But while recog­nis­ing the is­sue, Congress lead­ers have not cap­i­talised on it. The govern­ment, mean­while, is try­ing to fast fill teacher and po­lice va­can­cies. Some 30,000 teach­ers are be­ing re­cruited this year, as our 15,000 con­sta­bles.

What about the farm­ers, who had fa­mously stood by their son-of-the-soil CM? In the past year or so, the cost of agri­cul­tural in­puts, such as diesel and DAP (di­ammo­nium phos­phate), has gone up sub­stan­tially. Power sup­ply is an is­sue in some paddy-grow­ing ar­eas, es­pe­cially in east­ern MP. In the west, farm­ers are dis­sat­is­fied with the non-re­mu­ner­a­tive prices of soy­abean, of which the state is In­dia’s largest pro­ducer. “Soy­abean prices are al­most half of what they used to be and with a bumper har­vest this year, may go down even fur­ther. The Bhaa­van­tar scheme helped the trader, not farm­ers,” says Hanuwant Singh, a farmer from Lal­garh in Uj­jain dis­trict. Fur­ther west in Mand­saur, where the farm­ers’ ag­i­ta­tion be­came vi­o­lent in 2017, farm­ers still haven’t for­given the govern­ment.

In­ter­est­ingly, farmer ag­i­ta­tions usu­ally take place in the lean sea­son be­tween crop cy­cles. The BJP thus will have to be ex­tra cau­tious in the months pre­ced­ing the elec­tion when the kharif crop will be har­vested and rabi sown. Ad­e­quate power and fer­tiliser sup­ply will be pri­or­i­ties. The party is show­cas­ing bonus pay­ments for wheat and paddy; crop in­surance pay­ments too were re­leased last month though some farm­ers said they were not enough. There’s also the Sam­bal Yo­jana for un­or­gan­ised labour. In force since April 1, it pro­vides a range of ben­e­fits, from ma­ter­nal health and sup­port for ed­u­ca­tion of wards be­sides com­pen­sa­tion of Rs 4 lakh in case of death and power dues waiver and a flat Rs 200 power con­nec­tion to 22 mil­lion peo­ple.

The BJP is also hop­ing Prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi’s cam­paign­ing will bol­ster its chances, given that he re­mains pop­u­lar in the state, de­spite de­mon­eti­sa­tion, GST and now Rafale. Cru­cially, how­ever, Chouhan has been pitch­ing 2018 as a bat­tle be­tween him and a Congress CM can­di­date. And ac­cord­ing to the Po­lit­i­cal Stock Ex­change sur­vey, in terms of pop­u­lar­ity, he (at 46 per cent) is ahead of all Congress CM can­di­dates, be it Jy­oti­ra­ditya Scin­dia (32 per cent), Nath (8 per cent) or Digvi­jaya Singh (2 per cent). For once, not hav­ing a CM can­di­date is help­ing the Congress. But were it to an­nounce one, Chouhan will waste no time turn­ing it into a pres­i­den­tial-style con­test.

The Congress’s hopes of a pre-poll al­liance with the BSP were dashed on Septem­ber 20 when BSP supremo Mayawati an­nounced the first list of 22 can­di­dates. “We’re still in talks with the BSP to pre­vent a split of anti-BJP votes,” says Nath. The Congress will also con­tinue to grap­ple with legacy is­sues, such as its in­abil­ity to func­tion as a co­he­sive unit ex­cept un­der a Nehru-Gandhi. Ev­ery leader has their own me­dia team that sends out ex­clu­sive re­ports about them. Even so, com­pared to pre­vi­ous elec­tions, there’s a sem­blance of plan­ning in the Congress cam­paign.

For the mo­ment, though, one can only guess what the out­come will be in De­cem­ber. Can­vass­ing will be­gin in earnest now and two months is a long time in pol­i­tics.

WAR CRYThe CM tries to rouse cadres on Sept. 25

PANKAJ TI­WARI

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