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
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