He is still a pop­u­lar choice for chief min­is­ter. But farmer un­rest, wide­spread caste ag­i­ta­tions, a resur­gent Congress and lo­calised anti-in­cum­bency make Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s bid to re­turn for a fourth term a wob­bly prospect


ALOUNGE AD­JA­CENT to the state hangar at the Raja Bhoj air­port in Bhopal and not the fifth floor of Val­labh Bha­van, the state Mantralaya, has been the venue for a num­ber of cru­cial ad­min­is­tra­tive de­ci­sions Shivraj Singh Chouhan has taken in the past three months. Rea­son? From mid-July on­ward, when his Jan Ashir­wad Ya­tra mass-con­tact pro­gramme got un­der way in Uj­jain, the Mad­hya Pradesh chief min­is­ter has been out on tour for at least six days a week, ex­cept for a two-week break when for­mer prime min­is­ter Atal Bi­hari Va­j­payee passed away.

Of­ten, he has re­turned at 3 am only to be back on the trail by 9 am. The 18-hour­day grind is in re­sponse to the strong chal­lenge the Congress has mounted—some­thing Chouhan ac­knowl­edges did not ex­ist in 2003, 2008 and 2013, when the BJP won the as­sem­bly elec­tions. The 2018 state poll is crit­i­cal for the ef­fect it will al­most cer­tainly have on the 2019 Lok Sabha elec­tion. What can Chouhan do to buck the anti-in­cum­bency, ac­cu­mu­lated over the 15 years he has ruled the state, and de­liver MP to the BJP once again?


The BJP and its af­fil­i­ates are work­ing at three lev­els to get ticket dis­tri­bu­tion right. While Chouhan con­tin­ues to col­lect in­valu­able feed­back while on his ya­tra, the BJP or­gan­i­sa­tion is con­duct­ing a raishu­mari or con­sul­ta­tion ex­er­cise, as part of which BJP lead­ers travel to dis­tricts and de­lib­er­ate with of­fice-bear­ers on the best-suited can­di­dates.

Along­side, the RSS and other Sangh af­fil­i­ates are con­duct­ing their own as­sess­ments. On his last visit, BJP pres­i­dent Amit Shah spent con­sid­er­able time at state RSS head­quar­ters Samidha while MP gen­eral sec­re­tary (or­gan­i­sa­tion) Suhas Bha­gat was en­sconced for a marathon meet­ing on Oc­to­ber 16 at the same venue with kshetra pracharak Deepak Vis­pute to get the Sangh’s feed­back on can­di­dates.

Once fi­nalised, the Sangh will put its net­work of NGOs and other front or­gan­i­sa­tions be­hind the can­di­dates and mo­bilise votes in each con­stituency. How ef­fec­tive this mo­bil­i­sa­tion will be re­mains to be seen: Sangh work­ers are up­set that things are not get­ting done at the ground level with­out cash or other in­cen­tives. Many feel the CM chooses to work through a group of bu­reau­crats in ‘peace time’, but turns to the Sangh dur­ing ‘war’ (read: elec­tion).

None­the­less, for the first time, an um­brella or­gan­i­sa­tion of vol­un­tary groups—the Jan Ab­hiyan Par­ishad—which works with the state gov­ern­ment and is cur­rently staffed with RSS mem­bers, is tak­ing up the Sys­tem­atic Vot­ers Ed­u­ca­tion and Elec­toral Par­tic­i­pa­tion (SVEEP) pro­gramme. The Elec­tion Com­mis­sion-man­dated SVEEP aims at en­hanc­ing vot­ing per­cent­ages; it will help the Sangh con­tact vot­ers di­rectly.

Also, for the first time, at least 10 sur­veys have been com­mis­sioned from agen­cies mostly out­side MP, for an ac­cu­rate ground re­port. Based on their find­ings and the raishu­mari ex­er­cise, can­di­dates will be fi­nalised af­ter as­cer­tain­ing their caste com­pli­ance, not only in that con­stituency but also in ad­join­ing ones. Of course, the ac­cu­racy of the sur­veys is sus­pect given that sur­vey forms were seen with BJP lead­ers seek­ing tick­ets; in some cases, they filled them up them­selves to strengthen their own case.

At the macro level, the BJP is con­tin­u­ing its mera booth sabse ma­j­boot ap­proach. The idea is to se­cure vic­to­ries at the booth level, which, then, will also en­able vic­to­ries at the con­stituency level.

At least 60 sit­ting party MLAs, in­clud­ing some min­is­ters, might be de­nied tick­ets to rein in lo­cal anti-in­cum­bency. How will the party deal with the en­su­ing dis­con­tent? “The party’s al­ready be­gun talk­ing to MLAs,” says a source. “Those de­nied tick­ets will be told that mul­ti­ple sur­veys have pre­dicted their de­feat. In lieu, they’ll be of­fered plum post­ings—chair­man­ships in some cases—in state PSUs.” Giv­ing tick­ets to kin or shift­ing such can­di­dates to an ad­join­ing con­stituency is also be­ing con­sid­ered. Be­ing a cadre-based party, the BJP can man­age re­bel­lion bet­ter than the Congress.


The num­ber crunch­ing so far by Chouhan’s team has shown that the ex­ist­ing BJP vote in the state may not be enough to win. In 2013, the dif­fer­ence in Congress-BJP vote share was 8.4 per­cent­age points. A gain of 4.2 per­cent­age points will bring the Congress on par with the BJP. Hence the plan to in­crease the vote share by 2-3 per­cent­age points. This vote could come from pro­fes­sion­als, who may not nec­es­sar­ily vote for the BJP, but might vote for Chouhan. Con­se­quently, Chouhan has been call­ing on doc­tors, lawyers, jour­nal­ists, army of­fi­cers and re­tired bu­reau­crats in the hope that they will vote for him and also get peo­ple they know to vote for him. That is how lead­ing Bhopal physi­cian Dr H.H. Trivedi, who has also at­tended on many pre­vi­ous CMs, in­clud­ing Ar­jun Singh, Sun­der­lal Patwa, Digvi­jaya Singh, had Chouhan come call­ing one morn­ing.


The BJP gov­ern­ment has post­poned a de­ci­sion on reser­va­tions in pro­mo­tions so far, even though the Supreme Court gave a go-ahead in Septem­ber. The is­sue was cen­tral to up­per and back­ward classes’ protest as was the amend­ment to the SC/ST (Pre­ven­tion of Atroc­i­ties) Act in Au­gust.

The BJP feels it’s best not to take a call on the is­sue right now. They’re also hop­ing the up­per caste and back­ward ag­i­ta­tion has peaked and will now die down. SAPAKS (Sa­manya, Pich­hda Varg, Al­pasankhyak Kalyan Sa­maj)—an em­ploy­ees’ group that rep­re­sents the gen­eral cat­e­gory, back­wards and mi­nori­ties—has de­cided to field can­di­dates and may end up dam­ag­ing the BJP in some ur­ban ar­eas. The BJP ex­pects the up­per castes and back­wards to vote for it as a party of nat­u­ral choice. At the peak of the ag­i­ta­tion, the CM at­tempted to douse the fire by say­ing no cases will be regis­tered with­out an in­quiry un­der the SC/ ST Act, but has since kept quiet for the fear of los­ing SC/ ST votes. The state BJP is also hop­ing that Shah will come up with a way to break the up­per caste-back­ward al­liance.


Of­fi­cially, Chouhan main­tains he is con­test­ing the elec­tions on the twin planks of de­vel­op­ment and wel­fare. The CM’s pub­lic meet­ings are about how many kilo­me­tres of roads he has added, en­hanced area un­der ir­ri­gation, the num­ber of med­i­cal col­leges opened and the jump in per capita GDP.

One scheme Chouhan is count­ing on for sub­stan­tial elec­toral div­i­dend is the Sam­bal Yo­jana launched this June. Some 22 mil­lion, out of the nearly 50.3 mil­lion vot­ers in

I don’t see any anti-in­cum­bency or op­po­si­tion to any gov­ern­ment scheme ei­ther Shivraj Singh Chouhan MP Chief Min­is­ter

MP, are regis­tered as ben­e­fi­cia­ries un­der the scheme, which tar­gets un­or­gan­ised labour. Ben­e­fits in­clude ma­ter­nity pay­outs, school and col­lege tu­ition fees, waiver of elec­tric­ity dues and power con­nec­tions at Rs 200 per month. The scheme is uni­ver­sal, not lim­ited to SCs, STs or OBCs.

While the Congress has taken a clear turn to­wards soft Hin­dutva, Chouhan is talk­ing only de­vel­op­ment in the hope of cor­ner­ing the fu­ture-ori­ented vote too (the be­lief be­ing that the ‘Hindu’ vote will any­way come to him). How­ever, the BJP has de­cided to stay mum on ‘painful’ is­sues. No top BJP leader has tried of late to jus­tify de­mon­eti­sa­tion or GST. But there’s a re­turn to themes like ‘in­truder’ and na­tional cit­i­zen’s reg­is­ter (NRC) to con­sol­i­date the Hindu vote. Shah has re­ferred to these in quite a few pub­lic meet­ings. There is, how­ever, no di­rect at­tempt to po­larise, mainly be­cause MP is not Gu­jarat and the state’s 6.5 per cent Mus­lims are scat­tered.


For long, Chouhan could count on their sup­port, but now farm­ers in the state are up in arms be­cause of the ris­ing cost of in­puts such as diesel and fer­tilis­ers in the past year. Farm­ers have been un­happy with Chouhan, as was ev­i­dent in the Mand­saur ag­i­ta­tions last year, de­spite pro­cure­ment bonus pay­ments for wheat and paddy in the past two years, mar­ket in­ter­ven­tions and the Bha­van­tar scheme ear­lier. Chouhan, how­ever, is still con­vinced of the farm­ers’ sup­port. “The Congress talks of loan waivers but I have put in an un­prece­dented Rs 31,100

crore in the farm sec­tor as sup­port to farm­ers,” he told in­dia to­day. The BJP is also bank­ing on the fact that farm­ers don’t nec­es­sar­ily vote as farm­ers but ac­cord­ing to their caste.


As a strat­egy, any sign of dis­cord in the Congress is to be played up to demon­strate how it is un­de­cided on the lead­er­ship is­sue. Chouhan, in par­tic­u­lar, and his party in gen­eral are very keen that the Congress de­clare a CM can­di­date, which they have avoided do­ing so far, so that he can then turn the con­test into a kisan­pu­tra ver­sus udyo­g­pati, if it’s Ka­mal Nath, or kisan­pu­tra ver­sus ma­haraja, if it’s Jy­oti­ra­ditya Scin­dia.

Also, aware that the Congress is likely to bring up is­sues like Vya­pam and il­le­gal sand min­ing, which the party al­leges lead right up to his doorstep, Chouhan is go­ing to in­sist that no in­ves­tiga­tive agency or court has found any­thing against him in Vya­pam. “We have changed the min­ing pol­icy, and only pan­chay­ats can give out leases now,” he says about il­le­gal sand min­ing.

In­ter­est­ingly, one of the Vya­pam ac­cused, Dr Gu­lab Singh Ki­rar, who lost his BJP mem­ber­ship be­cause of the charge, has joined the Congress. Ki­rar was the the pres­i­dent of the All In­dia Ki­rar Sabha, a post cur­rently held by Chouhan’s wife Sadhna Singh. The BJP is also count­ing on Prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi to de­liver through his cam­paign charisma a 2-3 per­cent­age point vote ad­van­tage. They cite how he turned around the Kar­nataka and Gu­jarat polls. In MP, the BJP ex­pects him to help in the 60-70 ur­ban seats in Bhopal, In­dore, Ja­balpur, Gwalior, Rewa and Uj­jain. A ma­jor­ity of these seats are al­ready with the BJP. There is also talk of the BJP giv­ing more tick­ets to youth and women as the PM’s pop­u­lar­ity among these sec­tions is likely to fetch more votes.


There are, how­ever, very clear short­com­ings in the BJP strat­egy. For one, Chouhan failed to get Union min­is­ter Naren­dra Singh To­mar, his wing­man in 2008 and 2013, as state BJP pres­i­dent. An­other strate­gist, Union min­is­ter Anil Dave, passed away. Se­condly, in 2003, there was tac­ti­cal plan­ning un­der a ded­i­cated group called Jawli—there were plans to limit se­nior Congress lead­ers to their con­stituen­cies by field­ing heavy­weights against them. This time, Chouhan’s cam­paign seems like a one-man show, with his trusted lieu­tenants, such as min­is­ters Bhu­pen­dra Singh and Ram­pal Singh, busy with their own elec­tions, and lack­ing the depth to man­age things at a state level. The Congress, on the other hand, has Ka­mal Nath—a proven ne­go­tia­tor who lever­ages his con­nec­tions with busi­ness houses—and not Kan­ti­lal Bhuria with no per­sonal sup­port base, as was the case in 2013. The BJP’s me­dia out­reach in terms of press con­fer­ences or ac­cess to lead­ers has also been found want­ing, com­pared to the more ac­tive Congress me­dia cell. Also in 2003, 2008 and 2013, the BJP at­tacked Digvi­jaya Singh; this time the for­mer CM is not of­fer­ing him­self for at­tack. Rahul Gandhi’s road shows have also been draw­ing con­sid­er­able crowds and if this con­tin­ues even af­ter ticket dis­tri­bu­tion, the BJP should worry.

Also cause for con­cern is the flight of BJP MLAs to the Congress. Ten­dukheda MLA San­jay Sharma and for­mer Bhan­der MLA Kam­la­pat Arya joined the Congress on Oc­to­ber 29 in the pres­ence of Rahul Gandhi in In­dore.

Chouhan him­self, though, is con­fi­dent of vic­tory, if the pop­u­lar re­sponse to his jan ashir­wad ya­tras is any­thing to go by. “Why would any­one throw stones at Shivraj? Come and see for your­self,” he re­torted, when asked about a stone-throw­ing in­ci­dent at the ya­tra last month. So, if Ka­mal Nath claims that ev­ery sec­tion of so­ci­ety in the state feels cheated and thinks noth­ing has been done for them, Chouhan says ev­ery­one is happy and he doesn’t “see any anti-in­cum­bency or op­po­si­tion to any gov­ern­ment pro­gramme”. Po­lit­i­cal an­a­lyst Gir­ija Shankar adds: “In no sur­vey has the BJP got less than 100 seats and the CM re­mains the most pop­u­lar leader in the state. See­ing this, I don’t see any anti-in­cum­bency.”

If elected, what are Chouhan’s plans? “My first term was ded­i­cated to the farm sec­tor, pulling MP out of its BI­MARU hole. The sec­ond and third terms were about mak­ing agri­cul­ture re­mu­ner­a­tive. Now I want to make MP In­dia’s top state,” he says. Among his plans is val­uead­di­tion in agri pro­duce and mov­ing to­wards skill-based ed­u­ca­tion to gen­er­ate jobs.

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