The elections to the 230 member Madhya Pradesh Legislative Assembly, slated for November 17, 2023, assume national importance as the state represents a replica of the Hindi heartland with unique socio-political-cultural indicators. While the BJP, which has been in power for almost two decades, is struggling to retain power, the Congress, with full confidence, is in the fray to capture power from the BJP. The number of voters has gone up to 5.61 crore from 5.01 crore in 2018. Significantly, around 22.40 lakh young voters would be exercising their franchise for the first time.
Since its formation in 1956, the undivided Madhya Pradesh has witnessed bi-polar politics, with the Indian National Congress (INC) and the erstwhile Bharatiya Jana Sangh/ Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as the key players. Though the electoral arithmetic changed considerably in 2000, when Chhattisgarh was carved from Madhya Pradesh’s tribal-dominated districts, these parties continued to dominate state politics. Both parties have a solid support base in the five major regions of the state, namely, Chambal-Gwalior, Malwa/Nimar, Baghelkhand, Mahakoshal and Bhopal. The Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and the Socialist Party (SP) have their select pockets, especially in Chambal and Vidhya Pradesh, bordering Uttar Pradesh. However, since 2014, these parties have lost their influence in the state. The same is the case with the Gondwana Gantantra Party (GGP), which in the past had decisive support among tribal pockets in the Vindhya and Mahakoshal regions. The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which entered the state electoral scene in 2018, capitalising on the issues of corruption and the deteriorating condition of farmers, could not create any major ripples in state politics.
By and large, the major parties, namely the Congress and the BJP, are not much keen in working out electoral alliances. In 2018, the INC leadership tried to work out a ‘Mahagathbandhan’ (Grand alliance) by bringing together parties like the BSP, SP and GGP. But those efforts could not be fructified due to the tall claims made by the BSP and others with respect to the seats. Subsequently, they contested the polls all alone, adversely affecting the electoral prospects of the Congress and the BJP in around one dozen marginal constituencies.
A similar scenario has now emerged in the election scene. The efforts to work out an alliance between the Congress and the SP have failed to take off due to the lack of consensus on the seats to be allotted to the SP. Thus, the SP has decided to field their candidates in the majority of constituencies. The Congress-SP polemics in MP have also created ripples on the unity and cohesiveness of the ‘INDIA alliance’ as Akhilesh Yadav, the SP leader and the former CM of UP, has indicated that the ‘big-brother attitude’ of the Congress would adversely affect the smooth functioning of the alliance. On the other hand, the contention of Congress leaders like Kamal Nath is that small parties like the SP in MP should unconditionally support the Congress in the assembly polls in pursuance of the alliance’s larger goal of defeating the NDA/BJP. The BSP is also in the fray, contesting the polls all alone.
As an election-scenario akin to the 2018 assembly polls is in the offing, a brief analysis of the past two assembly polls would help us to unfold certain major trends. In the 2013 polls, the BJP won 165 seats as against 58 by the Congress party, polling around 8 percent more votes than the Congress. The BSP, which polled around 6 percent of votes, won 4 seats. In all six regions of the state, the BJP maintained its clear upper-hand. Moreover, out of the 82 reserved seats (SC – 35; ST – 47), the BJP won 62 seats and demonstrated their influence in Adivasi-Dalit areas.
But a different picture emerged in the 2018 polls. While the Congress won 114 seats with 40.89 percent of the votes, the BJP’s tally plummeted to 109. The BJP, which faced serious reverses in the Chambal belt, failed to retain their upper hand in the Malwa-Mahakoshal regions. Its tally in respect of reserved seats had come down to 34 (SC – 18, ST – 16), whereas the Congress made significant gains in the Adivasi-Dalit belt by capturing 47 seats (SC – 17, ST – 30). However, in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, the NDA/ BJP had a clear lead in 67 reserved assembly segments. This had been largely attributed to the ‘pro-NDA/BJP wave’ in the state when the BJP won all but one seat in the 2019 LS polls.
Table 1. Madhya Pradesh Assembly Election Outcomes—2013 and 2018
|Party||Seats won||Vote share (%)||Party||Seats won||Vote share (%)|
Thus, the main election strategy of the BJP and the Congress is to woo the large majority of the electorate, who have no permanent or committed stance on ‘electoral politics.’ This is all the more applicable in the case of around 87 percent of the total population, which comprises OBCs (50 percent), Scheduled Castes (16 percent), and Scheduled Tribes (21 percent). More than 90 percent of the population belongs to Hinduism.
Thus, both the BJP and the Congress use ‘Hindutva’ in one form or another as the main plank of the election campaign/propaganda. The existence of a ‘socio-religious class’ born out of the legacy of various Princely States and the different practices/worship of forward communities and religious sects has contributed to the growth of Hindutva-ideologies among a large chunk of the people. The renowned Hindu temples at Khajuraho, Chitrakoot and Mahakaleshwar in Ujjain and massive religious congregations such as ‘Kumbh Mela’ have helped to consolidate such ideologies. For many years, the larger areas of the state have been a laboratory for Hindutva forces to systematically build up their bases among various cross sections of Hindus, including Tribals and Dalits, through indoctrination and other strategies. On the ground, the BJP and the Sangh Parivar bodies like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), Bajrang Dal (BD), Durgha Vahini, Vanavasi Kalyan Ashram and Eklavya schools were quite successful in rallying them under a saffron flag. Moreover, successive governments in the state, through their various policies and programmes, have created a favourable climate for the consolidation of Hindutva forces. For example, when the ‘cow-protection’ controversy became a major issue in the Northern States in 2018, the state BJP government took initiative for the establishment of a full-fledged independent ministry to streamline the functioning of the Cow Conservation Board (Gau Samvardhan Board) and other bodies. By interpreting issues such as the Common Civil Code, the successful completion of Ram temple construction in Ayodhya, the ‘Sanatan dharma controversy’ etc. on the larger canvas of the ‘Hindutva’, the BJP intends to make electoral-mileage.
The Congress is also not lagging behind in such strategies. To counter the hardline ‘Hindutva’ agenda of the BJP, the party is employing a ‘soft- Hindutva’ line. Religious Hinduism and ‘cow politics’ have emerged as key elements of its ‘soft- Hindutva agenda’. The party, which had made a promise during the 2018 polls to build cowsheds in all panchayats in the state, has now promised the establishment of 1000 ‘Go-salas’ and the purchase of cow-dung from the farmers at a rate of Rs 2/per kg. Over the last few months, prominent leaders have been trying to project themselves as devotees of various Hindu-gods. The party’s CM candidate, Kamal Nath, who claims to be a ‘Hanuman-Bhakt’ has erected a 110-foot Hanuman statue on his home-turf at Chhindwara. The party leaders justify their soft-Hindutva approach, holding that the BJP has positioned itself as the sole selling agent of Hinduism, whereas Congress followers are religious people who don’t bring religion into political platforms. Accordingly, on issues like the’ anti- Sanatan- stance’ of certain INDIA alliance partners, the state unit adopted a cautious approach. Though the alliance had taken a formal decision to hold its first ‘Maha-rally’ in Bhopal, it was deferred at the instance of Kamal Nath.
The Congress leadership is fully aware of the limitations of their ‘soft Hindutva agenda’ in demolishing the ‘saffron hues’ successfully exploited by the BJP in the state. The new agenda of ‘caste census’, according to the party, has the potential to make inroads into ‘vote-banks’ of the BJP among Hindus. Thus, the Congress manifesto promised that if the party was voted to power, it would conduct a caste census in the state and would introduce a 27 percent reservation for OBCs in state government jobs. But the crucial question is how far would the ‘OBC factor’ work to the advantage of the party? Unlike in other North Indian states like the UP, Bihar, etc., the OBCs in the state have not emerged as an organised group. The ‘Mandal movement’ of the 1990s did not create any major impact in the state. Secondly, a set of prominent OBC leaders such as Ms. Uma Bharathi, Babulal Gaur (both former Chief Ministers), and the present CM, Shivraj Singh Chouhan, etc. played significant roles in rallying the major OBC groups under the banner of the BJP. Inter-related development is the polarisation of forward communities, which may work to the advantage of the BJP.
The contest between the Congress and the BJP has become so close that both parties are exploring all strategies to improve their prospects. The anti-incumbency and the internal wrangles are the major challenges for the BJP. Around two decades of continuous rule in the state have generated general discontent against the government and the party from different cross sections of society. The ‘Vyapam- scam’ in the educational sector, allegations of corruption in Village Assistant recruitment, and malpractices/ irregularities in the Public Distribution System (PDS), etc. have adversely affected the image of the government. By highlighting such scams and allegations of corruption, the Congress party is engaged in high voltage propaganda against the Shivraj Singh government, branding it as ‘50 percent Commission government’. The BJP, on the other hand, tries to counter such propaganda with the allegation that the 15 months’ Kamal Nath government in the state during 2018-19 was involved in corrupt deals amounting to more than Rs 15,000 crore.
The main focus of the BJP’s election strategy is to overcome the anti-incumbency. Besides the extensive campaign by the Central leaders, the Prime Minister, through an open letter, has made an appeal to the voters, highlighting that ‘a vote to the BJP would be a vote to the PM’. The message is clear. By projecting the popular image of the Prime Minister and the impact of various developmental and welfare projects/measures of the Centre, the party intends to contain the negative impact of the anti-incumbency. Another strategy is to field Central Ministers/ MPs and senior leaders in the constituencies where the party faces stiff contests. The National General Secretary, Kailash Vijayvargiya and Central ministers like Narendra Singh Tomar, Prahlad Singh Patel and Faggan Singh Kulaste are the prominent contestants in the fray.
But such strategies have intensified the internal bickering in the party. This has forced the BJP to take the risk of fighting a crucial election without projecting a CM candidate, which perhaps has never happened in the electoral history of Madhya Pradesh. Naturally, sections of the supporters of Shivraj Singh Chouhan are unhappy about this issue. The crucial question is whether such discontent would reflect in the voting pattern of the OBC voters. After all, after Uma Bharathi, Shivraj Singh is the tallest OBC leader in the state.
On the contrary, after decades of group rivalries and internal schism, a façade of unity is now seen in the State Congress. After the exit of Jyotiraditya Scindia, Kamal Nath is now in full command of the State Congress. The prominent leaders like Digvijaya Singh, Suresh Pachouri, Arun Yadav, Abhaya Singh, Kantilal Bhuria, etc. who led powerful groups in their fiefdoms extended support to Kamal Nath and led the election campaign in their respective strongholds. Even the Party High Command has given a free hand to Nath to deal with elections. Besides the local issues, the Congress election campaign, which focuses on other issues such as corruption, unemployment, the crisis in the agrarian sector, excesses against Adivasis/Dalits, law and order break-down and inflation, has created a positive impact, especially in rural-tribal areas. The party has also announced a lot of freebies, such as the unemployment dole at the rate of Rs 3000 for 2 years, the LPG cylinder for Rs 500, a welfare pension of Rs 1500 per month for women, free electricity up to 100 units, a waiver of all agricultural loans, etc., with a view to wooing various cross section of voters.
However, the final outcome of the elections would be decided by a couple of crucial factors. The first is the approach of voters in the Chambal-Gwalior belt, which accounts for around three dozen assembly seats. This region is considered a traditional stronghold of the Congress. However, a political storm blew into this belt in 2021 when Jyotiraditya Scindia joined the BJP along with 22 MLAs. But his entry into the BJP, instead of strengthening the party, has opened internal squabbles mainly between the traditional supporters of the BJP and the Scindia loyalists; many of them subsequently returned to the Congress. In such a scenario, the crucial question is whether Scindia can create a pro-BJP wave in the region. No doubt, he leaves no stone unturned to ensure the better performance of the BJP in this belt. At the same time, the Digvijaya Singh-Kamal Nath team has taken an oath that they will demolish the forts of Scindia and lead the Congress to a scintillating victory in this belt.
The second factor is the ‘Caste Census-OBC card’ raised by Congress. More than the issue of caste census, what is significant is the Congress party’s orchestrated campaign on the marginalisation and humiliation of a tall OBC leader, Shivraj Singh Chouhan, in the state BJP. The crucial question is whether such propaganda would lead to any polarisation of OBC votes against the BJP. Equally important is the polarisation of Adivasi-Dalit votes. A large majority of these sections, who have no permanent loyalty or approach towards the political parties, would be easily influenced by emotional issues. In the recent past, there have been isolated incidents of excesses or humiliation of Dalits/ Tribals in many parts of the state, which have wounded their sentiments.
Views expressed by the author are personal and need not reflect or represent the views of the Centre for Public Policy Research.