Madhya Pradesh will head to polls in a single-phase as the tenure of the current Assembly will end on January 7, 2019.
In our ongoing series on Moneycontrol where we examine the key trends and factors at play in the five states going into assembly elections, today we head to the heart of the country – Madhya Pradesh. The Bharatiya Janata Party has held power in the central state for fifteen years now, thirteen of which have been under the leadership of incumbent Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan. In 2005, Mr Chouhan took over from Babulal Gaur, the pronouncer of such gems as “drinking is a fundamental right,” and describing rape as “sometimes right, and sometimes wrong.”
Aside from a truncated term each served by Samyukta Vidhayaka Dal and Janata Party, Madhya Pradesh has largely been a playground for just the two big parties of the country, and it is the same two – BJP and Congress – which will be fighting it out in the upcoming elections as well.
MP will head to polling in a single-phase election, and the tenure of the current Assembly will end on January 7, 2019. Will Shivraj Singh Chouhan get to a fourth term or will anti-incumbency strike? Does the Modi wave that swept across the state in 2014 when the BJP won 27 of the 29 seats there, still have ripples left? How are the upper caste Hindu voters likely to vote this time? How have the rising unemployment rates in both urban and rural areas of the state impacted the way the voter chooses? Will the state that gave us Lata Mangeshkar and Kishore Kumar choose to sing a different tune this time around?
These and others will be the topics we will discuss in detail as we get to the heart of the matter that is Madhya Pradesh Assembly Elections of 2018. My name is Rakesh Sharma, and you are listening to Moneycontrol.
Will Chouhan’s Luck Run Out At Year Number 13: A Look At Anti-Incumbency In Madhya Pradesh
Shivraj Singh Chouhan has been at the helm of affairs for thirteen long years now. Chouhan cut his teeth into Madhya Pradesh politics at a rather young age. A gold medallist in philosophy, Chouhan was active in student politics, and eventually became an MLA from the Budhni constituency in 1990 at age 31. In 1991, he became an MP from the Vidisha constituency in MP, and was elected from the same constituency four more times. The BJP swept the Assembly elections in 2003, but during that time, Chouhan contested and lost against the incumbent chief minister Digvijay Singh.
He took over from Babulal Gaur in 2005, after contesting a by-election in Budhni. (“Women in Tamil Nadu wear full clothes and hence the crime rate is lower there as compared to other states;” “I told her [wife of a Russian leader] I can’t teach you how to wear a dhoti, but I can certainly teach you how to remove it” – some more Babulal Gaur gems. He, at 88, is hoping to get a ticket from Govindpura, but reports suggest the BJP might pass on this request.)
While Chouhan remains popular and has maintained his ‘vikas purush’ image even after being the chief minister for 13 years, reports suggests that significant fatigue against the government has crept in. A latest opinion poll still holds Shivraj Singh Chouhan as the favourite among those polled for the post of the chief minister.
In a state where the politics has been largely binary between the BJP and the Congress, a tide of voters seeking change of guard would be difficult for Chouhan to overturn. Data from past assembly polls suggests that a large swing of votes is possible in the state. Such instances have occurred in the past, including in 2003 when the BJP stormed to power under the leadership of Uma Bharti.
It’s been a thirteen year stint for Chouhan, and naturally the question of anti-incumbency has been raised not just in this round of elections, but also in the 2013 edition. He has of course vehemently rejected the notion each time. Speaking to Hindustan Times, he said, “I don’t see any anti-incumbency in the state as our government has been continuously working to fulfil its promises. T
he public is witness to our journey of creating a developed state from the Bimaru state (a reference to four ailing states -- Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh – as defined in the 1980s) we inherited from the misrule of the Congress in 2003.” Under his administration, Madhya Pradesh has gone from Bimaru to Sucharu (well run) and viksit (developed), he said. Claiming that the protests he has encountered during his Jan Ashirwad Yatra were orchestrated by the opposition, he added that the myth of anti-incumbency is broken when he meets the people who are still thronging in droves to his rallies. Listing successes in terms of irrigation, road infrastructure, attracting industries into the state, and doubling agricultural production as among his chief achievements, he believes he has delivered on the promises made, and that his platform this time is to present to the voting electorate a Naya Madhya Pradesh with Nayi Raftar.
Sure, there are some truths to his claims – the recent ABP-C Voter survey which predicted a Congress victory shows that Shivraj is still leading the pack in the most-preferred CM candidate race. Even when Congress leaders are combined, Shivraj still emerges leader (Chouhan – 42 percent; Scindia – 30 percent; Kamalnath – 7 percent). His popularity among women is higher than it is with men, thanks to schemes like Ladli Laxmi, Janani Suraksha, Kanya Vivah/Nikah, Prasuti Sahayata Yojana. And yet, crimes against women are on the rise in the state.
The CM has also introduced the Saral Bijli Bill scheme to facilitate underprivileged households, while another scheme seeks to waive off old power dues of underprivileged customers, while yet another (announced in July) seeks to provide BPL families electricity supply at a flat rate of 200 rupees per month.
These sop announcements could well be because the government is reading the writing on the wall – and it reads ‘Do Not Be So Cocky This Time Around.’ The BJP has lost four consecutive by-elections in the state in the last two years. The Congress had made major gains in recent bypolls for elections to local bodies. These results were reflective of a CSDS survey result which had predicted a 15 percent lead for the Congress in May 2018.
Madhya Pradesh tolerates, and gives chances. But beyond a point, the state’s wrath is all too visible – recall 2003, when Digvijay Singh was voted out. The anti-incumbency was so intense that the Congress managed to win just 38 seats out of the 230 assembly seats that went to polls.
There are some very real issues that Chouhan is facing as he heads into the polls, all of which we will discuss in a little bit, but the Congress, if it hopes to give him any competition, would do well to remember that ad hominem attacks and name-calling (“prostitute,” “madaari,” “nalayak”) always helps the incumbent, who can easily veer the conversation from real issues that need discussing – performance, failures – to emotive ones. Congress should know this considering the debacle of 2003 when Digvijay Singh and his team spent an inordinate amount of time in the anda scandal. (Digvijay, in an attempt to take on his saffron-clad opponent Uma Bharti, decided he would peddle some soft hindutva and talk about the benefits of gau mutra.
Bharti returned his salvo by going to a Hanuman Mandir to celebrate Hanuman Jayanti with cake and candles. Prince Digvijay showed some right-eous anger. EGG! IN MANDIR! HANUMAN! INSULT! Uma said no egg, milk cake! This went on. For a while. Uma then decided to do the right thing by ditching the egg and going for the jugular with the issues of development (or lack thereof). It worked. Digvijay landed an egg and in the process did dig a pit where his vijay remains forever buried. Congress would do well to eggzcavate some of its own stories of the past if it hopes to pack Chouhan off.
The Congress needn’t look too far to find out what ploy to hit Chouhan with. According to data from the Labour Ministry, Madhya Pradesh had an unemployment rate of 40 percent in urban areas and 44 percent in rural areas in 2015-16. The overall unemployment rate was around 43 percent. In February, the frenzy with which three lakh applicants applied for just 738 peon posts was an indication of just how high the frustration levels among the youth in the state are. Among the applicants for the peon position in district courts were engineers, law graduates, and MBAs. 70,000 applicants were from Gwalior alone!
According to The Times of India, the number of educated jobless youth registering with the employment exchange has shot up from 15.6 lakh in 2015 to 23.7 lakh in 2017 – a whopping 53 percent in two years. The State Economic Survey showed that in 2016, just 129 jobs were created! The government’s attempts at creating jobs through industrialisation have clearly not borne fruit. A significant percentage of MoUs signed by the government at global investor summits (GIS) failed to materialise, according to sources.
In July this year, a group of youngsters gathered in Neelam Park to protest the state government and to get an official date regarding the formal joining of candidates who had cleared the exam of Lekhapal in 2015. Lekhapal is an accounting officer at the village level. 2208 candidates had been declared successful in the exam, but only 595 had been invited to join formally. Hundreds of these other candidates are now without a job, despite having cleared the Lekhapal exam. Several such candidates had been teaching at colleges under the Atithi Vidwan scheme where guest scholars could earn around 200 rupees a lecture. There are around 4200 such scholars. In March this year, the Madhya Pradesh Public Service Commission decided to conduct an exam for the position of assistant professor – something it had not done in 25 years – instead of regularising the atithi vidwans to permanent jobs.
As a sombre consequence of the massive unemployment in the state, there has been an almost 2000 percent rise in the cases of suicide between 2005 and 2015. Akshay Hunka, convenor of Berozgar Sena, quoting figures from the National Crime Record Bureau (NCRB), said the number of people committing suicide with unemployment as a reason was 29 in 2005, and that it had gone up to 579 in 2015.
These staggering facts notwithstanding, the government continues to make its tall claims about employment. Between April and June of this year, prominent publications including the Hindu Businessline, The Indian Express, The Hindustan Times, reported that the MP government “will provide jobs to one lakh youths.”
Where are these one lakh jobs? El Dorado? Atlantis? We do not have answers yet.
Mandsaur and the farmer agitation
Shivraj Singh Chouhan claims he’s a ‘Kisan ka Beta,’ but reports suggest he has largely ignored the problems faced by farmers. He has been accused of treating farmers as merely a votebank and not as a community he is devoted to helping. In the last ten years alone, more than 11,000 farmers have committed suicide in Madhya Pradesh. Things came to a head about a year ago in Mandsaur.
On June 6, 2017, police in Mandsaur fired at protesters who were demanding better prices for their harvest. Six protesters were killed in the police firing, leading to violent protests that spread to neighbouring districts. A day later, a local factory was torched by protesters.
The protests forced the Chouhan government to launch the Bhavantar Bhugtan Yojana (BBY) in October 2017, under which registered farmers would be paid the difference between the minimum support price (MSP) and a modal price. The amount would be calculated by taking into consideration the average price of a crop in the state and two neighbouring states. Newsclick, however, reported that even after 17 months of the incident, farmers in the region are still complaining about not receiving the correct MSP and that the Swaminathan Commission’s recommendations have not been implemented.
Congress President Rahul Gandhi was denied permission by the administration to meet the farmers. This, with the background of the death of six farmers, created a positive image for the Congress and a negative image for Chouhan’s government, political observers suggest.
To mark the first anniversary of the farmer protests, Gandhi staged a rally in Mandsaur on June 6 this year. In what was seen as a virtual election campaign launch for the party, Gandhi attacked the BJP governments at the Centre and the state.
The Wrath of the Upper Castes
In September, upper caste BJP leaders in Madhya Pradesh sent an SOS to the central high command – the upper caste voters could turn against the BJP. Why? The decision to amend the SC, ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act by the Centre – ostensibly to eat into the votebase of BSP and Congress among underprivileged communities – had angered the upper castes. Multiple districts across the state observed a complete shutdown in support of protests called by various upper caste outfits against the amendments Act passed by Parliament in July. “The anger among the ‘savarnas’ (upper castes) is too deep rooted to be contained by any small measures. It has to be big impact-making steps by the Centre to prevent them from landing in the fold of Congress out of vengeance,” a senior Madhya Pradesh BJP leader, not willing to be quoted, told The Asian Age.
Asian Age reports, “Brahmins (5 percent), Thakurs (2.5 percent), Banias (trading community) (three percent) and Kayasthas (2.5 percent) are the key upper caste voters who constitute around 13 percent of the total population in Madhya Pradesh. OBCs comprising Yadavs, Kurmis, Lodhis, and Kushwahas, Nais, Nahars and Nishads constitute around 60 percent of total population of the state. The gap between votes garnered by the BJP and the Congress in the last three Assembly elections in the state has hovered around 8.5 percent and any decision by the upper castes to desert the BJP may bring Congress to power.” The BJP has consistently enjoyed the support of the upper caste voter in the state. In a study by CSDS conducted in 2014, it was revealed that the BJP’s share of votes of upper castes increased from 35 percent. to nearly 48 percent.
Nivedita Mishra, a retired professor of political science, said, “If the upper castes, considered party’s base in urban areas, dump the BJP in favour of the Congress it may upset the calculation of the BJP.”
A New Alliance? BSP, GGP, JAYS, SAPAKS
BSP, GGP, JAYS and the newly formed SAPAKS Samaj Party are hoping to get a piece of the cake as BJP battles anti-incumbency after being in power for 15 years. However, this could dent Congress’ chances. In early October, Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) supremo Mayawati lashed out at the Indian National Congress and declared that her party would not ally with it in the upcoming assembly elections in Madhya Pradesh. Congress and BSP had been engaged in intense seat-sharing negotiations for weeks before the sudden announcement. Mayawati’s decision came as a major blow to the Congress even as she had declared that BSP would not contest with Congress in neighbouring Chhattisgarh as well. BSP has tied up with former chief minister Ajit Jogi-led Janta Congress Chhattisgarh (JCC).
Nachiket Deuskar, writing for Moneycontrol, says, “In the 2013 assembly elections, the vote share difference between the BJP and the Congress was 8.5 percent. BSP’s vote share in the election was 6.29 percent. Going by the numbers, BSP and Congress in the upcoming assembly polls would have added considerable weight to the latter’s chances.”
Out of the 230 assembly seats in the state, 34 fall in the Chambal region. This region also has high concentration of voters belonging to the Scheduled Caste (SC), which form the core of BSP’s supporter. This could hurt the Congress’ chances, especially in this region.
According to an analysis by Hindustan Times, BSP has played spoiler for the Congress higher number of times than for the BJP in the last three elections. The BSP and Congress fighting each other had denied Congress at least 22 seats in 2003, 41 seats in 2008 and 34 seats in 2013. The BSP is planning to contest in all 230 seats.
The Samajwadi Party, led by Akhilesh Yadav, has seen less success in Madhya Pradesh, with currently no seats to its name in the assembly. Reports suggest that the party is hoping to form an alliance with BSP. A formal announcement to this regard has not been made yet. SP has announced candidates for 10 seats out of the 30 seats it is expected to contest from. It has tied up with the Gondwana Ganatantra Party (GGP). The GGP, whose core base is the tribal population (which makes up around 21 percent of the total population), is hoping to take some votes away from the Congress, which is otherwise the party of choice of the tribal population in the state.
Earlier this month, the Samanya Pichra Alpsankhyak Kalyan Samaj (SAPAKS), a group protesting against quotas and the Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, established the SAPAKS Samaj Party. The organisation was formed around two years ago after CM Chouhan said, “Koi mai ka laal aarakshan khatam nahi kar sakta (No one can dare to abolish reservation)”.
SAPAKS has witnessed large turnout at its protests and rallies. The party has declared 88 candidates so far.
If SAPAKS is the party of upper caste “disillusionment”, on the other end of the spectrum, we have JAYS - the Jai Adivasi Yuva Shakti (JAYS), a tribal political outfit is holding alliance talks with Congress. The party has, however, demanded 40 assembly seats and it remains unclear if Congress would yield to this demand, according to a PTI report.
While it is rather a fanciful idea to imagine, let’s say the SAPAKS party to join the others in the group to form a third front, we have seen stranger bedfellows in politics.
Meanwhile, the Congress seems to be adopting the same strategy that it did during Digvijay Singh’s time in 2003 – peddle soft Hindutva. In September, Madhya Pradesh Congress Committee (MPCC) President Kamal Nath said the party would build gaushalas (protective shelters for cows) in every panchayat of the state. There are 23,006 panchayats in the state. The announcement from Nath assumes significance as he is being seen as one of the leading contenders for the chief minister’s position. In a tweet, Nath said, “Pradesh ki har panchayat mein 'gaushala' banayenge. Ye ghoshna nahi, vachan hai.” The party had also started the ‘Ram Van Gaman Path Yatra’ along the mythical route taken by Lord Rama on his way to the 14-year exile.
The yatra was, however, stopped by the Election Commission (EC) following complaints from the BJP that the “religious yatra” could be used for political gains even as the model code of conduct was in place.
According to Deccan Herald, the party is also planning to implement prohibition of alcohol in the state if elected to power.
One thing is certain – the BJP understands its position is threatened in Madhya Pradesh. But it will not be easy for the Congress to wrest power from the BJP – Shivraj Singh Chouhan remains a popular chief minister even if certain communities might be disillusioned in him and his party. Madhya Pradesh will be among the more interesting polls to watch out for.MP will head to polling in a single-phase election, and the counting of votes will happen on December 11.
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