Madhya Pradesh

Dividends of division

Print edition : May 10, 2019

Pragya Singh Thakur with BJP vice president Prabhat Jha after her name was finalised as the party’s candidate for the Bhopal Lok Sabha constituency, on April 17. Photo: PTI

Digvijaya Singh, the Congress’ candidate in Bhopal. Photo: A.M. Faruqui

Former Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan. Photo: Sandeep Saxena

Chief Minister Kamal Nath addresses a party meeting at Hotel Chandralok in Rewa on April 13.

Notwithstanding people’s disappointment with the Bharatiya Janata Party, its polarising campaigns seem to have eclipsed pressing issues of unemployment and price rise in Madhya Pradesh.

Mud houses with crumbling thatched roofs, a school that appears like a ruin of a deserted structure, frail children herding cattle—there is much that gives away the poverty in Kakredi, a village tucked away 60 kilometres north of Rewa in Madhya Pardesh’s Vindhya region. Sukhi Nand Vishwakarma, a man in his sixties, points to a toilet that was built recently under the Centre’s flagship Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. A mild push from him disintegrates its door—a sheet of tin. Inside, there are a raised earthen platform and a hollow structure. There is no tap, and there is hardly any space to carry a bucket of water. “Can anyone use this?” he asks scornfully and then goes on to deride Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s tall promises in 2014 that had brought hope. The question resonates across the Vindhya belt, which sends four members to the Lok Sabha.

At first glance, the Vindhya region might appear to be an iconic Congress bastion. But it is not. The Congress won only six of the region’s 30 Assembly seats in the elections held in December 2018. Despite Modi’s visible failure to usher India, or the State, into the promised era of prosperity, the tribal people and the poor Other Backward Classes (OBCs) people in Madhya Pradesh who switched their loyalty from the Congress to the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and then to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) remain fiercely loyal to him. In Kakredi, the only voices of dissent, besides Sukhi Nand’s, are of Rajkumar Rawat, who complains about price rise, and Bhaia Lal Gond, whose daughter-in-law is yet to receive the benefit of the Janani scheme. Most others said they would vote for Modi. They are not influenced by his political ideology or his inflammatory rhetoric branding dissenters as terrorist sympathisers. But the BJP’s relentless door-to-door campaign has instilled in them a conviction that Modi will end their distress. Most said they had not seen Congress workers or its block leaders in a long time. In the absence of access to cable TV or Internet-enabled smartphones, they are not aware of the Congress’ ambitious NYAY scheme, which promises to end poverty.

Sanjeev Mishra, bureau chief of the Desh Bandhu newspaper, who has been touring across the Rewa, Satna, Shahdol and Sidhi Lok Sabha constituencies, concurs that the BJP is at an advantage. “Modi hasn’t brought ‘change’, but the BJP has doled out sops plentifully over the past one year. Every villager has a friend or a relative who got something. People have a feeling that if they vote for Modi, they will get their share of the largesse. The tribal people and the OBCs will back Modi,” he told Frontline. Elections in Madhya Pradesh are being held in four phases from April 29 to May 19. Sidhi and Shahdol vote on April 29, and Satna and Rewa on May 6.

The BJP is aware that its dole-out politics is its biggest draw for the electorate. At a public meeting at Khari village in Satna, the incumbent MP, Ganesh Singh, who is seeking a consecutive fourth term, energetically sells the Centre’s welfare initiatives. “Kitne ghar bane [how many houses have been built in your village]?” he asked. “Fifty-two!” roared the crowd that had assembled at the unlit veranda of a temple, a row of earthen lanterns separating the audience from the speaker. “Over 100 are under construction,” said one of them, indifferent to the power outage that is a daily predicament in the area. Ganesh Singh carries on with the narrative of hope: “This is Modi’s Bharat. The treasury of the country has been thrown open to the poor.”

Under the Prime Minister’s housing scheme, poor people in rural pockets were given Rs.1.2 lakh to build houses, while those in cities received Rs.2.5 lakh. In Madhya Pradesh, there were other sops such as credit cards to farmers to procure short-term loans of up to Rs.3 lakh and the much publicised Sambhal scheme that capped electricity charges at a fixed rate of Rs.200 a month for people in the unorganised labour sector.

Ganesh Singh is challenged by Rajaram Tripathi of the Congress. The BJP won five of Satna’s seven seats in the Assembly election, benefiting from the division of opposition votes between the BSP and the Congress. The Congress won the remaining two. In Nagod, Maihar and Amarpatan, the Congress’ loss was by thin margins of 1,000 to 4,000 votes. This time, the party is hopeful that Rajaram Tripathi will consolidate the Brahmin votes as the upper caste is miffed with the BJP over the row about the Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribe Act. Political analysts believe that the alienation of Brahmins accounted for 1.42 per cent NOTA (none of the above) votes in the State Assembly election.

In an interaction with Frontline, Ganesh Singh said the BJP would not let the Congress benefit from its promise of the pro-poor NYAY scheme, which promises an annual income of Rs.72,000 to the poorest one-fifth of the population. “We have gone to each and every block; we have told people how the Congress bluffed the farmers over loan waiver. No one will believe them,” he said. The Kamal Nath government had announced the Jai Kisan loan waiver scheme for farmers within hours of assuming office in the State, promising to waive loans up to Rs.2 lakh. It claims 25 lakh farmers benefited from the scheme and that the remaining farmers would get their share of debt relief after the election. The BJP alleges most farmers received just a certificate of, and not an actual, waiver.

In Rewa, Janardan Mishra of the BJP, the incumbent MP, was confident that farmers, who played a pivotal role in ousting the Shivraj Singh Chouhan government, would not “repeat their mistake”. “The Congress’ NYAY will cut no ice with the voters; they can’t fool them twice,” he said.

Although the BJP maintains it will win at least 25 seats in the State, it is actually apprehensive that NYAY has the potential to redraw the battle lines. A BJP MP from the Vindhya region said: “During the Assembly election, we did not take the Congress’ loan waiver promise seriously; that was the most imprudent thing to do. We are looking at NYAY as a definite impediment before us and devising a strategy to avert any erosion of the rural vote.” He said that as soon NYAY was announced, BJP president Amit Shah held a videoconference with the State’s senior leaders and MPs and told them to sharpen their attack on the grand old party over national security. “He [Amit Shah] has asked us to portray the Congress’ pledge to reduce the Army’s presence in Kashmir and revoke the sedition law as an unpardonable compromise with terrorist forces. We have been asked to run a whisper campaign that the Congress is in collusion with the enemy [Pakistan/terrorists].” The MP admitted that the Modi government’s failure to create jobs was hurting the party’s prospects. Recently, Ganesh Singh had to cut short a public meeting in Satna when some angry young people questioned him on unemployment.

The BJP believes that a raucous display of nationalism will take the focus off social and economic issues such as the job losses and plummeting incomes in the agrarian sector, which had fuelled the Congress’ Hindi heartland victories in last year’s Assembly elections in three States. At the BJP headquarters in Dhekaha, Rewa, Rajendra Shukla, who was a Minister in Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s government, attacked those who have questioned the government’s claim of neutralising a terrorist training camp in Pakistan’s Balakot. Referring to the Congress’ vow to review policies regarding Jammu and Kashmir, he thundered to a crowd: “Did terrorists prepare their manifesto?” The recent rallies by Modi and Amit Shah also indicated that the BJP strategy was to tap into people’s fears of the perceived “other”. At a public meeting in Badaun, Uttar Pradesh, on April 1, Amit Shah accused the Congress of doing “ilu ilu” (an expression used in a 1990s Hindi song referring to romantic sweet talk) with terrorists. At a rally in Kairana on April 5, Modi revived memories of the Muzaffarnagar riots and asked people of the majority community to “remember what crimes were committed, what atrocities happened against daughters”.

The dividends of this divisive agenda are pouring in. At an eatery at Chorhata, Rewa, Ramsharan Shukla and his friend were interrupted contemptuously when they voiced their disillusionment with the Modi government.

“See, here’s someone who is cursing Modi ji. What hasn’t he done for this country?” asked the visibly offended owner of the eatery.

“What has he done?” Ramcharan countered. “Did he bring back black money? No, he allowed the loan defaulters to flee.”

“There is no alternative to Modi,” announced one Chandrabhan. The others nodded.

The sentiment was echoed everywhere. “We vote whichever way the wind is blowing,” said Lavkush Baiga, a tribal person from Gandhigram village, 10 km from Sidhi. “He has worked for the poor; we are getting medicine at subsidised rates.” His friend, Bijay Kumar Baiga, said: “Every child in our village knows Modi.” Rajaram Sen, a barber from Danga village, concurred.

Congress unable to match BJP rhetoric

The Congress candidate in Rewa, Siddhart Tiwari, said it was his duty to thwart the BJP’s attempts to drown relevant issues under nationalist rhetoric. “This election is about creation of jobs, ending rural distress, alleviating poverty and peddling growth. The BJP is talking about nationalism because it has no credible achievement to cite,” he said. Yet, the Congress has so far been unable to mount a fierce attack. Most people in Rewa say the sitting MP Janardan Mishra’s term has been “disappointing”, but it is not certain that they will vote for Siddhart Tiwari instead.

The Congress leadership is worried that the BJP’s polarising campaign is getting “uncontrollable”. When Kamal Nath visited Rewa on April 13 for a closed-door meeting with party functionaries at Hotel Chandralok, this reporter, who was allowed to sit in, witnessed the Chief Minister’s exasperation with the party cadre over the tardy campaigning. “Don’t let the BJP divert the agenda of this election. Each time they talk about nationalism, ask people who ensured India’s security for so many decades; ask them who spilled blood for the country’s freedom,” Kamal Nath said.

The Congress is rumoured to be short of funds. Kamal Nath is believed to have bailed out the party in the Assembly election by pumping in Rs.900 crore. A party insider said: “We were in a crisis during the Assembly elections. Rich candidates were asked to fend for themselves, and those with slim chances of winning received nothing. Others were given anything between Rs.20 and 40 lakh.”

Money continues to be a problem for the party. A Congress candidate from the Vindhya region said the party leadership had assured him of a “paltry sum of Rs.50 lakh” and that “with just two weeks to go before the election even half of that has not come”. The BJP, on the other hand, allegedly spent Rs.3 crore to Rs.4 crore in every Assembly seat in the November 2018 election.

The Congress’ prospects are also scuppered by factionalism. At Rewa’s Jeet Hotel, which has been currently transformed into the party’s war room, some office-bearers are heard complaining about it. “Arjun Singh, Digvijaya Singh and even the late Srinivas Tiwari focussed on establishing their family’s predominance here; they never bothered to create a second generation leadership. As factionalism increased and leaders and cadre pursued self-interest, the Scheduled Castes, the Scheduled Tribes and the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) deserted us for the BSP. Over time, they gravitated towards the BJP,” said a district-level office bearer of the Congress.

The lament was echoed across the Vindhya belt. At Bamhani Ajmer village in Rewa, sarpanch Prabhakar Dwivedi said the Congress had failed to sell its good because of lack of motivation among its cadre. “After the Congress came to power, a cross section of people has benefited. As many as 25 lakh farmers have got loan waiver; existing sops have been upgraded. But there’s no acknowledgement of it. If our district and block leaders organised a monthly public meeting in every village, our traditional votes would return to us in no time.”

The situation in Karwahi village in Sidhi bears this out. The village is poor and suffers from water scarcity, and the anger with the sitting MP, Riti Pathak of the BJP, is palpable. Still, she retains an edge over the Congress’ Ajay Singh. Ram Bohar Singh, a tribal person belonging to the Gond community, who complained that “there’s no water to drink”, is among the few who would vote for change. Others share Babbu Saket’s fixation with Modi. “He hasn’t given me anything, but I will make him the Prime Minister again. At least, he sends his men to enquire about us.”

Kamal Nath is making some efforts to get the party in action. “In the past four months, the Chief Minister has chaired 29 district-level meetings, collecting feedback from MLAs, the party’s district presidents and the block leaders,” said Gurmeet Singh, the Congress’ district president for Rewa. “This never happened before.” At the core of the Congress strategy is a push to outdo the BJP’s incentivisation. Under its newly envisaged Yuva Swabhimaan Yojana, unemployed young people are being given a 100-day job guarantee; the party has committed itself to increasing the upper limit of the Aawas Yojana to Rs.3 lakh. With an eye on the BJP’s OBC votes, the State government raised the reservation quota for the OBCs from the existing 14 per cent to 27 per cent.

But it may be too late in the day.

Anando Bhakto has travelled in Rewa, Satna and Sidhi for this story.

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