Madhya Pradesh

Battle lines redrawn

Print edition : May 24, 2019

The Congress candidate for Guna, Jyotiraditya Scindia, campaigning at Shivpuri on April 25. Polling will be held in the sixth phase of the Lok Sabha election in Guna, Morena, Bhind, Sagar Vidhisha, Bhopal and Rajgarh on May 12. Photo: PTI

Prime Minister Narendra Modi at an election meeting in Itarsi in Hosangabad constituency of Madhya Pradesh on May 1. The constituency went to polls on May 6 in the fifth phase of polling. Photo: A.M. Faruqui

In the Gwalior-Chambal region, the Congress hopes to exploit the despair among the voters by highlighting problems such as falling crop prices, missing jobs and inflation.

In the elections held in November 2018 to the Madhya Pradesh Assembly, the Congress swept the Gwalior-Chambal region, the pocket borough of Jyotiraditya Scindia, its senior leader and star campaigner. It won 26 of the 34 constituencies there, attracting voters from both the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). Since then, the political battle lines have been redrawn sharply owing to the BJP’s drift towards an overtly communal and polarising campaign. While the BJP would want people to make an ideological choice in the Lok Sabha election, the Congress’ election machinery is trying to exploit the mood of despair in the hinterland. The Congress is talking of falling crop prices, missing jobs and inflation, issues that gave it an edge in 2018.

The Congress, say its election managers, has drawn the template of its campaign around its latest pro-poor blitzkrieg NYAY scheme, one that promises to credit Rs.72,000 annually to the poorest people of the country. The party’s leaders are hopeful that this will consolidate the support of not only the poor but also the Other Backward Classes (OBCs), a group that is electorally significant across Chambal, if they are able to deftly handle the caste arithmetic. It was with this vision that the Kamal Nath government recently announced that the quota of reservation for OBCs in the State would be upped from the existing 14 per cent to 27 per cent.

At the micro level, aspiring candidates belonging to the OBCs are being given the party ticket. In Gwalior-Chambal, the party has fielded OBC candidates in two of the four Lok Sabha seats (Gwalior, Guna, Morena and Bhind) that go to the polls on May 12. One calculation is that upper-caste voters may not be willing to switch over from the BJP to the Congress though there was a feeble hint of that during the State elections. Party insiders are of the view that it would be pragmatic to cultivate the OBCs and the poor in general rather than the savarna voters if they are to pulverise their now-ousted, but far-from-weakened, opponent in the State, the BJP.

Caste factor

Devashish Jarariya, the Congress candidate from Bhind, told Frontline why he believed the gamble would work. “National issues are the last thing on people’s mind in Gwalior-Chambal. The caste factor is strong, and pressing local issues have added to the people’s general sense of disillusionment with the sitting BJP MPs, who are unpopular. Our party has given the ticket to two OBC candidates here. We are running a door-to-door campaign focussed on finding solutions to the absence of jobs and the rise in prices. The BJP’s negative campaign, drawn around a ‘nationalist me versus dissenting others who must be punished’, will not resonate with the electorate, especially the disadvantaged electorate,” the 28-year-old first-time contestant said.

But his own victory is not guaranteed in Bhind, a constituency reserved for the Scheduled Castes since 2009. On April 2, 2018, six people were killed in Gwalior, Bhind and Morena when Dalit activists clashed with right-wing groups. Devashish, then in the BSP, was accused of participating in and even leading the mob violence. This has left the party worried about his chances of attracting the votes of Thakurs and Brahmins, who are influential in the Bhind Lok Sabha constituency, which is spread over Bhind and Datia districts. A Congress strategist overseeing the electioneering in Chambal shared the party’s predicament with Frontline: “Devashish was hand-picked by the Congress MLA from Lahar, Govind Singh, who has sway over the Rajput votes. But we are afraid of an upper-caste backlash in Bhind. The indications of that are evident on social media. Devashish is trolled every day.”

Devashish’s team has its own calculations in mind. Going by the figures of the Assembly elections, the Congress enjoys a lead of about 1,11,000 votes spread over the eight Assembly segments that constitute the Bhind constituency. Congress functionaries managing Devashish’s campaign are hopeful of garnering all the Dalit votes in his favour. Devendra Singh Tomar, who hails from Gohad, explained: “ Dalits will not waste their votes on the BSP. Former BSP leader Phool Singh Baraiya, who formed the Bahujan Samaj Dal, recently merged the party with the Congress. The Bahujan Samaj Dal had polled 52,000 votes in the last election. When we add that number to our existing lead, victory is in sight.”

The Congress’ war room in Gwalior is not complacent. Off the record, party insiders admit that they are in a comfortable position only in Guna, which is represented by Scindia, who is seeking re-election. In Gwalior, Congress candidate Ashok Singh has the money and clout to cash in on the rage against the incumbent MP, Union Minister Narendra Singh Tomar, who has now shifted to the nearby Morena constituency. The BJP has fielded Gwalior’s Mayor Vivek Shejwalkar, who has a clean image, against Ashok Singh.

A cross section of people in Gwalior seem to be rooting for the BJP. These people described their vote as a token of allegiance to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who, in their assessment, is a strong leader. “The country is under threat; we had this Pulwama terror strike. We need a headstrong leader like Modi. In any case, who is the alternative?” asked Arvind Mittal, a physician in Deen Dayal Nagar.

The Congress has not been caught unawares. Its senior leaders are determined to not let the BJP’s fervid protestations of nationalism write an epitaph to its new-found fortunes in Gwalior-Chambal. Ashok Singh recently penned a letter to Modi asking him to “describe nationalism”. Some mischief is also being played out on WhatsApp. Several people at M.S. Road in Morena and the surrounding localities who were critical of the BJP said they suspected “foul play” in the Pulwama attack. When questioned further, they revealed that in the past couple of weeks, they have received WhatsApp videos that purported to show that the terror strike was “orchestrated” to give one political party “advantage in the election”. Word-of-mouth campaigns such as this, obviously, stand to benefit the Congress.

In the hinterland, where there are fewer buyers of the BJP’s rhetoric, the Congress is selling its NYAY scheme and is hopeful that the poor voters who fell for Modi’s promises in 2014 will return to its fold, having been denied the promised uplift. “We lost badly in 2014 because we were not able to puncture the dreams that Modi was selling. Clearly, the poor were overwhelmed by him. But this time, we are doing far more energetic legwork and reaching out to people; we listen to their grievances and tell them our vision of ending those grievances. NYAY is working like a magnet; we will trounce the BJP in the rural pockets all across the State,” Ashok Singh said. He said the Congress would win 20 to 22 seats of the 29 seats in the State. But that is an overstatement. The Congress is likely to end its run by bagging between nine and 12 seats. In 2014, it won two seats, Guna (Scindia) and Chhindwara (Kamal Nath).

NYAY EFFECT

The discourse around NYAY was scripted in Bhopal. On March 28, soon after the Congress released its manifesto, senior leader Shobha Oza, who is the party’s central observer in the State, held a press conference. On that day, simultaneous press conferences and workers’ meets were held in all the 52 districts of the State; Shobha Oza instructed the district campaign committees to deploy 10 cadre per booth. Each cadre was given the assignment of promoting NYAY to voters under his watch. This reporter, who travelled to Gohad and Sweda villages in Bhind, found out that NYAY was slowly becoming a talking point among the rural poor.

The BJP has kick-started a counter-campaign to thwart the Congress’ attempts. In the Vindhya region, its leaders have upped their tirade against the Congress’ failure to waive farmers’ loans. Within hours of assuming office in the State, the Kamal Nath government announced the Jai Kisan scheme promising to waive farm loans up to Rs.2 lakh. It claims that 25 lakh farmers benefited from the scheme and that the remaining would get their share of debt relief after the election. The BJP alleges that most of the farmers received just a certificate of, and not an actual, waiver.

Vivek Shejwalakar told this reporter that they were mobilising public opinion against NYAY. “It’s a big fraud and we are letting the poor know it is. In every public meeting, we remind them that the Congress is contesting only 230-odd seats, while the majority mark in the Lok Sabha is 272. We explain to people that since the Congress is not even fighting to win this election or form a government on its own, there cannot be substance in what it promises.”

Gwalior will witness a close contest between Shejwalakar and Ashok Singh, who hopes to benefit immensely from the unpopularity of Narendra Singh Tomar’s tenure. BJP insiders admit that their local faces in the Chambal belt are unpopular, and it was because of this anger against them that the party was wiped out in the Assembly elections. “The leaders who represent the BJP in Chambal are known to be arrogant and non-performing. They have not been on the ground. Some of the incumbent MPs did not do any development work in their constituencies. As a result, the party suffered,” one of the BJP candidates from the Chambal region told Frontline on condition that his name and constituency not be published. He blamed Tomar, Maya Singh, Jaibhan Singh Pawaiya and Rustam Singh for the BJP’s depleted fortunes in Gwalior-Chambal. “But now that the party has either shifted them or dropped them, we are hopeful of a good show,” he said. Shejwalakar said that the Congress’ attempt to woo Dalits and OBCs would be in vain.

“Every section of society, including the OBCs, benefited from the erstwhile Shivraj Singh Chouhan government’s welfare schemes, in particular the Sambhal scheme. The BJP has many ward councillors belonging to the Dalit community who are working tirelessly to fetch us Dalit votes,” he said.

Anando Bhakto travelled in Gwalior, Bhind and Morena for this story.

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