Madhya Pradesh

Reverse swing

Print edition : June 07, 2019

Pragya Singh Thakur after her win in Bhopal, at the BJP’s State headquarters in the city on May 24. Photo: PTI

Senior Congress leader Digvijaya Singh addressing a press conference in Bhopal on May 24. He lost the Bhopal Lok Sabha seat to the Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur by 3,64,882 votes. Photo: PTI

Congress leaders Priyanka Vadra and Jyotiraditya Scindia at the Congress Working Committee meeting in New Delhi on May 25. Scindia’s loss in Guna, by 1,25,549 votes, was the rudest shock for the Congress. Photo: Kamal Kishore/PTI

The Kamal Nath government announced the Jai Kisan loan waiver scheme within hours of assuming office last year. The BJP alleges that most farmers received just a certificate of, and not an actual, waiver. Here, Suresh Pachouri and other Congress leaders outside the residence of former Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan in Bhopal on May 7 displaying lists of the names of debt-ridden farmers. Photo: PTI

The BJP makes a clean sweep with a clinical campaign that combined muscular nationalism and social welfare aimed at farmers, tribal people and upper castes who had moved to the Congress in the Assembly elections held in November last year.

A raucous display of nationalism by the Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) shrouded all issues of relevance in Madhya Pradesh, be it inflation, lack of jobs or plummeting farm prices, enabling its complete sweep in a State where it had lost the Assembly elections held in November 2018 to the Congress. Chief Minister Kamal Nath’s son, Nakul Nath, was the only Congress candidate who won, from the family bastion of Chhindwara, which his father represented nine times in the past.

In the November Assembly election, the Congress polled 40.9 per cent of the vote, marginally behind the BJP’s 41 per cent, and emerged as the single largest party with 114 of the 230 seats. The Congress had run a vibrant campaign modelled around the promise to address agrarian distress, relieving farmers of debt up to Rs.2 lakh, and stepping up employment generation. Its economic message resonated with an electorate disillusioned because of a combination of factors, including demonetisation, the Modi government’s failure to create jobs and the then Chief Minister’s, Shivraj Singh Chouhan, inability to prioritise poverty alleviation. The Congress’ loan waiver promise worked wonders for it in the farm belt of Malwa Nimar, a traditional BJP stronghold, where it reduced the saffron party’s tally to 28 from 56 and captured 35 of the 66 Assembly seats.

The Congress was, at that time, able to consolidate the tribal and Dalit voters behind it. These sections were upset with the BJP over its flip-flop on the dilution of the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, and their anger was best tapped by the Congress in the Gwalior-Chambal region where they make up for more than 20 per cent of the population. Last year, as many as six Dalits were killed in that region in violence during the Bharat Bandh on April 2, which was called in protest against the amendments to the Act. The Congress won 21 of the 27 Assembly seats in the region. Most of the victories were made possible by the decimation of the Bahujan Samaj Party, whose vote share fell by 1.5 per cent, to 5 per cent. The tribal consolidation also helped the Congress outshine the BJP in the Mahakoshal region, where it won 24 of the 38 seats.

Behind the rout

But the general election turned out to be a different ball game. The BJP’s vote share rose to a staggering 58 per cent, while the Congress’ slumped to 34.5 per cent, signalling the return of the upper-caste, tribal and Dalit votes to the party. This led to the Congress’ rout in both the Malwa-Nimar and Gwalior-Chambal regions, which send eight and four members to Parliament respectively. In Malwa-Nimar, the Congress also lost the Ratlam-Jhabua Lok Sabha seat that its candidate, Kantilal Bhuria, won in a byelection in 2015, an early signal of the party’s recovery in Madhya Pradesh.

Across Malwa-Nimar, the BJP’s foot soldiers spread swiftly, hobnobbing with farmers and accusing the Kamal Nath government of going back on its loan waiver promise. Ganesh Singh, the BJP’s MP from Satna, who was re-elected, told Frontline during the campaign that the party cadre was bent on exposing the Congress. “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 this time,” he had said. The party’s leadership believed that such a campaign would also dissuade the poor from falling for the Congress’ Nyuntam Aay Yojana (NYAY) blitzkrieg, under which Rs.72,000 was to be credited annually to the 20 per cent of the poorest families of the country. This belief was shared by Janardan Mishra, the BJP MP from Rewa, who secured another term in this election.

The Kamal Nath government announced the Jai Kisan loan waiver scheme within hours of assuming office in the State, promising to waive farmer loans up to Rs.2 lakh. It claimed that 25 lakh farmers benefited from the scheme and that the remaining farmers would get their share of debt relief after the general election. The BJP alleges that most farmers received just a certificate of, and not an actual, waiver.

In Gwalior-Chambal, the Congress’ most rude shock came from the unexpected defeat of Jyotiraditya Scindia, the scion of the Scindia royal family and its senior leader and star campaigner, in Guna. Scindia was first elected from this family bastion in 2002 and had retained it even in 2014 when the Congress tally in the State was only two seats. This time he lost by 1,25,549 votes to the BJP’s Krishna Pal Yadav, his former aide. Chhindwara remains the sole Congress turf in the State now. This is similar to what happened in 1977 when a wave of rage against the Indira Gandhi government at the Centre decimated the party in the State, which at that time was undivided and had 40 Lok Sabha constituencies. Even then, the people in Chhindwara voted for the Congress and ensured the victory of its candidate, Gargi Shankar Mishra. Bharatiya Jana Sangh candidates won in the remaining 39 seats.

The BJP also benefited from its politics of welfare schemes and its strong election machinery that presented this to the people as development. The Pradhan Mantri Gramin Awas Yojana, the Ujjwala Yojana and a dozen other welfare programmes targeting the girl child and tribal people created enough goodwill to prevent people from thinking in terms of replacing the BJP government at the Centre. The Congress’ inability to advertise its good work proved a stumbling block for it. Soon after assuming office, Kamal Nath introduced the Yuva Swabhiman Yojana that has provisions for time-bound employment for youths. But when this reporter travelled across the Vindhya region and the Gwalior-Chambal region and asked people about it, most of them said they had not heard of it. The unanimous lament among the Congress’ district-level election managers was that their cadres were lethargic. This lethargy negated the Congress’ chances of deriving electoral mileage from its thrust on social welfare.

At Bamhani Ajmer village in Rewa, the sarpanch Prabhakar Dwivedi said: “After the Congress came to power, a cross section of people has benefited. As many as 25 lakh farmers have got loan waivers; 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 muscular nationalism narrative in the weeks after the Balakot air strike added to the Congress’ predicament. The Congress leadership was aware that the BJP’s polarising campaign was getting “uncontrollable”. When Kamal Nath visited Rewa on April 13 for a meeting with party functionaries, he was visibly upset with the party’s tardy campaign and its helplessness in countering the BJP’s nationalist appeal that was evidently drawn around a communal trajectory. His advice to his cadres was: “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.” The election outcome leaves little doubt that the effort failed.

Over the past two months, Rahul Gandhi made seven visits to the State, and Priyanka Vadra one. Their rallies were well attended and drew applause as they attempted to tap into the public dissatisfaction, invoking last year’s tested armoury of issues: lack of jobs, price rise and economic stagnation. But the BJP’s election machinery had rendered the election a presidential battle of supremacy of leadership, in which the Congress president, battered by the perception of being a reluctant leader and seen as a privileged scion, was bound to trail.

The election results not only cripple the Congress’ hopes of expanding its footprint in the Hindi heartland for now but also made its numerically fragile government vulnerable to defection.