Elections to Madhya Pradesh’s 413 municipalities are scheduled to be held in two phases on July 6 and July 13. The BJP, which is in power in the State, is pushing for a “triple-engine” government—the same party in power in the State, at the Centre and in the local bodies. The party’s State president, V.D. Sharma, harped on this while canvassing in the Khajuraho Lok Sabha constituency recently.
The BJP’s victories in four States form the backdrop to the approaching elections. So do the Gyanwapi Masjid row and the demolition drives targeting minorities. The elections are being touted as a semi-final of sorts ahead of next year’s Assembly election.
The Congress is trying to focus on inflation and unemployment. Faction feuds and sluggish cadre, however, put a dampener on its efforts. The Muslim voters are unhappy about what they see as the Congress’s tepid response to Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s demolition of Muslim protesters’ homes. Asaduddin Owaisi’s All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) hopes to tap into this sentiment and open its account in the State.
Unlike in panchayat elections, the contest for the 16 nagar palika nigams, 99 nagar palika parishads and 298 nagar parishads, which make up the 413 municipalities, will be held on the basis of party symbols. This is sure to take the bickering between the BJP and the Congress to a feverish pitch.
The BJP is promoting youngsters with a clean image and sound professional portfolio as a way of assuaging the youths who are disillusioned with the BJP’s shoddy handling of the economy and failure to create jobs. The BJP leadership has announced that only one person from a family will be given the party ticket and no one who is a party office bearer will be allowed to contest. However, party office bearers will have the option of leaving the organisation and then ask for the ticket for themselves or for a family member.
“The BJP remains committed to its old narrative of Hindu nationalism.”
Recently, Shivraj Singh Chouhan showcased his party’s commitment to induct people from the grassroots into electoral politics. “The BJP has given the ticket to anganwadi workers, doctors, businessmen, farmers, social workers, educationists, advocates for municipal polls,” he said, while accusing the Congress of neglecting its own workers in ticket distribution.
The development narrative is not the only weapon in the BJP’s electoral armoury. Electioneering speeches by its leaders show that the party remains committed to the old narrative of Hindu nationalism and the usual strategy of attacking the Congress’s record. Usha Thakur, a Minister in the Shivraj Chouhan government, recently described her party as a “group of patriots”. She alleged that the Congress did nothing in the past 70 years and only turned India into a “hub of corruption and crime” in the eyes of the world.
Indeed, the BJP’s well-oiled PR machinery, in conjunction with mass media, has in recent years successfully sold stories of India’s sudden and extraordinary elevation in the world stage under the aegis of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Such an image makes the BJP immune to the consequences of its failures in governance and in the handling of the economy. Modi is projected as the sole protector of the national interest and invariably the Hindu interest. So far the strategy has paid off.
The Congress, which makes light of the BJP’s tall promises, focusses on exposing the gap between the BJP’s announcements and delivery—a daunting task, given the saffron party’s dexterity in managing public perception. Former Chief Minister Kamal Nath recently lampooned Chouhan as a “master of announcements”, alleging that he had made 20,000 announcements in 18 years. At a rally in Indore, Kamal Nath said: “He [Chouhan] can even announce construction of a bridge at a place where no river exists.”
Congress and Hindutva
As for Hindutva, the Congress is, as always, not averse to toeing a soft-Hindutva line. A recent spate of viral videos on the Internet depicted Kamal Nath as Rama and Chouhan as Ravana. In one ad, Kamal Nath as Rama unleashes arrows from his quiver, felling the 10 heads of Ravana, that is, Chouhan; each head symbolises an aspect of the BJP’s misgovernance: farmer suicides, crimes against women, atrocities on tribal people, inflation, unemployment, corruption, and so on. The video clip ends with the message: “nirnay ki ghadi aayi hai [it’s time to make decisions]. Kamal Nath returns 2023”.
The BJP, however, is a formidable opponent, what with its financial strength, rigorous bureaucratic control and the mass media’s everyday bidding in its favour. Not only the Congress, but also the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and the Samajwadi Party (SP), which have a presence in pockets of the State, find themselves at a disadvantage. Recently, three MLAs defected to the BJP, increasing its tally to 130 in the 230-member Assembly. (The defectors were the SP’s Rajesh Kumar Shukla from Bijawar, the BSP’s Sanjeev Kushwaha from Bhind, and Independent MLA Vikram Singh Rana from Susner.) The Congress, still recovering from the 2020 defection of Jyotiraditya Scindia, has only 96 seats. The latest to defect from the Congress to the BJP was Sachin Birla, legislator from Barwaha in Khargone district.
The Congress found itself in further trouble in June when the Bhopal wing of the Youth Congress decided to boycott the local body elections over denial of the party ticket to its members. “We are not puppets in the party who get thrashed and go to jail. Party leader Rahul Gandhi had decided that the party should give 30 per cent tickets to the Youth Congress. If the party does not change its mind by June 22, the Youth Congress wing of Bhopal will not work for the party,” said Bhopal district party president Naresh Yadav.
THE AIMIM threat
The Congress has reason to fear that the AIMIM might make a dent in the Muslim vote. In Madhya Pradesh, Muslims account for about 9 per cent of the population. They remain a neglected section as the Congress competes with the BJP in prioritising the interests of Hindus. In the 2018 Assembly election, the BJP fielded only one Muslim; the Congress fielded three. When this reporter toured the State in the run-up to the election in November 2018, he was told by a cross section of Muslims that the Congress rarely advocated their cause.
At the time, Moulvi Aliqadar, nazim of a madrasa called Nidausafa, said that the Congress was brazenly emulating the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh’s (RSS) Brahmanical order. He blamed Rahul Gandhi for not doing enough to cement an alliance with the SP and the BSP. According to him, this was done to keep the upper castes in good humour. Aliqadar’s sentiment resonated with most people from the minority community.
Nevertheless, local Muslims said then that they would still vote for the Congress in the absence of a viable alternative. “It takes time to build a credible and viable alternative. We do hope that someday there will be Dalit-Muslim consolidation. When that happens, we will no longer be dependent on the Congress, which has done little to improve our socio-economic condition,” Aliqadar told Frontline (“Challenge before Congress”, December 7, 2018).
However, things have changed drastically since then. At the height of the Ram Navami communal clashes in April, when there were protests every day in Madhya Pradesh’s Khargone district, Chouhan’s government used bulldozers to demolish 16 homes and 29 shops belonging to alleged stone-throwers. Those who lost homes and shops were almost exclusively Muslims. BJP MLA Rameshwar Sharma even posed for a photograph with a bulldozer.
The AIMIM has announced it will contest in Bhopal, Jabalpur, Indore, Khargone, Burhanpur, Ratlam and Khandwa districts. The AIMIM’s membership drive from March 2021 onwards led to the formation of a district committee in each of these districts. The party will put up a candidate for the mayoral post in Burhanpur, which has a sizeable Muslim population.
The Congress rubbishes reports of a possible switching of loyalty of its Muslim support base. Party spokesperson Abbas Hafiz said, “That is a narrative set by the AIMIM. It wants to create a perception that Muslims are unhappy with the Congress, but Muslims know only the Congress is battling the BJP’s majoritarian agendas day and night, and they are solidly backing us.”
Hafiz pointed out that even in Bhopal, which has a fairly large Muslim population, the AIMIM could field candidates in only three of the 85 wards. “In at least 30-35 wards, the Muslim vote is decisive. Even those Muslim leaders in our party who were denied the ticket chose to contest as independents but did not accept the AIMIM’s overtures.”