A Chief Minister's battle

Print edition : December 05, 2003

The anti-incumbency factor and popular dissatisfaction with the performance of its government on some fronts are evident in Madhya Pradesh, but the Congress(I), led by Chief Minister Digvijay Singh, hopes to return to power with help from the BSP.

SIDDHARTH NARRAIN in Bhopal PURNIMA S. TRIPATHI in New Delhi

Chief Minister Digvijay Singh at a public meeting after filing his nomination for the Ragogarh constituency on November 12.-A.M. FARUQUI

MADHYA PRADESH Chief Minister Digvijay Singh appears confident of winning the December 1 Assembly elections, despite the bleak prospects predicted in opinion polls, the volley of charges made against him by Bharatiya Janata Party leader Uma Bharati and a widespread feeling that he is going to pay the price for the bad roads and the power crisis in the State. A tall order, no doubt, but given the shrewdness that he is credited with and with a bit of help from the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), he is expected to romp home victorious. Although it is still unclear whether the popular dissatisfaction will translate into votes for the BJP, it is certain it will cause sleepless nights for the Chief Minister.

One factor that seems to be helping Digvijay Singh is the unpredictable nature of the challenge that Uma Bharati poses, her relative lack of political experience and the infighting in the BJP. Although the campaign has intensified, the BJP is still finding it tough to project itself as a credible alternative that is ready to take over the administration of the State which has been governed by Digvijay Singh for the past 10 years.

The Congress(I)'s campaign began in earnest after it finalised its list of candidates and released its manifesto. The manifesto promises good governance, development and social justice to all, which would lead to a healthy, literate and prosperous Madhya Pradesh. Issues including health, education, literacy, employment, construction of roads and power generation dominate the manifesto. The BJP, on the other hand, has busied itself in advising people not to believe the Congress party's manifesto or promises.

In fact, the Madhya Pradesh elections, like those in the neighbouring State of Chhatisgarh, have become personality-oriented, totally revolving around the Chief Minister. While the BJP is focussing on his 10 years of "non-performance", the Congress(I) is highlighting his achievements. A number of senior Congress(I) leaders hail from Madhya Pradesh, but the party's campaign has completely revolved around Digvijay Singh so much so that senior Congress(I) leader and Member of Parliament Kamal Nath issued a statement saying that he had nothing to do with the list of candidates released. This, in effect, means that if Digvijay Singh wins, he remains afloat with the party; if he sinks, he sinks alone.

Considering the fact that the BJP is confident about winning back the State from the Congress(I), its attacks on Digvijay Singh lack the required sharpness. There has been a war of words between Uma Bharati and Digvijay Singh, but it is still to acquire a political dimension. While the BJP's chief ministerial candidate accused Digvijay Singh of corruption, the latter threatened to sue Uma Bharati for defamation if she did not prove her charges. Uma Bharati has made a number of allegations against the Chief Minister that her party colleagues have found difficult to substantiate. In fact, they have portrayed her as not a serious challenge to the Chief Minister. The `cake controversy', for instance, showed her in a poor light. The issue centred around the allegation that Uma Bharati made an offering of a cake made using eggs at the Hanuman temple in Chhindwara in April, from where she began the party's Sankalp Yatra. In response, she said that it was a `milk cake' and wrote to the Chief Minister demanding a probe by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) into the allegation.

BJP leader Uma Bharati after filing her nomination for the Bada Malhera constituency.-A.M. FARUQUI

Uma Bharati's brash statements and aggressive demeanour are in stark contrast to the Chief Minister's dignified behaviour. The Congress(I) has been quick to capitalise on this. Party workers point out that while Digvijay Singh has proved his administrative skills in the past 10 years, Uma Bharati's skills have not been tested and her unpredictable nature makes her unsuitable for the Chief Minister's post.

UMA BHARATI has a tough battle lying ahead in the Bada Malhera constituency in Chhatarpur district in the State's Bundelkhand region. Pitted against her is the Communist Party of India candidate Kapoor Chand Dhuwara, who is believed to exercise considerable influence in the region. Her problems have been compounded by the fact that she has to face the silent hostility of her senior party colleagues, including former Chief Minister Sunderlal Patwa and State party president Kailash Joshi, because she was imposed on them by the central leadership. Kailash Joshi has been visibly disinterested in the campaign so far. Instead of giving a credible political argument about why Digvijay Singh should be removed, he confines himself to talking about frivolous remarks made by the Chief Minister. He asked: "What about Digvijay Singh's remark that the State is facing a drought because the Prime Minister is a bachelor? Is this a remark that the Chief Minister of this State should be making?"

Recently, inner-party rivalries, spilled out into the open at the BJP headquarters in Bhopal when Uma Bharati was mobbed by furious supporters of those who were denied the ticket. "I am listening to them because I have no choice," she said. Kailash Joshi admits there has been a lot of infighting but takes pride in the fact that it is not as bad as in the Congress(I). "At least our party members have spoken their minds and we have sorted it out." As of now the party seems to be rallying behind Uma Bharati. Her public meetings have drawn large crowds and the party is hoping to capitalise on her status as an Other Backward Classes (OBC) leader. The OBCs make up 52 per cent of the State's population and the BJP hopes to win their support with Uma Bharati's oratorical skills.

The importance the BJP attaches to the State is obvious from the list of its campaigners. Union Law Minister Arun Jaitley addressed several rallies and press conferences. The party hopes to polarise the electorate communally; this is evident from the fact that it roped in Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi to campaign in the communally sensitive areas such as Dhar, Jhabua and Indore.

However, the presence of its erstwhile ally, the BSP, could spoil the chances of the BJP. The BSP could play a crucial role in these elections, especially in constituencies where the contest is close. Although the State unit of the BSP split recently, with the State party chief Phul Singh Baraiyya forming his own regional outfit, the Samata Samaj Party, the party's Dalit vote base is expected to remain intact. The indirect understanding between the BSP and the Congress(I) is expected to help the latter. The BSP is contesting 160 of the 230 seats. It is learned that BSP supporters in the remaining constituencies have been advised to vote for Congress(I) candidates. Significantly, though BSP president and former Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mayawati has not openly promised support to the Congress(I), she has repeatedly said that "we will do anything to defeat the BJP".

The polarisation of voters is expected to be between the Congress(I) and the BJP in straight contests in most of the seats. Parties other than the BJP and the Congress(I) occupy very little space. However, the Left parties have their own pockets of influence. In Bada Malhera, for example, the Samajwadi Party has decided to withdraw its candidate in favour of the CPI, in order to prevent a division of the non-BJP vote. The CPI and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) have fielded candidates in 18 and nine seats respectively. The Assembly had only one representative from the Left parties between 1993 and 1998, a figure that they hope to improve upon.

A significant development in this election is that many grassroot organisations have organised themselves politically and are in the fray. Two such organisations, the Shramik Adivasi Sanghatan and the Samajwadi Jan Parishad, claiming to represent tribal people and other marginalised communities, have alleged harassment by the police. Shamim from the Shramik Adivasi Sanghatan, who is contesting from Harda, says: "The day before I was supposed to file the nomination, I was accused of threatening an Adivasi and threatened with being booked under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. Other Sanghatan activists were arrested days before filing their nomination.

Public opinion at the moment does not favour any party, though the anti-incumbency factor is palpable in the urban areas. Says Churaiya Lal, who owns a tea stall in Bhopal: "It does not matter which party comes to power, they still do not do their work. But we need to change the party so that everyone gets a fair chance. Small industries are dying, unemployment is on the rise, and the hike in electricity tariffs is making things worse."

According to a State-level Bankers Committee Report, the Madhya Pradesh government has shut down more than 12,000 small-scale industrial units over the past 10 years. The government's policy of shutting down public sector units has led to increasing unemployment in the organised sector. Says Kamal Singh Lodi, who used to work in a factory in the Govindpura industrial area in Bhopal: "Only 25 per cent of the factories in this area remain open. Education and health are important issues, but what do we do when we do not even have work?"

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