Assembly elections - Madhya Pradesh

Closing the gap

Print edition : November 29, 2013

In Bhopal, on Raksha Bhandan, Muslim girls tie rakhis on the wrist of Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chauhan. Photo: PTI

In Gwalior, Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi with Union Minister and State election campaign committee chairman Jyotiraditya Scindia and AICC general secretary Digvijay Singh at the party's 'Satta Parivartan Maha Rally' on October 17. Photo: A.M. Faruqui

Despite the early perceptions of an easy third term for Shivraj Singh Chauhan in Madhya Pradesh, the reality is that it is becoming a close contest between the Congress and the BJP.

“I AM not your Chief Minister, I am your brother, son, father, and friend and need your blessings once again so that I can fulfil my promises to you.” Shivraj Singh Chauhan had barely completed the sentence when the huge crowd that had gathered at the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) mahapanchayat in Bhopal on September 25 roared its approval. Present on the dias was the entire top brass of the party, including L.K. Advani and prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi. To many observers, the deafening roar suggested the sealing of a third term for the Chief Minister, and the mahapanchayat itself, with its seven-lakh-strong crowd, gave an indication that it was going to be saffron all the way in Madhya Pradesh.

However, a few weeks later the upbeat mood of the mahapanchayat, which was the first that Narendra Modi addressed in Madhya Pradesh as the party’s prime ministerial candidate, gave way to circumspection. Indeed, the elections to the State’s 230-seat Assembly on November 25 promises to be a close contest between the Congress and the BJP. The Congress has tried to bury its intra-party feuds and project a united face, while banking on the charisma of Union Minister Jyotiraditya Scindia, the Scindia family scion who is widely perceived to be the party’s chief ministerial nominee though no announcement has been made. His youthful personality and the rapport he shares with Rahul Gandhi have boosted his own and his party’s prospects in the State.

The Congress has made law and order its main plank and has put up data from the report of the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) to show that BJP-ruled Madhya Pradesh tops in crimes against women and children, especially rape and molestation, in the country. Indore and Bhopal figure in the top five on the list of 35 cities in the country for overall crime as per the NCRB figures. Even the State government agrees with the figures but claims that the high numbers are because the State honestly registers all crimes, unlike others who refuse to register cases in order to keep crime figures down.

The NCRB report for 2010 put the number of rape cases at 3,135 and recorded 6,646 cases of other crimes against women, which made for a total of 9,781 cases of serious crimes against women. Delhi and Maharashtra figure in the second and third positions respectively. This has become the focal point of the Congress campaign in Madhya Pradesh.

“What blessings? Should people give the BJP yet another term so that more and more women can get raped and killed and more children can get trafficked?” asked Ibrahim Qureshi, who is the convener of the Congress’ election management committee. Qureshi, who is the president of the All India Muslim Backward Class Federation and the vice-president of the All India Muslim Education Society, is of the opinion that this election will see the ouster of the Shivraj Singh Chauhan government because the minorities, especially Muslims, have been living under the shadow of fear for the past 10 years. “There have been 1,006 cases of communal tension in the State between 2005 and September 2013. The State ranks third for communal violence cases in India, and what is worse is that in most of the cases, even though the culprits are identified, cases are not registered against them because they enjoy the patronage of the Sangh Parivar,” he said. Significantly, Muslims constitute about 10 per cent of the population in the State and are in a position to influence the outcome in many seats. The Congress realises this and is trying to play on the fears of the community.

The alienation of Muslims and Christians could prove to be the undoing of Shivraj Singh Chauhan. “Attacks on Christians have increased and repression of our clergy is rampant, and we cannot even get cases registered against the culprits. Many priests have been sent to jail for conducting prayer meetings within their homes. We are not heard anywhere, we feel like outcasts,” said Indira Iyengar, former member of the State Minority Commission and head of the Congress party’s Christian cell. She is also the president of the M.P. Christian Association. She said the community was scared of being persecuted in the name of conversion and was so badly alienated that it had lost interest in the polling process. “We have been abandoned even by our own party, the Congress,” she said.

Christians form roughly 2 per cent of the State’s population and are in a position to influence the result in at least 40 seats in the tribal regions, such as Jhabua, Dhar, Mandla, Kukshi, Khargone and Devas.

The BJP, however, is banking on the visible improvements in bijli, sadak and paani, the three issues Uma Bharati exploited successfully in 2003 to oust the Congress government of Digvijay Singh. “Power to all” has been the BJP’s slogan in Madhya Pradesh, something even Narendra Modi mentioned in his September 25 address to party workers. More schools, more electricity, more roads, more employment, better health facilities and good governance are what the BJP is promising voters.

Shivraj Singh Chauhan, however, realises the importance of the minority vote and has tried to reach out to both Muslims and Christians, besides making a conscious effort to control activists of the Bajrang Dal and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP). “In the last three-four years, there has been a visible drop in the number of attacks on Christians, and the Chief Minister has tried to reach out to us. He comes whenever we invite him for a function,” said Anand Muthungal, coordinator of Isaai Mahasangh, an organisation that is trying to make inroads into every political party so as to reduce the alienation of Christians from the political process.

As for Muslims, Shivraj Singh Chauhan has made a conscious effort to participate in their festivals whenever he can and has organised pilgrimages for senior citizens of the community. “Muslims have started thinking positively of him because he has provided employment and other facilities to many of them. They have been bought over,” says Qazi Ishrat Ali of Indore city.

While all this may or may not attract Muslim voters to the party, the fact is that even a small shift can be decisive because of the small difference in the vote shares of the two main parties. While the BJP won 143 of the 230 Assembly seats in 2008 with 37.6 per cent of the vote, the Congress won 71 seats with 32.4 per cent of the vote.

The Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) has a good presence in the State, with seven seats and 9 per cent of the vote. In 2008, Uma Bharati’s Bharatiya Janshakti Party, too, was in the fray and won five seats. Uma Bharati has since returned to the BJP, which will help Shivraj Singh Chauhan in terms of the support she commands among the Other Backward Classes.

The Congress, however, faces the handicap of a divided anti-BJP vote in seats where the Communist Party of India and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) are also in the fray, besides the BSP. Shailendra Shally of the CPI, who is contesting from Bhopal Central, said the Left parties could emerge as a balancing force in these elections.

At this early stage, even as the names of candidates are still being announced, what looks certain is that it is a close contest between the Congress and the BJP. What has also emerged is the fact that Narendra Modi is not a factor here because Shivraj Singh Chauhan carries more weight in the party in the State just as Raman Singh does in Chhattisgarh.

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