Will too many Congress defectors spoil the broth for BJP in Madhya Pradesh?

The Congress is optimistic of its chances in some seats in Madhya Pradesh, where a heatwave and disgruntled BJP cadres are playing spoilsport.

Published : Apr 30, 2024 18:08 IST - 8 MINS READ

Former Chief Minister and senior Congress leader Kamal Nath with supporters in Chhindwara, shortly before campaigning for his son Nakul Nath, on April 15.

Former Chief Minister and senior Congress leader Kamal Nath with supporters in Chhindwara, shortly before campaigning for his son Nakul Nath, on April 15. | Photo Credit: A.M. FARUQUI

The 29 constituencies in Madhya Pradesh represent a diverse range of geographies and demographics, from urban centres like Indore to rural constituencies like Tikamgarh in Bundelkhand. An aggressive BJP dominated the electioneering for the most part, but the Congress, low on morale, took comfort in the low polling figures for the six seats in the first phase: it saw this as a sign of voter disillusionment with the ruling party.

Of the six seats that went to the polls on April 19, the Congress hopes to retain its Chhindwara bastion and snatch Mandla (ST) and Balaghat from the BJP. All three seats are in the Mahakoshal region.

The campaign in the initial phases of the four-phase election in the State has been lacklustre, with the festive atmosphere of previous elections conspicuously missing. The BJP’s high-decibel campaign has not aroused interest either, although the party claims this is because the result in their favour is a foregone conclusion.

Both parties interpreted the low voter turnout in diametrically opposite ways. State BJP media cell chief Ashish Agarwal said: “The BJP’s vote share is continuously growing in Madhya Pradesh. The drop in turnout was because Congress voters did not come out.” Pradesh Congress Committee chief spokesman Abbas Hafeez countered this by claiming that “it shows that the wave is now going against the BJP”.

The general perception, however, is that the low turnout was largely because of the intense heatwave. “The heat made it difficult for voters to step out,” said former Chief Election Commissioner O.P. Rawat.

Also Read | Madhya Pradesh: Picking up the pieces  

Despite the BJP leader’s positive spin, a sizeable section of the party cadre is surmising that the open-arm policy to defectors might have proved counterproductive.

According to Narottam Mishra, former Madhya Pradesh Home Minister and the BJP’s point man for defections, as many as four lakh political workers joined the party in the State in the run-up to the election. Of these, nearly 75 per cent are former Congress workers, including former Union Minister Suresh Pachouri, 3 former MPs, 2 mayors, 15 former MLAs, and scores of office-bearers at all levels.

BJP resentment against Congress defectors

Not all BJP members are happy with the mass defections. Prahlad Patel, a powerful Minister, described them as “garbage”. Another senior Minister, Gopal Bhargava, mocked the newcomers as “overripe fruits from a rotten tree”. The tension was reflected also in two analytical articles in the the RSS-owned newspaper Swadesh, in which two political commentators, Jairam Shukla and Atul Tare, speculated that the exodus from the Congress might have annoyed the party’s hard-core supporters to the extent that they stayed away from voting.

Some RSS leaders have cautioned the BJP to exercise more discretion, especially after the dramatic U-turn by the Chhindwara mayor Vikram Ahate. A staunch Kamal Nath loyalist, Ahate was pressured to quit the Congress in early April. The BJP brandished the defection as a major blow to Kamal Nath, whose son Nakul Nath is seeking re-election from Chhindwara.

But on the morning of polling day, Ahate released a video expressing regret for joining the BJP and reaffirmed loyalty to his old boss. Ahate’s flip-flop helped the Congress deepen the perception that the BJP’s strong-arm tactics to weaken Nakul Nath’s candidature had not gone down well with voters in Chhindwara. The BJP has now closed its gates to defections.

The party has also redoubled its efforts to mobilise voters, cautioning cadres, particularly RSS volunteers, to not be overconfident, and bring voters to the booths in the remaining phases, when the heatwave is likely to be more intense.

Having set an ambitious target of winning all the seats, the party faces a tough fight in about a dozen constituencies. In some seats, caste equations look more favourable to the Congress, in others the unpopularity of the BJP candidates is causing concern.

Banking on Modi magic

The BJP is banking heavily on “Modi magic” and the Ram temple to override these negatives. Before the first phase, Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Jabalpur, Hoshangabad, and Balaghat. In Chhindwara, Union Home Minister Amit Shah led a roadshow carrying a portrait of Ram. No BJP leader, including Chief Minister Mohan Yadav, is talking about the work done by the State government. The BJP has been in power in Madhya Pradesh since 2003, barring 15 months (December 2018-March 2020) of Congress rule under Kamal Nath. In this period, the Congress was able to put up a reasonably good show only in 2009, when it won 12 of 29 seats.

Over the past 20 years, the Congress has had a stable 35 per cent vote share in parliamentary elections in the State against the BJP’s 55 per cent. Parties such as the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Samajwadi Party are fringe players, whose combined vote share has not exceeded 7 per cent in the past two decades. In this election, the fight is between the BJP and the Congress, leaving little scope for other players.

The BJP won 28 seats in 2019, with 61.2 per cent of the votes, while the Congress was a distant second with one seat and 35.8 per cent of the votes. Significantly, this result came barely five months after the Congress’ stunning victory in the 2018 Assembly election. Likewise, this year’s election is taking place just months after the Congress’ crushing defeat in the 2023 Assembly election in which the BJP, to everyone’s surprise, retained power.

At a polling booth in Narsinghpur, Madhya Pradesh, during the second phase of polling, on April 26.

At a polling booth in Narsinghpur, Madhya Pradesh, during the second phase of polling, on April 26. | Photo Credit: ANI

In urban constituencies such as Indore, Jabalpur, Sagar, and Bhopal, the BJP has been so entrenched for decades that any talk about election prospects is confined to victory margins, with the candidates’ own reputation ceasing to matter. In Bhopal, for instance, in 2019, the Malegaon bomb blast accused Pragya Thakur routed Congress stalwart Digvijaya Singh by over three lakh votes. The BJP candidate this time, former mayor Alok Sharma, faces serious charges of corruption during his mayorship, but his victory is all but certain.

Neighbouring Vidisha has been a BJP bastion since 1989. This time around, former Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan is returning to it after 19 years; he represented the seat from 1991 to 2005 after Atal Bihari Vajpayee vacated it to contest in Lucknow.

Chouhan’s propaganda machinery has already created a buzz that he is tipped for an important ministerial berth in the next Cabinet, triggering an exodus of Congress workers in the region. His Congress opponent is Pratap Bhanu Sharma, who won the seat last in 1984. Interestingly, though, Chouhan is not being allowed to address election meetings in other constituencies, probably because his popularity might outshine that of Chief Minister Mohan Yadav.

In Guna, Civil Aviation Minister Jyotiraditya Scindia seems to be going strong. He had lost the 2019 Lok Sabha election as a Congress candidate, and that is said to have triggered his defection to the BJP in March 2020 with 22 MLAs in tow, which toppled the Kamal Nath government. The Congress has fielded former MLA Rao Yadavendra Singh against Scindia. Yadavs have a sizeable presence in the constituency; Scindia lost to a Yadav in 2019.

Congress prospects

There are a few seats where the Congress hopes to turn the tide on the strength of its candidates’ personal stature. Of these, Chhindwara is foremost. Even Kamal Nath’s bitter critics grudgingly admit that Chhindwara’s people still look up to him as someone who transformed the backward tribal district into a model of development by bringing in industries and jobs. The Nath family still enjoys huge support, but it is pitted against the combined might of the State government and the vast resources of the BJP, whose candidate is Vivek Bunty Sahu.

In Rajgarh, Digvijaya Singh is marching across the constituency to win back the seat he vacated in 1994 after being elected Chief Minister. An avid walker, the septuagenarian Congress leader has earned praise from voters for his sheer endurance. But the gap of 30 years is telling on his campaign. While older voters fondly remember the works done by “Raja Sahab” as an MP, the young generation is unable to connect.

Digvijaya Singh’s peripatetic style—he treks almost 20 kilometres a day—has helped him revive old associations, and his sharp memory helps him connect with the people. But the real test of his popularity will come when RSS volunteers from across the country flock to Rajgarh, which votes on May 7, to support the BJP candidate, Rodmal Nagar, who is from the RSS.

Also Read | Can Congress, weakened by recent losses, hold its ground against resurgent BJP?

In Ratlam-Jhabua, a reserved seat (ST), Congress stalwart and former Union Minister Kantilal Bhuria has raised hopes in the camp. The tribal leader is contesting against the BJP’s Anita Nagar Singh Chouhan. In fact, the Congress is optimistic about a good showing not only in Jhabua but in other tribal-dominated seats too.

In Mandla, for instance, the Congress is banking on Omkar Singh Markam against the BJP’s Faggan Singh Kulaste, who lost the Assembly election (Niwas) in 2023 while Markam won another Assembly seat (Dindori) by a big margin. Markam is a Rahul Gandhi acolyte and member of the Congress Working Committee. In Shahdol, too, the Congress is hoping that the popularity of Phundelal Singh Marko will prevail against the BJP’s Himadri Singh.

In the Chambal and Vindhya regions, there are many non-tribal seats such as Satna, Rewa, Gwalior, Bhind, and Morena, where the personal appeal of Congress candidates coupled with seemingly favourable caste equations might help them overcome the Modi factor.

In Satna, the BJP has fielded sitting MP Ganesh Singh despite his loss in the recent Assembly election. His Congress opponent, Siddharth Kushwaha, is an MLA. In adjacent Rewa, Neelam Mishra is taking on sitting BJP MP Janardan Mishra. In the Gwalior region, Phool Singh Baraiya’s personal appeal transcends the Congress’ ideological base. In Bhind, where Baraiya is the candidate, and Morena in the region, Congress candidates are optimistic owing to caste equations and individual popularity. However, while a few surprises are expected in the State, a dramatic turnaround appears unlikely.

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