In Madhya Pradesh, a tight contest between BJP and Congress

Farmers’ issues, corruption, and pro-women schemes take centre stage as the Assembly election records over 71 per cent polling.

Published : Nov 17, 2023 19:35 IST - 6 MINS READ

A first-time voter shows her inked finger after casting vote for the Madhya Pradesh Assembly election in Bhopal on November 17.

A first-time voter shows her inked finger after casting vote for the Madhya Pradesh Assembly election in Bhopal on November 17. | Photo Credit: FARUQUI AM

Madhya Pradesh’s 5.6 crore electorate cast their ballots today to decide the fate of 2,533 candidates vying for 230 Assembly seats, with farmers’ issues, corruption, and pro-women schemes taking centre stage. More than 71 per cent turnout (5 pm) was recorded in today’s elections. Despite a section of the media, including social media, predicting an easy Congress victory, reports from the ground indicate a tight contest. This is largely attributed to Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s enhanced “Ladli Behna” financial support scheme, which appears to have resonated with rural women.

Anita Lakhera, president of the BJP’s women’s wing in Sehore district, expressed confidence that Chouhan would receive consolidated women’s votes, calling it a “game-changer”. While this may be an optimistic assessment from a loyal party worker, there is no doubt that Chouhan is a shrewd strategist and his image as a “farmer’s son” has helped mitigate anti-incumbency against his party.

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The Congress’s performance in the tribal-dominated Vindhya region will be crucial in determining whether it secures a majority or falls short, as it did in the 2018 elections when it won 114 seats, two short of the majority mark. The Congress had fared poorly in Vindhya in 2018, winning only six of its 30 seats. The party is hoping to reverse this trend and is highlighting incidents of atrocities against tribals witnessed in recent times. In his campaign speeches, Kamal Nath, the Congress’s chief ministerial candidate, has repeatedly asserted that the grand old party is the natural home for tribal voters.

The Congress has also placed a strong focus on farmers and pressing agrarian issues. In 2018, the Congress briefly came to power, winning 114 seats against the BJP’s 108. To capitalise on rural discontent stemming from declining farmers’ incomes and soybean crop devastation, the party has promised an ambitious Krishak Nyay Yojana scheme that would provide free electricity for agricultural pumps up to 5 horsepower to 37 lakh farmers, along with other benefits. Kamal Nath has also pledged to withdraw “unjustified” police cases against farmers who participated in various agitations if elected. In his public meetings, he has described Chouhan’s government as “anti-farmer”.

However, it is uncertain whether farmers will vote as decisively for the Congress this time as they did in 2018, reducing the BJP’s tally in the Malwa-Nimar farm belts (which has 66 seats) to 28 from 56 in 2013. The Congress had grown from nine to 35 seats in these regions. Gaurav Chandra, a Bhopal-based journalist, pointed out that the 2018 elections were held when the Mandsaur police firing was still fresh in farmers’ minds, and the Congress’s loan waiver promise proved to be a powerful magnet for their votes. (In June 2017 five farmers were killed in police firing in Mandsaur during a farmers’ protest demanding fair prices for crops.)

Security personnel stand guard after bullets were fired and bombs were hurled following a clash between two groups in Jabalpur  on November 17

Security personnel stand guard after bullets were fired and bombs were hurled following a clash between two groups in Jabalpur on November 17 | Photo Credit: ANI

This time, the BJP has been somewhat successful in circulating the narrative that the Kamal Nath government, which was in power for 15 months from December 2018 to March 2020, backtracked on its promise to waive off farm loans.

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Responding to these allegations, Kamal Nath clarified in a recent interview that the BJP was spreading misinformation. “As soon as we formed the government in 2018, we wrote off farmers’ loans,” he stated. “Even the Shivraj government acknowledged in the State legislature that the previous Congress government had waived loans for 27 lakh farmers”.

However, interactions with members of the farming community suggest that while the Congress may hold an advantage in the Nimar region, the BJP has done damage-control in Malwa. Chandra remarked, “Farmers’ discontent is still present, but it’s not as strong as it was in 2018. It will be challenging for the Congress to replicate its success in the farm belts.”

The Congress is confident of sweeping the Vindhya region. This is imperative for the party if it is to secure a clear majority, especially given that Chouhan’s exhortations to women voters are likely to bear fruit, and his party is expected to touch the 100-seat mark. Kamal Nath has been highlighting cases of atrocities on tribal people witnessed in recent months, as well as the fact that the accused were directly or indirectly linked to the BJP.

In July, a viral video showed a BJP legislator’s aide urinating on a tribal man in Sidhi district. Prior to that, a young tribal woman and five of her family members were buried alive in Nemawar, and in Neemuch, a tribal man died after being dragged by a vehicle tied to a rope. In his Frontline interview, Kamal Nath emphasised that “in all these incidents, the prime accused was either a BJP leader or someone affiliated with the party.” While the Congress won only six seats in Vindhya in the 2018 elections, this time it is expected to secure 16-20 seats.

Chouhan, known for his economic populism, has been ramping up welfare schemes in the lead-up to the polls. He increased the incentive under his flagship Ladli Behna scheme from Rs. 1,000 to Rs. 1,250 per month and promised to further raise it to Rs. 3,000 if re-elected. He also announced that beneficiaries of the Prime Minister’s Ujjwala Yojana and the Chief Minister’s Ladli Behna Yojana would receive one LPG refill at Rs. 450 every month.

Anoop Dubaulia, a Bhopal-based political observer, feels that these sops have the effect of a tranquilliser on the otherwise enraged rural households. “The BJP’s situation was too bad and it was expected to finish its run with 80-85 seats, but in the past six weeks, the rural population, particularly women, has responded well to Chouhan’s dole-out politics,” Dubaulia said over the phone from Bhopal.

Voters show their inked finger after they cast votes in the Madhya Pradesh Assembly Election in Bhopal.

Voters show their inked finger after they cast votes in the Madhya Pradesh Assembly Election in Bhopal. | Photo Credit: FARUQUI AM

Yet, the BJP has been unable to build a commanding narrative against the Congress and has merely been repeating accusations of “dynasty politics”. On the last day of campaigning on November 14, Prime Minister Narendra Modi took to social media to appeal to voters in Madhya Pradesh to elect the BJP for the State’s development. He also tweeted that “In the rallies, I also saw how angry the people of Madhya Pradesh are with the dynastic politics and negativity of the Congress. Congress has no vision, no roadmap for the development of Madhya Pradesh.”

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Throughout the electioneering, Kamal Nath attempted to entice voters with a list of promises: A monthly incentive of Rs. 1,500 for women, LPG cylinders at Rs. 500, free electricity up to 100 units, restoration of the old pension scheme for government employees, and 27 per cent reservation in educational institutions and government jobs for Other Backward Classes. But rural rage seems to be somewhat assuaged, as Chouhan is already doling out the sops, whereas Kamal Nath’s assurances are, as a college student from Bhopal described it, a “promissory note.”

Yet, promises of an old pension scheme for public sector employees, minimum support prices for farmers, and electricity bill rebates will likely ensure a Congress edge but not an emphatic win. Despite PM Modi and the BJP trying to put Chouhan in a corner (he is not even the official Chief Minister candidate of the BJP), he remains the party’s undoubted leading face in the State. That attests to his capacity to deliver against the odds. It is more likely that he has made this election a neck-and-neck contest with the Congress.

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