Damaged soybean crops and meagre compensation for farmers despite the much-hyped Prime Minister’s crop insurance scheme figure prominently in the complaints of farmers at Chhapri, a picturesque village near Budhni, about 70 km south of Bhopal, which is abuzz with political activity. The Assembly election in Madhya Pradesh is two months away, but the ruling BJP and the opposition Congress have already sounded the election bugle.
In a State where 70 per cent of the population is engaged in farming and allied occupations, both parties have centred their campaigns on economic dole-outs, agrarian issues, and varying degrees of Hindutva relayed in the toxic lexicon of cow-belt politics. A recent sample of this came from Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan, who said, “If the Congress comes to power, Hindu women won’t be able to wear bindi and bangles”.
In the sun-scorched fields of Chhapri, Rajesh Jaat plucks a bunch of rusting soybean pods and cracks them open. Dried, crumbling granules show the devastation wrought by the drought in August. “We get a compensation of roughly Rs.1,200 an acre for damaged crops. The provision is for Rs.32,000 a hectare, but patwaris underestimate the damage, conniving with the higher authorities,” Rajesh said. A good harvest can yield up to 20 quintals of soybean a hectare, but this time it has drastically reduced to between 2.5 and 3 quintals.
Patiram Bhalla, a peasant, said that the government’s minimum support prices are an eyewash. “In 2020-21, jowar [sorghum] crops were weighed at the government mandis for procurement, but 2,500 farmers in Budhni are yet to be paid.” Mukesh Kangal complained that procurement by the government is often delayed, forcing most farmers to sell their produce at throwaway rates to private bidders.
The Congress, which narrowly defeated the BJP in the 2018 election, seizing on farmers’ discontent, is preparing to again capitalise on the rural rumbling. Kamal Nath, who is the party’s face in the State, has envisaged an ambitious “Krishak nyay yojana”. It promises 37 lakh farmers free power for agriculture pumps with a capacity of up to 5 horsepower, the withdrawal of “unjustified” police cases against farmers who participated in various agitations, rebates in power consumption for agricultural purposes, and continuation of the loan waiver scheme. In his public meetings, Kamal Nath calls Chouhan’s government “anti-farmer”, repeatedly reminding voters that “under BJP rule, as many as 20,489 farmers have died by suicide”.
The Congress is also questioning the government’s failure to table the Jain Commission report on the Mandsaur violence in the Assembly. In June 2017, five farmers were killed in police firing in Mandsaur during a farmers’ protest demanding fair prices for crops. This incident and the promise of a loan waiver shaped the party’s meteoric rebound in the 2018 election. It won 114 seats in the 230-member Assembly, up from 58 in 2013, and formed the government.
But in March 2020, Jyotiraditya Scindia jumped ship to join the BJP along with 22 legislators, bringing Chouhan back to power. Chouhan is now the State’s longest-serving Chief Minister, having occupied the office since November 2005, save the 14-month period from December 2018 to March 2020.
BJP battles anti-incumbency
Interactions with a cross-section of the people and with political observers based in Bhopal indicate that it will be an uphill task for Chouhan, given the general fatigue with his long tenure. The BJP, aware of his diminished clout, has avoided projecting him as its chief ministerial face. Its campaign focuses on Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
When Modi visited Bhopal on September 25 to address a jam-packed karyakarta sammelan, he refrained from seeking votes over Chouhan’s work. Instead, he focussed on issues such as women’s reservation and on berating the Congress as a den of “urban naxals”.
In the past two years, Chouhan has taken on a Hindu-hardliner image, upping his majoritarian politics and unleashing the bulldozer purportedly against law-breakers but mostly against Muslims. In April 2022, his government earned notoriety for bulldozing the home of Wasim Ahmed, a disabled man, in Khargone.
As the row over Sanatana Dharma rages, Chouhan is attempting to generate Hindu outrage against the Congress. But the people say their voting patterns are not likely to be governed by ideological bickering.
At Nasrullaganj, which is part of Budhni Assembly constituency, which Chouhan represents, a group of middle-aged men discuss the issues that concern them: soaring prices of essentials, stagnant incomes, and joblessness among the educated young. They agree that “communal experimentations will not find hospitable ground here” and that “this election is all about addressing day-to-day necessities”. “There may be some who approve of bulldozer politics, but people in general do not support targeting the minorities,” said Abdul Azim, a resident.
Unlike in Uttar Pradesh, which in past decades saw successive elections influenced by a sizeable minority community, allowing the BJP to circulate a narrative of Hindu victimhood, it is difficult to polarise the electorate in Madhya Pradesh. The State’s minuscule 6.6 per cent Muslim population finds little courting from even secular parties such as the Congress. In the 2018 election, the BJP fielded only one Muslim candidate and the Congress, three.
The Congress is now unapologetically competing with the BJP in flaunting its Hindu credentials. Kamal Nath commenced his election campaign by paying obeisance to Lord Mahakal at the revered Mahakaleshwar temple in Ujjain, one of the 12 jyotirlingas of Siva. Earlier, in August, when controversial preacher Dhirendra Shashtri of Bageswhar dham organised a katha at Chhindwara, the constituency that Kamal Nath’s son Nakul Nath represents in the Lok Sabha, the former Chief Minister played the amiable host. Asked about Shashtri’s advocacy of a Hindu rashtra, he retorted, “We are already a nation with 82 per cent Hindus…. What is there to claim that we are a Hindu rashtra? The statistics say it all.”.
Muslims in the State are disappointed by the Congress stance, particularly its muted response to Chouhan’s bulldozer politics. Yet, given the bipolar nature of the contest, Muslim votes are unlikely to get divided. Moulvi Aliqadar, nazim of the Nidausafa madrasa in Bhopal, took a realistic view. “They [political parties] all play their cards as per the politics of the day,” he said, grudgingly admitting that “in the post-2001 world order, there has been an organic shift in how people view Muslim victimhood”.
During a conversation with a Kamal Nath confidante at the Congress office in Shivaji Nagar, a posh neighbourhood in central Bhopal, it was evident that the party would not defy the rules of realpolitik. “When the Muzaffarnagar riots took place in Uttar Pradesh in 2013, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh met the victims, and the Congress vocally criticised the BJP’s communal manoeuvres. But ultimately what happened? The BJP grew at the secular parties’ expense. We cannot aid their game,” the confidante said.
- Both the Congress and the BJP are keeping their focus on agrarian issues in Madhya Pradesh where 70 per cent of the population in engaged in agriculture and allied occupations.
- Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s popular appeal is perceived to be diminishing, which is propably why the BJP has not projected him as the chief ministerial face and is harping on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s leadership.
- If defections are any indication of which party has the edge, the Congress definitely scores higher with BJP leaders and cadre from the State joining it in a steady trickle.
Apart from the soft-Hindutva line, economic populism is high on Kamal Nath’s agenda. He has held out the promise of 11 sops in the event of the Congress being voted to power. 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 are the chief among them.
Chouhan responded by announcing that the beneficiaries of the Prime Minister’s Ujjwala Yojana and the Chief Minister’s Ladli Behna Yojana would get one LPG refill at Rs.450 every month. He also increased the incentive under his flagship Ladli Behna to Rs.1,250 from Rs.1,000 a month and promised to spike it to Rs.3,000 if he returns to office.
Yet, opinion is divided on whether Chouhan’s promises will be able to soothe discontented voters upset with the economic meltdown. The State government’s debt burden has risen to nearly Rs 3.5 lakh crore. According to a NITI Aayog report, poverty in Madhya Pradesh is at a staggering 20.63 per cent, worse than Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh.
The politics of freebies has also resulted in a peculiar situation. At Bherunda in Sehore, Laxminarayan Agarwal, who owns a grocery store, said that too many sops had created disgruntlement among those who did not qualify as beneficiaries. “There is a sense of being left out among sections of the poor who are not getting the sops. They are likely to migrate to the Congress. Also, Chouhan’s government has done little for middle-income groups and small-scale businesses, and with a technocrat politician like Kamal Nath, it will not be difficult for the Congress to bring them into its fold.”
Rashid Kidwai, a senior journalist based in Bhopal, agreed that the “sop culture” had its limitations. “Agrarian distress is a reality. Sops might assuage smaller peasants, but farmers who are higher in the economic ladder want better income, and that is not coming,” he pointed out.
General discussions with farmers also mirrored their resentment over the Modi government reneging on its promise of doubling farmers’ income by 2022. Said Ram Niwas Jat, a farmer, “Modi didn’t double our income; it has only got squeezed over the years. Price rise, on the other hand, is unbearable. A sack of urea, which came for Rs.150, now costs Rs. 274.”
Unemployment is widespread. Kiran Dhanware in Chhapri captures the frustration of the educated youth. “She is educated, but she’s picking chillies in the field,” lamented the women labourers gathered around Kiran. Kiran has a master’s degree from Nasrullaganj Government College but ploughs fields as employment opportunities have eluded the hinterland.
Kamala Bai scoffs at the Chief Minister’s flagship pro-women programmes. “I don’t get the Ladli Behna stipend. I get a widow’s pension of merely Rs.600 [a month] and with that money I am looking after four children. I will vote for change,” she said amid a murmur of approval. The Congress’ Jan Aakrosh Yatra, rolled out on September 19, is attempting to amplify these incensed voices to take the wind out of Chouhan’s sails. Kamal Nath has described the yatra as “the loud voice of truth against evil”.
BJP losing leaders and cadre to Congress
If defections are any indicator of which party has the edge, the Congress scores over the BJP, as BJP leaders and office-bearers have been deserting in a steady trickle. On September 20, Bodh Singh Bhagat, a former BJP parliamentarian from Balaghat, joined the Congress. On September 23, BJP leaders Pramod Tandon, Ramkishore Shukla and Dinesh Malhar deserted the BJP. Tandon was a Scindia loyalist who had quit the Congress with him in 2020.
But Kamal Nath’s path is not easy. Chouhan is an astute social engineer, and has a well-oiled, aggressive election machinery at his disposal. To make a mark, the Congress campaign has to be far more energetic than it is now.