As Madhya Pradesh votes today in its 230 Assembly constituencies to elect its next government, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress seem set for a more keenly poised contest than thought initially. Riding on the crest of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's "popularity", its president Amit Shah's proven efficiency and skills in turning the most daunting elections into even fights and later victories, and Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan's image and success in turning the state’s agrarian story from stagnancy to success, the BJP seemed confident of retaining the state until as late as six months ago.
Its buoyancy was shored up by the reading that the Congress was still beset with factional rivalries among the top three leaders — Kamal Nath, Digvijaya Singh and Jyotiraditya Scindia — which had cost the party two elections and hindered getting its organisation back in the fighting mode.
The pre-poll trends, in evidence across MP's six different regions, belied the BJP's initial optimism. The acute agrarian distress that has blurred the historical caste identities among farmers, unhappiness among some small and medium manufacturers and traders as a whole from grappling with the complexities caused by demonetisation and the GST regime and a sense of feeling let down among the salaried class by the Centre and state governments’ "tendency" to lean towards populism and win over the poor have been exacerbated by petty corruption. A common complaint heard all over the state was that while the CM's integrity was above board, his ministers and legislators were not above suspicion, not to speak of government employees and elected local bodies' representatives. The alleged rise in small corruption which punched and hurt large sections of the population led people to conclude that the CM was not in control of his administration.
Added to these issues was a belated realisation that the BJP's "winning" team of 15 years had lost its sheen this time. Veteran Anil Dave, the central minister who held the fort during every election, is no more. "He was irreplaceable," rued a source. Central minister Naresh Singh Tomar, another ace in running the organisation, is believed to have distanced himself from the polls. Tomar, a Rajput from the Chambal region, was upset with the blowback among the upper castes from Chouhan's aggressive advocacy of SC/ST reservation in job promotions.
Indore strongman, Kailash Vijayvargiya, trusted as much for getting others elected as ensuring his own victory, was grounded in one Assembly seat from where his son, Akash, is debuting against odds. Sumitra Mahajan, the Lok Sabha Speaker and several-time Indore MP, is focused on seeing three or four of her nominees through. Rakesh Singh, Jabalpur MP and the state BJP president, was dismissed as a "neophyte" who had still to register a presence on Mahakaushal region to which he belonged, let alone the rest of the state. Uma Bharati, the former chief minister who remains a powerful backward-caste leader despite the career reverses she suffered, was pulled out of her nephew's constituency and made to canvass for votes in other places where her caste, the Lodh Rajputs, mattered. She reportedly did it rather reluctantly
After several initial hiccups, the Congress' ruling trio, pressured by party workers who constantly reminded Nath, Scindia and Digvijaya that it was now or never for the Grand Old Party, apparently set aside its differences and heeded the entreaties from the ground. Notably, Digvijaya, who was earlier accused of queering the pitch with his provocative statements, lay low this time and deprived the BJP of a favourite whipping boy.
The BJP strained hard to cloak Nath in communal colours, alleging that he pandered to the minorities, but this aspect of its campaign cut little ice, barring among its hardcore supporters.
Chouhan emerged as the BJP's trump card but the reactions that some of his less than successful schemes provoked in the rural countryside detracted from the capital he had accumulated in the last 12 years.
BJP sources admitted that sensing the "fluctuations" in the popular mood, their ideological parent, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), was not as proactive as in the past. Except when the Congress reportedly threatened to crack the whip on government employees who were Sangh sympathisers if it came to power.
Sources in the Sangh's farmer front, the Bharatiya Kisan Sangh, said they lay low for fear of facings farmers' wrath if they campaigned too hard for the BJP.