As Madhya Pradesh seems headed towards a dead heat in the elections, the Bharatiya Janata Party has pinned considerable hopes on reprieve from the Malwa-Nimar region, spanning the west and the south-west. The swath of land-- home to MP’s industries and a beneficiary from the strides agricultural growth took over the past 10 years or so—houses A-list districts and towns such as Indore, Ujjain, Dewas, Neemuch and parts of Guna but equally has been the epicentre of agrarian distress, epitomised by the killing of farmers in Mandsaur, a hub of opium cultivation and trade, by the police in 2017. Jhabua, peopled largely by the tribals, shares space with well-off Indore but ranks among the districts classified as those with 50 percent higher poverty than the state average by the MP State Planning Commission.
Malwa-Nimar represents some of the pre-voting trends evident in the other parts of MP such as rural distress, restiveness among small manufacturers and traders and despondency among the salaried class, induced by price hikes in the post-GST regime. Traders and professionals seemed particularly irked by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and MP Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s “penchant” for leaning towards populism and gifting away and promising freebies galore. An Ujjain pharmacologist said, “I admired the PM for resisting populist economics when he was the (Gujarat) chief minister. Now it looks as though he’s emulating (the late) Jayalalithaa by taxing the same lot of tax-payers even more with GST and what not and using the earnings from those to help the poor. We do not mind paying higher taxes but the returns must be equitably spread across the economic strata.”
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The difference was that the overall prosperity in parts of Malwa-Nimar has helped absorb the adverse fall-out of GST and demonetisation and partially mitigated the stress that agriculture was subject to after farmers were forced to dispose their huge surplus produce at less than the minimum support price. In the 2013 assembly elections, the BJP won 57 of the 66 seats and in 2014, all the eight Lok Sabha seats in Malwa-Nimar.
Ashok Khandelia, president of Dewas Industries Association, claimed the BJP may stay afloat here because of a perceptible tweak in its electoral strategy. “The party might lose some of the traders’ votes and those of the upper castes because of the strident statements some state leaders made while making out a case for SC/ST reservation in job promotions. But they have consolidated the votes of the poor in the urban and semi-urban areas, cutting across the castes by purveying the message that the poor must stay united. It’s a strange scenario because in the villages in our parts, the rich farmers are happy with the returns they have got. If the returns were less than the MSP, they were promptly compensated by the CM’s Bhavantar Bhugtan Yojana (meant to hedge price risks). In Mandsaur as elsewhere, it’s the sharecroppers who were angry and agitated,” said Khandelia.
Pratap Singh, a Rajput auto-rickshaw owner and driver in Indore, partially bore out Khandelia’s contention. He said, “For a while, I was upset with the CM’s pro-SC/ST attitude. However, his government is also distributing the schemes targeted at the below poverty line category in a fair manner. I am a beneficiary of some and I owe a deep gratitude to Chouhan.” Singh also added that Chouhan’s “good work” must be seen in tandem with PM Modi’s “achievements”. “You can’t separate the state from the Centre because both are ruled by the BJP,” he said.
Indore district has a 74.09 per cent urban population and an average literacy rate of 80.87, according to Census 2011. As many as 94.48 per cent of Indore city’s households have complete access to power and 62.90 per cent of them use mobile phones. Apparently influenced by the debates and discussions, Singh, who is a compulsive watcher of TV news, viewed the macro political picture while discussing the present elections. “Modi has emerged as a tall world leader. He stares down the US. Despite the US sanctions, he said India will import (crude) oil from Iran. Could Manmohan Singh have done it?” he asked.
Manglia, an Indore suburb that is part of Sanwer assembly seat, exemplified how a reasonably secure financial base, cushioned with help from the state’s targeted schemes, can change lives.
As it happened with Manoj Sharma, 24. Sharma, who belongs to the backward caste of Vishwakarma, was an unemployed graduate who borrowed a loan under the Mudra scheme to start a photo-copying unit. He got a bit of help from his family that owns a small piece of land, and earns enough to supplement their earnings and have some disposable income of his own. His monthly electricity bill is a flat Rs 200 under the chief minister’s “Sambal Yojana”, that has proved to be a hit in the cities and small towns where the delivery mechanisms work.
Manglia’s surrogate “sarpanch”, Ram Prakash Awasthi, who fills in for Deepshika, his wife, the elected “sarpanch”, admitted to being “initially disturbed” at the BJP’s pro-Dalit and tribal assertions. “But governance is serious business and the Chouhan government worked for 15 years. You hear people saying we want a change. To them my answer is politics is not a multiplex cinema hall where you have to play a new movie every week to entertain the masses. If a government is functioning well, why change it?” asked Awasthi, a Brahmin.