IN Madhya Pradesh, erstwhile Chief Minister Kamal Nath’s hope of returning to power were dashed on November 10 as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) registered a convincing victory, clinching 19 of the 28 Assembly seats where byelections were held. The Congress won nine seats, while the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), which contested all 28 seats, was unable to win in any constituency.
The results were a shocker for the Congress. The party had been confident that the impact of the farmers’ agitation across the country, the COVID-19 mismanagement by both the Central and State governments, and the economic meltdown resulting in large-scale job losses would return it to power.
Before the byelections, the Congress had 87 and the BJP 107 seats in the State’s 230-member Assembly. The byelections were necessitated after the saffron party stole the mandate in March by effecting a defection in the Congress: Jyotiraditya Scindia switched over to the BJP from the Congress along with 22 Members of the Legislative Assembly. Subsequently, two more Congress legislators resigned. Three seats fell vacant following the death of two Congress MLAs and one BJP MLA. The Congress’ strength has now increased to 96 in the Assembly, but it is still a distant second to the BJP’s 126.
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Former Chief Minister Kamal Nath centred the byelection campaign on the government’s mismanagement of the pandemic and the BJP’s betrayal of the people’s mandate. Some analysts say the strategy did not work because the caste arithmetic gave an edge to the BJP. As the counting progressed, Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan said it was clear that the people of the State appreciated his government’s work on development and welfare. After the results were announced late on November 10 night, he said on Twitter that this was the “victory of development, social justice, and democracy”.
Jyotiraditya Scindia, who so far has not been given any ministerial berth at the Centre and whose fate in the BJP was the subject of immense speculation in the past few months, made TV appearances and took potshots at Kamal Nath. He accused Kamal Nath of not respecting the mandate given to the Congress by the people in November 2018 Assembly election and of putting his own interests above those of farmers.
The Congress’ Digvijaya Singh and Kamal Nath have been berating Jyotiraditya Scindia as a “traitor”. On the continued personal attacks on him, he said: “I have nothing to say to them because the people of Madhya Pradesh have told them quite a lot by this verdict.” He also said: It is very clear that if there are any traitors in Madhya Pradesh, the people of Madhya Pradesh deem Mr Digvijaya Singh and Mr Kamal Nath, the duo, as the biggest traitors of Madhya Pradesh and that is quite apparent in the verdict that has come out in this election. The people have spoken.”
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The Congress had put up a spirited campaign in the Gwalior-Chambal belt, where 16 seats were up for byelection. It blew the election bugle on September 9 with a well-attended rally in Kailaras town in Morena. A bevy of senior leaders, including Sajjan Verma, Ramniwas Rawat and P.C. Sharma, were present.
The perception in the Congress was that there was a silent constituency of people who were averse to the BJP’s assault on democratic norms earlier in the year. It hoped to capitalise on what it saw as a general resentment against the betrayal of the election mandate.
The Congress had also expected the rural vote to go against the BJP. Madhya Pradesh was one of the theatres of the migrant workers’ crisis, with workers walking hundreds of kilometres barefoot, without food or water. Indeed, in terms of vote share, the contest was not one-sided. The BJP polled 49.46 per cent of the votes, but the Congress also clocked an impressive 40.5 per cent. The BJP’s vote share was boosted by the support base of Jyotiraditya Scindia, who has a firm hold in the Gwalior-Chambal region. The Congress, on the other hand, faced a division of the Dalit votes with the BSP putting up candidates in every constituency.
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While the BSP may not have won any seat, it polled a crucial 5.75 per cent of the votes and tipped the scale against the Congress in a region known for its intricate caste matrix. The Congress swept the Gwalior-Chambal belt in the 2018 Assembly election, winning 27 of its 34 constituencies. Byelections were held in 16 of them, and the Congress won seven seats. A caste-based mobilisation by playing on the fears of Dalits and tribal people over the altered provisions of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act worked in its favour in 2018. In March that year , the Supreme Court ruled that there was no absolute bar on grant of anticipatory bail in cases under the Act where the complaint was found to be prima facie mala fide. As members of the S.C. and S.T. communities poured out on the streets in protest, there were clashes between Dalits and upper-caste mobs. Against this backdrop, the Congress was able to cement its hold on the S.C. and S.T. vote at the expense of the BSP.
The BSP factor
This time, however, the party was wary of the BSP cutting into its Dalit vote. In a conversation with Frontline during the byelection campaign, Congress leader Devashish Jarariya accused BSP chief Mayawati of being a BJP proxy “solely tasked with scuppering the Congress’ prospects”. “The BSP is acting as a vassal of the BJP in Madhya Pradesh, and the choice of its candidates also demonstrates that. Take for example the case of the Joura constituency. BSP candidate Maneeram Dhakad finished second after the Congress’ Banwarilal Sharma in 2018. The constituency has a 35,000-strong Dhakad or Kerar community, to which Shivraj Singh Chouhan also belongs. In order not to divide the BJP’s Kerar votes, the BSP dropped him and fielded Soneram Kushwaha,” he said.
After the results were announced, there was speculation within the Congress of foul play involving electronic voting machines (EVMs). Digvijaya Singh went public with the accusation: “What is the reason that today no developed nation votes through EVMs? Today the presidential election in the U.S. has not concluded yet because in some States there has been fake counting. Whatever has a chip is not tamper-proof, and this I have been saying from the beginning. They do this in a selective manner.”
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He described the election results as a victory of the BJP’s disproportionate financial capacity. “I had said that the byelection has been between ‘loktantra’ [democracy] and ‘note-tantra’ [money], between people and administration. Democracy lost, money won. But people are with us even now,” he said.
In a conversation with Frontline, the Congress’ State spokesperson Abbas Hafeez Khan described the results as positive, pointing to the party’s respectable vote share. “There was a perception that we would be decimated in Gwalior-Chambal after [Jyotiraditya] Scindia’s foray into the BJP. But clearly we have retained a major hold in the region and all across the State. So, either Scindia could not transfer his votes to the BJP, or the BJP lost a chunk of its votes to the Congress, which would be affirmation of anti-incumbency against Shivraj Singh Chouhan. That is for Chouhan and Scindia to decide, however.” He further pointed out that despite the BSP acting as the BJP’s “B team” and securing between 10,000 and 20,000 votes in the Gwalior-Chambal region, the Congress won seven seats there. He said this was phenomenal.
The BJP’s Pankaj Chaturvedi, a close aide of Jyotiraditya Scindia who jumped ship along with him in March, did not agree. He pointed out that whereas in 2018 the Congress’ strike rate in the Gwalior-Chambal region was 80 per cent, this time the party could manage to win only seven of the 16 seats that went to polls.
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“The Congress is unable to digest its defeat. From a sweep in Gwalior-Chambal it has been reduced to a distant second player,” he said. Asked who he would like to credit for the BJP’s comfortable win in the byelections, he said “the elections were fought collectively under the leadership of Narendra Modi and Shivraj Singh Chouhan” while “Jyotiraditya Scindia, Narendra Singh Tomar [BJP satrap from Gwalior-Chambal] and the cadre of the party worked tirelessly” to win the race.
Congress leaders feel that internal bickering between some of its local leaders cost the party four or five seats. They were however reluctant to name the constituencies.