Byelections that are due in the coming months in 28 Assembly constituencies in Madhya Pradesh will determine the fate of the incumbent Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in the State. The Congress party is leaving no stone unturned to tap into rural distress, farmers’ issues in particular, caused by a general recession and compounded in recent months by the lackadaisical handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s greatest strength is his media management and his distribution of sops. The caste arithmetic has also tilted in his favour, with the Bahujan Samaj Party’s (BSP) entering into a tacit understanding with the BJP. According to the Congress’ election managers, though the party had planned to turn these byelections into an ideological mandate, wherein the electorate would choose between “democracy and the BJP”, given how the Kamal Nath government was felled, it is now forced to brainstorm the caste equations.
The Congress swept the Gwalior-Chambal belt in the 2018 Assembly elections, winning 27 of the 34 constituencies; 16 of them are now up for byelection. A caste-based mobilisation had worked in its favour, given the tremendous insecurities Dalits and tribal people felt, which stemmed from the perception that provisions of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act (S.C./S.T. Act) could be diluted. In March 2018, 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 on to the streets in protest, there were clashes and incidents of violence between them and people belonging to the upper castes.
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. Apparently, a section of the upper-caste vote also moved to the Congress as some people were upset with the Narendra Modi government’s decision to overturn the apex court’s judgment on the S.C./S.T. Act and with Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s aggressive advocacy of reservation. However, with the BSP declaring eight candidates already and expected to announce more shortly, the Congress is worried that a division of the Dalit vote could tilt the election in the BJP’s favour. The eight BSP candidates are former MLA Soneram Kushwaha for Joura, Ramprakash Rajauria for Morena, Bhanupratap Singh Sakhwar for Ambah, Yogesh Meghsingh Narwaria for Mehgaon, Jaswant Patwari for Gohad, Santosh Gaud for Dabra, Kailash Kushwaha for Pohri and Rajendra Jatav for Karera.
The party won seven of these eight seats in the past: Joura in 1993, 1998 and 2008; Morena in 2008; Ambah in 2014; Mehgaon in 1993; Gohad in 1993; Dabra in 1993; and Karera in 2003. In the 2018 Assembly election, the BSP finished second behind the Congress in the Joura and Pohri seats and third behind the Congress and the BJP candidates in the Morena, Gohad, Dabra and Karera seats.
Congress leader Devashish Jarariya minced no words when he accused BSP chief Mayawati of being a BJP proxy “solely tasked with scuppering the Congress’ prospects”. In a conversation with Frontline over the phone, he said: “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 behind Congress candidate 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. This at a time when we were expecting the Kushwaha votes to move en bloc to us.” Jarariya contested from the S.C.-reserved Bhind Lok Sabha constituency in the 2019 general election and finished second to the BJP’s Sandhya Ray.
There are others who feel that the BSP could be problematic for the BJP as well as it would be under tremendous pressure to drop some of the Congress defectors and field candidates from Dalit communities to minimise any consolidation of the S.C./S.T. vote behind the BSP. The BSP has been a formidable player in the region in terms of vote share, though that has not often translated into election victories. According to local scribes, the BSP is influential in at least 12 of the 16 seats in Gwalior-Chambal. Across the region, it has had an 8-13 per cent committed vote share.
The BSP’s presence has proved to be unsettling for the both the principal players. In the Bhander (S.C.) constituency, for example, the Congress has fielded BSP defector Phul Singh Baraiya. There is an overwhelming sense within the BJP that if they field the Congress defector Santram Saroniya, who won the seat in 2018, the caste arithmetic would not work. The Congress is hoping that the BJP will have to deal with internal bickering while it decides whether or not to accommodate all the Congress defectors, and that will dampen its booth-level campaigning. If some sources are to be believed, an influential BJP leader who had enjoyed a monopoly within the organisation in Gwalior-Chambal is “not very enthusiastic” about scripting a stunning election victory for the BJP as that would cement Jyotiraditya Scindia’s position within the party, and threaten his.
Aryan Swadesh Sharma, spokesperson of the Youth Congress in Gwalior, told Frontline that internal friction was the BJP’s greatest obstacle to victory. “How do you expect regional satraps who enjoyed exclusive privileges in terms of decision-making and hand-picking candidates until now to sincerely campaign for the Congress defectors who are, essentially, going to occupy the prominence that hitherto belonged to them?”
According to Sharma, the Congress, on the other hand, has not been much impacted by the departure of Jyotiraditya Scindia and his aides. “Where is the defection? The Congress district president is with us. The Youth Congress president is with us. Our farmers’ body’s chief is with us. Those who toil at the grass roots did not leave the party. Also, it is a myth that the Congress’ sweep in Gwalior-Chambal in 2018 was courtesy of Scindia’s personal charisma. We won because a significant S.C./S.T. vote moved to us. We are confident we will retain it,” he said.
If various sources within the BJP and the Congress are to be believed, the internal surveys both the Congress and the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh undertook predict that Shivraj Singh Chouhan will have to fight hard to remain in power. Apparently, both these surveys showed the Congress as winning 20 to 22 seats. In the 230-strong House, the BJP currently has 107 MLAs, the Congress 88, the BSP 2 and the Samajwadi Party 1. There are four independents.
Both the Congress and the BJP are trying to outdo each other in mobilising voters even as they turn a blind eye to the physical distancing norms in place because of COVID-19. The BJP heralded its electioneering with a mega membership ceremony, held between August 22 and August 24, in which the Congress defectors who joined the party were felicitated. Over the next 20 days, there was a whirlwind of election rallies and public meetings, more than 20 in number and counting. The Congress blew the election bugle on September 9 with a well-attended rally in Kailaras town and Morena district that had a bevy of senior leaders, including Sajjan Verma, Ramniwas Rawat and P.C. Sharma, in attendance.
The Congress hopes to capitalise on the general resentment against the betrayal of the election mandate. “There is a silent constituency of people that is watching the BJP’s heightened arrogance and its assault on democratic norms. There is an undercurrent that will help us return to power,” Jarariya said. He added: “Madhya Pradesh was one of the theatres of the migrant workers’ crisis. We saw how they walked hundreds of kilometres barefoot, without food or water; in some cases pregnant women delivered babies on the road. The police treated them atrociously, while the government looked the other way. The rural rage will undo the BJP’s hubris.”
As seven farmers of the State committed suicide in the first six days of September, former Chief Minister Kamal Nath is highlighting the issues of crop damage due to excessive rainfall and flooding and the failure of the government to pay compensation to the affected farmers. “After Sehore, Niwari, Vidisha and Chhindwara, farmer brothers have committed suicide in Khategaon of Dewas and Bandol of Seoni due to crop damage and lack of compensation. When will the government wake up?” Kamal Nath tweeted. Three of the deceased farmers belonged to Sehore, Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s home town.
The aggressive posturing of the Congress this time is visible in the way it allegedly attempted to disrupt the BJP’s election rallies, in particular those that had Jyotiraditya Scindia in attendance. On September 12, when he took the stage at a rally in Morena, Congress workers created a ruckus, raising the slogan “traitor Scindia go back”. Earlier, on August 22, as he addressed a BJP membership ceremony, thousands of Congress workers took to the streets of Gwalior and Chambal with black flags. Jyotiraditya Scindia has been scathing about Kamal Nath. At the Morena rally, he accused him of betraying the people of the State and not keeping the promises made to farmers. “If anyone has betrayed people, it is Kamal Nath and Digvijaya Singh, who did not waive the loans of farmers even in 15 months. They left behind a loan of Rs.8,000 crore for the Shivraj Singh government,” he said.
Shivraj Singh Chouhan is attempting a massive damage-control exercise through the announcement of generous incentives, including the following: 1.75 lakh beneficiaries of the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana will be given the keys to their new homes; rations will be distributed to 37 lakh poor people who were hitherto not eligible to receive them; and Rs.4,600 crore has been earmarked to settle the crop insurance claims of nearly 20 lakh farmers. On September 23, the State government will deposit Rs.800 crore in cooperative banks to enable them to give farmers interest-free loans. The government has further earmarked Rs.150 crore for self-help groups and Rs.100 crore towards crop insurance and horticulture crops, and it will also distribute money to students so that they can buy laptops. Besides, it plans to give forest land to eligible tribal people.
Among the other factors that are working for the BJP is its disproportionate money power. Congress insiders rue the fact that every BJP candidate is expected to spend three to four times more than what their counterparts would spend. There is speculation that every Congress defector who switched over to the BJP was given Rs.35 crore. Also working for the BJP is the presence of a few heavyweights among the Congress defectors such as Imarti Devi (Dabra), Pradhuman Singh Tomar (Gwalior) and Aidal Singh Kansana (Sumawali), who are likely to retain their seats. Union and State Ministers hailing from Gwalior-Chambal—such as Narendra Singh Tomar (Union Minister for Rural Development), Arvind Singh Bhadoria (State Cabinet Minister) and O.P.S. Bhadoria (State Minister)—are also helping the BJP. The Congress still seems to have an edge in these byelections, though a sweep is needed to script a return of the Kamal Nath government.