THE opposition Congress in Madhya Pradesh is of the view that the Shivraj Singh Chouhan government is delaying the conduct of local body and panchayat elections fearing a major electoral upset. Congress leaders alleged that the government was using the pandemic as a cover to defer the elections as a combination of factors, including rural discontent against the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and skyrocketing prices, were not favourable to it.
The local body and three-tier panchayat elections in Madhya Pradesh were expected to be concluded by December 2020, but in December, the State Election Commission deferred them to March 2021, citing the prevailing situation on account of the COVID-19 pandemic.
On December 26, Arun Parmar, Deputy Secretary of the State Election Commission, said that in view of the public health situation, the deferred elections would be conducted after February as government departments had not completed preparations. He said: “After analysing the condition of COVID-19 cases in Madhya Pradesh, the Commission has decided to defer the elections to eight municipal corporations and 407 municipalities, which were slated to be held between January and February 2021, and the three-tier panchayat elections, which were slated to be held from December 2020 to February 2021.”
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While elections to local bodies in Jammu and Kashmir, Hyderabad and Rajasthan and the Bihar Assembly were held during the pandemic last year, the date for the local body election in Haryana has been declared. The Congress cites these cases to add substance to its allegation that the Shivraj Singh Chouhan dispensation is exploiting the pandemic situation to claim lack of preparedness as an excuse to hold elections, and this was being endorsed by the Commission without scrutiny.
Abbas Hafeez Khan, Congress’ spokesperson, said the party had initiated several innovative administrative measures during Kamal Nath’s 15-month stint (from December 2018 to March 2020) in power. “In a number of panchayats people benefited from our farm loan waiver. Farmers of the State may not be seen on the roads, protesting aggressively against the BJP’s corporatisation of the agrarain sector, but there is noticeable anti-BJP sentiment among them. The BJP has realised this and hence it is trying its best to delay the local body election until after the April/May Assembly elections in four States and one Union Territory.”
Abbas Hafeez said the Congress government had brought out master plans for 17 cities. This was in addition to 35 master plans that were in the pipeline when the Kamal Nath government fell after Jyotiraditya Scindia left the party along with 22 MLAs. “We came out with a 234-kilometre-drinking water pipeline in just 15 months. Bhopal saw its first master plan in two decades, the last one was in 2003 under Congress Chief Minister Digvijaya Singh. The Congress’ performance in the Assembly byelections in November last year may have been disappointing [the Congress won nine of the 28 seats and the BJP 19], but in the past three months of the farmers’ agitation, things have changed drastically on the ground,” he claimed.
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Political observers are of the opinion that the BJP may have to do a lot of leg work to regain its hold in the hinterland, given the ongoing farmers’ agitation which is being watched keenly by the State’s disadvantaged sections. The agrarian community has a sizeable presence in the Malwa-Nimar region. It suits the BJP to defer the elections for two reasons. One, any adverse outcome in the local elections in Madhya Pradesh will illustrate that the farmers agitation at Delhi’s borders is developing into an anti-BJP sentiment across the country, a perception the BJP is attempting to scupper. Two, such an outcome will in some way affect the people’s enthusiasm to vote for the BJP in election-bound States, in particular West Bengal where the party is banking on a unidimensional media narrative projecting it as the direct challenger to the Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress regime.
Apart from these calculations, the BJP is constrained by the fact that several senior leaders from the State have been deputed in West Bengal and other States to oversee the party’s campaign. Top leaders such as Suhas Bhagat, Kailash Vijayvargiya, Narottam Mishra, Prahlad Patel and Vishwas Sarang are stationed in West Bengal. The BJP central leadership has asked Shivraj Singh Chouhan to visit West Bengal and oversee the preparations. With the absence of senior leaders from the field, the BJP cannot be sure of repeating its good show in the byelections.
On February 26, the High Court took note of the inordinate delay in holding the civic and panchayat elections. “As the State government as well as the Election Commission had reached a consensus on the issue, the process should be expedited,” the Indore bench of the High Court said in an order. A division bench of Justices Sujay Paul and Shailendra Shukla disposed of petitions filed by Bharat Parakh, former corporator from Indore, and Tolaram Gamad from Dhar district, who had stated that delaying the elections constituted a violation of the constitutional provisions. The bench said: “It is agreed that these writ petitions may be disposed of by directing the respondents to expedite the process of election of municipal bodies and Panchayats… and hold the elections as early as possible.”
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While the Congress is hopeful of regaining its position with a good show in the local body elections, its faces monumental challenges. With Jyotiraditya Scindia joining the BJP, the Congress has the daunting task of building the party in the electorally significant Gwalior-Chambal region and containing the tussle among a host of second-generation leaders who are aiming at important positions in the State leadership that Kamal Nath now helms.
A source in the Congress said: “Though there is consensus that Kamal Nath will be the party’s face in the 2023 Assembly elections, several senior leaders are competing to emerge as the second most powerful face within the party. This has exposed the power tussle and factionalism in the party, which are primarily responsible for our defeat in successive elections in the State.”
According to the source, Jitu Patwari, Arun Yadav and Umang Singh are among the leaders who are engaged in the power tussle. Jitu Patwari and Arun Yadav are influential in the Malwa and Nimar regions respectively and Umang Singh has a sizeable following in Dhar and other tribal belts of the State.
Adding to the challenge is the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) leader Asaduddin Owaisi’s foray into the State. His party’s presence could fragment the Congress’ exclusive hold over the Muslim votes. The AIMIM has been dropping hints that it will contest the 2023 Assembly election in the State. If that happens, there could be a repeat of what happened in Bihar where the AIMIM wrested five seats from the Congress in the Seemanchal region.
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The AIMIM is exploring the possibility of contesting the civic body elections in Madhya Pradesh, Dr Naeem Ansari, acting president of the party’s State unit, had told a news agency in December.
“We are exploring the possibility of contesting the civic elections in Indore, Bhopal, Ujjain, Khandwa, Sagar, Burhanpur, Khargone, Ratlam, Jaora, Jabalpur, Balaghat and Mandsaur,” he said, adding that the party will present itself as a credible alternative to the BJP-Congress binary in the State. “The people of the State are fed up with the Congress and the BJP because of their caste-based politics and decline in basic services such as health and education, and are looking for a third option,” he stated.
How the Congress plans to grapple with this challenge and retain its Muslim consolidation in a State where it has manifestly moved towards soft-Hindutva politics remains to be seen.