Shivraj Singh Chouhan is the pivotal leader in this election — he is BJP’s biggest asset in Madhya Pradesh but is also weighing the party down.
Gwalior/Bhopal/Indore: For the rest of the country, he is Shivraj Singh Chouhan. But for Madhya Pradesh, he is Mamaji — a term of endearment, a reflection of familial connect. And yet, Mamaji, the three-term chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, is facing a near trial-by-fire election, with enough and more stacked against him and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government.
It isn’t, however, as if the BJP in Madhya Pradesh has nothing going for it. There are pertinent factors at play that do work in its favour, despite a decade-and-a-half rule.
But unlike the other state elections the BJP has aced recently — most notably in Assam, Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat and Tripura — riding on the popularity of its central leadership and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the Madhya Pradesh polls has only one leader as its pivot, Chouhan.
Chouhan is BJP’s biggest asset in the 28 November election, and yet, paradoxically, is also weighing the party down.
In an election fraught with unpredictability, whether Chouhan and the BJP succeed in ensuring that their advantages eventually outweigh the disadvantages will determine their fate at the hustings.
In BJP’s favour
The Chief Minister
Chouhan himself is a point of strength for the BJP. Despite a 15-year anti-incumbency sentiment, what stands out is fatigue, a desire for change or even disappointment among voters, but not anger. To have run a regime for that long and yet not be disliked, leave alone hated, is no mean feat for Chouhan.
Contrast this with the sky-high unpopularity of Rajasthan Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje, within just five years of being in power.
Sure, there is disillusionment and boredom, but very few voters — including those who call for change — have a biting take on Chouhan or his government. Most blame the lower level officials for not having delivered, and not Chouhan’s leadership.
His schemes for women — notably the Ladli Laxmi Yojana, distribution of cycles to girls, and the Kanya Vivah Scheme — his success in improving basic infrastructure like electricity, roads and water supply as well as his grounded demeanour have meant he continues to enjoy a degree of popularity and affection among voters.
The voter hostility and revulsion that can confront a 15-year ruler is barely there, giving Chouhan and BJP the biggest advantage a long-time incumbent can have in a close election.
The BJP’s biggest advantage during an election is its widespread, deep and well-oiled organisation, coupled with the reach of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Madhya Pradesh is no different. The BJP is using its organisation structure to the hilt, ensuring no voter goes untapped.
The BJP has a zila adhyaksh (district president), followed by mandal presidents in both rural and urban areas. The mandal presidents are assisted by paalaks and sanyojaks — each of whom is responsible for a cluster of around 10 booths.
The booth prabhari and sah-prabhari, in turn, are given a list of around 10-15 people whom they have to regularly be in touch with. Then there are the panna pramukhs — in-charge of each page in the voters list — and vistaraks, who have a critical last-mile role to play.
The vulnerabilities of Congress
In a largely bipolar, and evenly fought election, each vulnerability of the opponent can be a huge plus point. The Congress, BJP’s arch rival in the state, has its own raw nerves that can help the ruling party stay in the game.
The absence of a statewide popular leader to match Chouhan and no declared Chief Ministerial face means the BJP succeeds in making this election a “Chouhan versus whom” question. And the voter is well aware of this uncertainty the Congress brings, particularly in the absence of a well-liked pan-state face that can dent Mamaji‘s advantage.
The leadership question is particularly important given the continuing anti-incumbency sentiment against former Chief Minister and Congress leader Digvijaya Singh, even 15 years after he lost power. This Digvijaya Singh versus Chouhan regime comparison isn’t something the BJP shies away from using in its campaign and voter memory still holds flashes of the 10-year Congress rule.
Besides, the absence of a tentacled organisation, a weak national leadership as against BJP’s Modi card and a directionless peddling of soft-Hindutva are some weak points of the Congress that the BJP will hope to exploit.
The Chief Minister, again
If Chouhan is a huge asset, he is also a problem area. The fact that this election is centred around him means the BJP is unable to sell the Modi card and use it to make any substantial difference to its votes.
The PM remains extremely popular — something that might benefit BJP in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. But Chouhan’s dominance as a regional leader means Modi has to take a backseat in the election, and at best, play enabler instead of the determinant.
Moreover, the scams that have surrounded him and his wife Sadhna Singh Chouhan mean that his “clean image” also stands dented, as whispers of nepotism and corruption do the rounds.
Cry for ‘badlaav‘
This election has one pervasive buzzword — ‘badlaav’ or change. The voter is bored. The voter is tired. The voter wants a change. From the youth to the older voters, farmers to tribals, urban to rural areas, badlaav is an oft-repeated word.
The massive badlaav narrative is something the BJP ought to be deeply concerned about, with the Congress waiting in the wings to provide that fresh alternative to the voter. Some voters even go to the extent of saying they don’t mind a BJP government again but want a fresh CM face.
If this sentiment for change continues to become the most overpowering one in this election, the BJP will have a very tough task at hand.
The farmer in Madhya Pradesh is agitated. In June 2017, a farmers’ protest demanding higher crop prices and debt relief turned violent in Mandsaur as the police opened fire, killing five farmers. The anger among farmers since then seems to continue unabated, with the community blaming the BJP government for its plight.
The Bhavantar Bhugtan Yojana, which was launched with the promise to provide a cushion to farmers in case of crashing prices and with which the BJP hoped to contain its electoral reverses, hardly seems to have helped.
The BJP’s big worry is that a significant section of the farming community might go with the Congress, taking away what, ironically, has been Chouhan’s strength in the state.
A disappointed business community
The business and trading community has been BJP’s core vote base, significantly responsible for its ascent in politics. Following the Modi government’s policies like demonetisation and the rollout of the Goods and Services Tax (GST), this section has been unhappy.
In Madhya Pradesh, the community is split, with many unhappy with the BJP. The absence of absolute support from this crucial vote base could seriously damage the BJP. Ironically, the community seems unhappy with Chouhan, but not Modi — a paradox the BJP would be scratching its head over considering the anger is with the Centre’s policies.
The irony in the business community’s anger with Chouhan is what in some ways defines this election. A voter who is bored and irritated with the incumbent, finding reasons to vote it out, which may perhaps even be beyond the control of whom they are angry with.
The question, therefore, is if the BJP will be able to calm this voter down, temper the negative mood, give that final push and swing the election to see the lotus bloom in the state for a fourth straight time.
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