The BJP appeared headed for a crushing defeat on Tuesday in the high-stakes by-elections for Madhya Pradesh’s Ratlam-Jhabua Lok Sabha seat in an electoral battle billed as a test for the ruling party’s popularity in a region ravaged by farm crisis.
Congress candidate and former Union minister Kantilal Bhuria had a massive lead of over 80,000 votes in the tribal-dominated seat, upsetting the saffron party’s calculations pinned on a sympathy wave for its candidate Nirmala Bhuria, whose father and sitting MP Dileep Singh Bhuria died recently.
A Congress victory in Ratlam will be seen seen as a shot in the arm for the ailing party that has been out of power in the state for over a decade now and an embarrassment for chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan, who led the BJP campaign from the front.
The Lok Sabha constituency includes the Petlawad region that saw a devastating explosion triggered by mining explosives that killed over 100 people in September this year.
The BJP also retained the Dewas assembly seat, where its candidate Gayatri Raje Puar won by over 30,000 votes.
A win will also mark a comeback for the Congress that had been defeated in its traditional stronghold after three decades in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.
The Ratlam-Jhabua seat turned into an electoral battlezone after Chouhan camped in the constituency for about a week and deputed a dozen ministers for mobilising party workers and convincing voters.
Observers said the election was fought mainly on development issues with local residents demanding a railway line and a proposed industrial corridor that has been shifted out of the region.
A defeat may also dent the image of three-term CM Chouhan, who is already battling the fall out of the multi-crore Vyapam examination and recruitment scandal. Several witnesses and people connected to the scam have died under mysterious circumstances in recent month, triggering charges that powerful politicians with connections to the government were behind the incident.