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Madhya Pradesh elections are more about the rural-urban divide

This isn’t a ‘normal’ BJP versus Congress battle in a traditional bipolar state. But the question is, ‘will MP 2018 then be a repeat of Gujarat 2017?’

columns Updated: Nov 22, 2018 19:33 IST
Villagers mourn a farmer’s death in the Police firing, Mandsaur, June 2017(Mujeeb Faruqui/ Hindustan Times)

In the age of T20 style elections — instant opinion, shoot and scoot polls and parachute reporting — it is increasingly difficult to confidently predict an Indian election outcome. That Indian elections have become more competitive and are literally fought booth by booth makes predictions even more hazardous. Which is why I would rather not use a whistle-stop journey through Madhya Pradesh’s crucial Malwa-Nimar belt to definitively suggest which way the ‘hawa’ (wind) is blowing across India’s second largest state in terms of area. But there is one big picture conclusion to reflect upon: rarely has the national discourse been so disconnected with ground realities.

In every election speech, Rahul Gandhi goes on about Rafale and how the aircraft deal has exposed corruption at the top in the Narendra Modi government. In every town and village that I travelled, Rafale barely registered in the popular imagination. One person at a bus stand in the sleepy town of Khandwa — legendary singer Kishore Kumar’s place of birth but sadly missing his joyous effervescence now — even asked me if Rafale was a jungle bird! The anecdotal evidence is backed by a recent tracker poll which showed that over 75% of the electorate had not even heard of Rafale.

The BJP leadership, by contrast, has typically raised potentially emotive and polarising issues like Ram Mandir and cow slaughter. On the ground, these issues have little traction. I am sitting outside the revered Mahakaleshwar mandir in the temple town of Ujjain with a gathering of Shiv bhakts (devotees of Lord Shiva), many of them first time voters. “We don’t need more mandirs, gau-shalas (cow shelter homes), or statues. Please ask the government to devote the same resources to reopen our mills and give us jobs,” they tell me in near unison. Ujjain’s mills have been closed for over two decades now.

Indeed, it is not Hindu versus Muslim but a stark urban-rural divide that is shaping the political narrative. In Indore, there are large hoardings to remind you that Malwa’s main city has been voted the cleanest city in the country for two years in a row in the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. ‘Let’s go for a hat trick!’ is the rousing cry here. But 200 kilometres away, in rural Mandsaur, where five farmers were killed last June in police firing, there is a mini riot when we raise the contentious issue of Minimum Support Price. ‘Sab paise trader log kha gaye sir, kisaan ke liye kuch nahi rehta hai! (The traders have gobbled up all the money; there is nothing left for the farmers)’ is the angry response from the farmers.

The anger isn’t directed so much against the chief minister, Shivraj Singh Chouhan, as it is against the local leadership. This might explain why the BJP has dropped as many as 53 MLAs and changed the seats of seven others. Chouhan is an interesting political phenomenon. He has been chief minister for 13 years now , making him one of the longest serving contemporary leaders of a Hindi heartland state. His success formula lies in his genial, low key demeanour. In an age of the muscular strongmen netas, he is a link with a previous, gentler, more accommodative era of a politician with friends on all sides. He is the ‘kisan putra’ (farmer’s son) who isn’t ‘MP ka sher’ (MP’s lion) but a more avuncular, ever smiling Mamaji (maternal uncle).

The Congress’s challenge is to capitalise on the creeping anti incumbency and agrarian distress while also offering a viable alternative to a popular chieftain. It isn’t an easy task for a party which appears to drift from one election to another, its ubiquitous high command culture preventing the rise of a robust worker-driven organisation that can compete with the well-entrenched RSS network in the region. “Congress is a party without a dulha (groom)or sangathan (organisation) in MP,” a sweet shop owner pointedly remarks. It is not an unfamiliar situation for a party whose ancien regime in MP now seeks to coexist with its younger faces in the guise of a concept of collective leadership.

But this isn’t a normal BJP versus Congress battle in a traditional bipolar state. In almost every seat, there are an unusually high number of independents and rebel candidates. In what local observers insist is a ‘kaante ki takkar’ (closely fought)election, the ‘vote katuas’ (vote cutters), some of whom are reportedly sponsored to divide the anti-BJP vote, may yet have a role to play. Will MP 2018 then be a repeat of Gujarat 2017, an election that goes down to the wire?

Post-script: In TV studios, we pitch every election as Modi vs Rahul, almost a presidential style battle, but on the dusty tracks of Malwa, this leadership bout offers less attraction. An auto parts shop owner on the Indore Ujjain highway sums it up. “When after notebandi and then GST, my business suffered, no big leader came to support us. Yeh bas chunaav ke time vote maangne aate hai! (they come only during the elections asking for votes!)” When hope turns to disillusionment, every party should be more wary of making the usual tall promises.

Rajdeep Sardesai is senior journalist and author

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Nov 22, 2018 19:33 IST