Madhya Pradesh is the most crucial among the five states going to the polls
Madhya Pradesh matters. It matters because it is one of the largest states in India in terms of both demographics and size. It matters because it sends 29 members to the Lok Sabha. It matters because of its geographic centrality. It matters because it is a microcosm of Indian diversity, with a range of caste groups, tribals and Muslims. And it matters because development indicators in the state shape development indicators nationally. But the MP election is crucial not just because of these features. It is arguably the most closely fought and the most interesting election among the five states going to polls. As the battle in the heart of India gets underway today, it will not only reveal the preferences of the state’s voters and issues that concern them, but also shape the future trajectories of both national parties.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has been in power for 15 years, with Shivraj Singh Chouhan, a popular chief minister, making tangible improvements in governance. But the party now faces triple anti-incumbency — since it has a majority of the legislators, and is in power in both the state and the Centre. Being in power gives a party an advantage in terms of resources and patronage networks. But it also breeds resentment for no party can fulfil all aspirations and tackle local contradictions in a diverse and unequal society with high aspirations. This election will be a test of resilience of the BJP’s national and state leadership and its organisational machine. If the BJP is able to win again, it will reinforce the political hegemony of the party in the state; it will bolster Mr Chouhan’s credibility and stature; it will boost the BJP’s chances in the state in the Lok Sabha polls; and it will show that the party still has a multi-caste and multi-class alliance.
The stakes could not be higher for the Congress. It is not easy to forget how MP used to be a Congress bastion. Except for three short interludes — in the late 1960s, post Emergency, and the early 1990s — the state has always been ruled by the Congress. But out of power for 15 years, the party has been a shadow of its past. In this election, the Congress has sought to smoothen over its factional differences. It has mounted a robust campaign centred around the agrarian failures of the Chouhan government and economic mismanagement of the Central government. It has also been tactically careful and reached out to various segments of Hindu voters besides consolidating its older constituencies. But whether the Congress is able to bridge the huge gap — it got 58 seats compared to the BJP’s 165 in the last election — is still to be seen. A respectable defeat may make the polity more competitive but will not be enough. If the Congress wins, it will bolster Rahul Gandhi’s reputation as a leader; it will show the party’s ability to take on and defeat the BJP in a straight contest; and it will enhance its bargaining capacity with regional parties and help generate momentum and morale for 2019.