From farm to caste, the issues that matter in the 2018 Madhya Pradesh elections
A group of protestors turned up at the Gwalior residence of Union minister Narendra Singh Tomar on September 2 and raised slogans against a central ordinance to restore provisions of the Scheduled Castes And Scheduled Tribes (Prevention Of Atrocities) Act, that had been struck down by the Supreme Court on March 20.
Madhya Pradesh minister Maya Singh confronted a separate group of protestors during a programme on the campus of Jiwaji University in the same city. Union ministers Thawar Chand Gehlot and MJ Akbar, too, were shown black flags in Guna and Vidisha, respectively. Eighteen days later, chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan sent out a tweet, “There will be no misuse of SC/ST act in Madhya Pradesh, no arrest without probe.”
A senior minister in Delhi said, “There is a sense of unease among upper castes. It is natural for any chief minister to address the issue when election is round the corner.”The amended law restored the power of police to immediately arrest a person committing an offence under the law and denied anticipatory bail to a person accused of such an offence.
A rough estimate pegs the proportion of the upper caste population in Madhya Pradesh at 22% — a size large enough to upset poll calculations of the BJP and the Congress.
The mobilisation of upper caste government workers started in Madhya Pradesh after Chouhan attended a conference of AJAKS — an umbrella organisation of SC/ST employees — in June 2016 and declared “koi mai ka lal aarakshan khatm nahi kar sakta” (no one dare end reservation). The state government subsequently challenged, in the Supreme Court, a Jabalpur high court order against reservation in promotion. It led to formation of SAPAKS — an organisation of employees from the general, other backward classes (OBCs) and minority communities.
The SCs and STs account for about 36% of Madhya Pradesh’s population. The BJP won 28 out of 35 assembly constituencies reserved for SCs, and 31 out of 47 seats reserved for the STs in 2013.
“The SC and ST population realises that the Congress failed to do justice to them,” BJP’s Rajya Sabha MP Prabhat Jha said. “The upper castes too know that only BJP can protect their interest.” Jha’s confidence notwithstanding, the party is worried about the political fallout of the controversy. “Whether this issue will inflict damage or not, we do not know. It certainly is not going to help our case,” a BJP MP from the state said, requesting that he not be identified. “The issue has blown up at a wrong time.”
Chouhan is conscious of the problem. He is on a whirlwind tour of the state, and in most of his public meetings, he doesn’t forget to mention that Madhya Pradesh is an “island of peace” and that the status should not be altered. Chouhan returned to power in 2013 with 45.7% vote share and 165 seats. Any slip in support among the SC/ST and the other blocs comprising the upper caste and the backward classes could be detrimental for him.
Sitting at a dhaba in Astha, on the BhopalIndore highway, Bhupesh Patel glances through local newspapers. He grows soya bean in his farm and makes a marginal profit.
“Our condition is not as bad as onion growers in Mandsaur. They deal with falling profit, low credit flow, and many other issues,” he said. Mandsaur was the epicenter of the farm protest in 2017 in which six farmers were killed in police firing. On June 1 that year, farmers in the state startedapeacefulprotest,demandingloan waivers and better crop prices. Five days later, the situation turned violent and the police opened fire to control the mob.
Rahul Gandhi has promised a farm loan waiver if Congress is elected to rule Madhya Pradesh and there is some panic in the BJP.
“We will have to make extra efforts to assuage their hurt feelings,” a minister in the BJP government said. Congress’ Shobha Oza says, “The farmers are not going to forgive Chouhan for opening fire on them.” Chouhan insists that the farmers are still with him. “I had held a public meeting just a few days at Pipliya Mandi, in Mandsaur, the epicenter of that incident, and people came in large numbers to support me. Farmers are with me,” he insists.
The government’s economic survey this year revealed there were 1.12 million registered educated unemployed people in MP by the end of 2016. Only 422 got employment by 2017.
“Since the first investors summit in Khajuraho in 2007, not a single major industrial unit has come up in Madhya Pradesh,” claims Congress spokesman Pankaj Chaturvedi.
Madhya Pradesh (1,823 cases) reported the highest number of cases of atrocities against STs, accounting for 27.8% followed by Rajasthan with 18.2% (1,195 cases) and Odisha with 10.4% (681 cases) during 2016. Madhya Pradesh tops the list with 4,882 cases of rapes reported in 2016 alone, the National Crime Records Bureau data shows.
Congress leaders also allege malnutrition among children is a matter of concern. The Madhya Pradesh government accepted in the state assembly last year that 28,948 children had died in one year alone, but denied that each death was because of malnutrition.
Chouhan has tried to tide over all these issues with a flagship Sambhal scheme of power at ~ 200 per month, and other government schemes. It aims to cover more than 20 million people.
About two dozen people this reporter spoke to in a few districts of Madhya Pradesh for this story, rate Shivraj Singh Chouhan as a better chief minister than his immediate predecessors from the BJP and the Congress.
Better roads, improved power supply and different social welfare schemes work in Chouhan’s favour.
But a majority of them complain about local MLAs. BJP president Amit Shah told the Madhya Pradesh unit recently that he will not shy away from changing candidates if internal feedback and independent survey turn out to be negative.A clear leadership is working to the BJP’s advantage but it is also battling 15 years of anti-incumbency.
The resurgence in the Congress poses a challenge to Chouhan, but the BJP is organisationally better prepared for the election. The balance is evenly poised — at the moment.