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Lok Sabha elections 2019: In Madhya Pradesh, Congress challenge is PM Modi’s popularity

The battle of Madhya Pradesh rests on a complex interplay of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s overarching popularity, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s local vulnerabilities, Congress’ advantage of being in power for five months and its disadvantage of being seen as failing to deliver its promises.

lok sabha elections Updated: Apr 28, 2019 07:42 IST
Prashant Jha
Prashant Jha
Hindustan Times, Balaghat/Mandla/Shahdol/Jabalpur/Sagar/Vidisha/Bhopal/Hoshangabad
Madhya Pradesh Congress,Congress,PM Modi popularity
There is a stark difference in the manner in which Modi was perceived at the end of last year, and as he is perceived in the run up to the Lok Sabha polls, in Madhya Pradesh.(Biplov Bhuyan/HT File PHOTO)

With 29 seats, and a direct contest between the two national parties, Madhya Pradesh is emerging as the big battleground of Lok Sabha 2019 as polls enter the fourth phase. In 2014, the BJP swept the state winning 27 seats. Four years later, it lost power at the state-level to the Congress. And thus the question that animates voters in MP is whether 2019 will be a repeat of 2014, or a replication of 2018.

The answer may be neither.

HT travelled to eight constituencies in the state. Four of these — Jabalpur, Shahdol, Balaghat and Mandla — vote in the fourth phase of polling on April 29. The travel did not cover two major regions, Gwalior-Chambal and Malwa-Nimar.

The battle of Madhya Pradesh rests on a complex interplay of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s overarching popularity, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s local vulnerabilities, Congress’ advantage of being in power for five months and its disadvantage of being seen as failing to deliver its promises.

The return of Modi

There is a stark difference in the manner in which Modi was perceived at the end of last year, and as he is perceived in the run up to the Lok Sabha polls, in MP.

Modi was seen as being irrelevant to the state elections, with many voters suggesting this was an election on local issues. In some quarters, there was outright hostility. Many claimed that Modi, instead of supplementing Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s campaign, was dragging it down. Central policies like demonetisation, the restoration of the provisions of the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe Prevention of Atrocities Act and the implementation of the Goods and Services Tax (which subsumes all indirect taxes within it), had alienated voters.

But five months later, Modi has returned in the political consciousness of the state. This is, once again, Modi’s ‘chunav’.

In the MP high court in Jabalpur, a group of four former government workers have come for a case from Satna. Among them, K P Mishra and C P Gupta are vocal when asked about their political preferences. “Who else can provide leadership like Modi in this country? We are all with the BJP in this election,” asked Mishra. What has changed from November last year? Gupta is quick to respond, “This election is not to construct our street lanes. It is about the nation. Look at the alternative. Rahul Gandhi is immature.”

Both Mishra and Gupta come from caste groups traditionally seen as loyal to the BJP. In rural areas, Modi’s broad-based appeal is visible. In Jabalpur’s Pahreva, a group of daily wage labourers from Kol community are sitting around a tea shop. Ram Milan Kol is a firm admirer of the PM. “Modi has given rural homes. He has given gas cylinders. He has given toilets. Which PM before this thought of villages?” he said. In the same village, a Dalit shopkeeper, Ratnesh, mentioned he too, was a supporter of Modi. “I trust him,” he said.

Rahul Gajbhiye in Balaghat constituency’s Barghat bazaar helps people with Aadhaar enrolment. “I think Modi has improved India’s image, strengthened our armed forces. I also work with people in rural areas, so I know his welfare work, like Ayushman Bharat [the healthcare scheme], is reaching the ground.” “I voted NOTA in 2014, I voted Congress in 2018 in the assembly elections, and I am not a Hindu fundamentalist. But I think this country really needs Modi for five more years,” Gajbhiye said. In Ratua Lalghati, on the outskirts of Bhopal, Govind is a young man who installs sound systems for functions. He rejects the contention that the policies of the Modi regime diminished prospects for organised jobs for young men like him. “Was there no unemployment during Congress rule? We need to work ourselves. We need to make ourselves capable. Modi cannot come and feed us.” Admittedly, some of these are traditional BJP seats. But it is still striking that what is helping both old and new voters rally behind the party is one name: Modi.

The local challenge

However, break it down to constituencies and the Modi story suddenly does not seem enough.

Take Balaghat, which had enthusiastic supporters of Modi like Rahul Gajbhiye. He admits that the party faces a challenge in the constituency. The BJP picked Dhal Singh Bisen and did not give a ticket to sitting MP Bodh Singh Bhagat, who is now contesting as an independent. The Congress has put up Madhu Bhagat. In Balaghat’s Kanjai, a local police official, who did not want to be named since he was not allowed to express political opinions, is a firm Modi supporter. “I don’t know why BJP messed up its ticket. The Balaghat constituency has eight assembly segments — six are from the Balaghat district and two from the Seoni district. The BJP candidate, Bisen, is from Seoni. So he does not have appeal across the seat, and the Congress is capitalising on the sentiment in Balaghat’s assembly segments that they have been overlooked.”

The BJP had won the seat with a margin of about 95,000 votes in 2014; now, a lot will hinge on whether the party can keep the base behind the new candidate.

In some seats BJP’s political calculus has got complicated by repeating the same candidate, who may have a degree of anti-incumbency. Faggan Singh Kulaste has been a long-term MP of the party from the reserved tribal constituency of Mandla, winning all elections here since 1996 (except 2009). In 2014, he won with a margin of over 100,000 votes. A well recognised figure with high recall value, Kulaste has local patronage networks. But voters are now seeking change at the local level. Rajiv Shivhare, who runs a popular dhaba, says he is a Modi admirer. “I would like the local MP to lose though. We want Modi, we do not want Kulaste,” he added.

The BJP has held Khajuraho since 2004, and won with a huge margin of close to 250,000 votes in 2014. This time around, the party has put up a new candidate, V D Sharma, an old Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh hand. The RSS is the ideological fount of the BJP. However, Sharma is not from the constituency, which led to resentment among party workers in the constituency. The Congress candidate, Kavita Singh, is from a local royal family. At a local tea shop in Neganwa village, the refrain is common: this is an insider versus outsider battle. The BJP could well still retain Balaghat, Mandla, and Khajurao. But this may well be difficult if the old adage — all politics is local — prevails over the Modi factor.

Congress’s mixed bag

If local issues seem to be a handicap for the BJP, the problem for the Congress is that a degree of disillusionment has set in with the state government.

Make no mistake. The Congress, going by the consensus among local political observers as well as ordinary voters, is set to increase its tally in the state. It won only two of the 29 seats in the 2014 elections, and bagged an additional one in a bypoll. The question in this election is the extent of the gain or alternately, the degree to which it can inflict losses on BJP.

A lot will depend on how Congress manages its messaging on farm loan waiver. This was its key promise during the assembly polls and it is widely believed in the state that this is what swung a substantial segment of farm voters towards the party. But on the ground, there is an increasing belief that the party has failed to deliver on its promise. In Hoshangabad’s Sohapur, Komal Patel is a Congress party supporter. He admits that his biggest challenge this time is in mobilising votes of farmers again. “We have not been able to deliver on the promise to waive off loans up to two lakhs. Very few people have got any relief. This has not only led to anger, but it has also broken trust.”

In Vidisha’s Sanchi, Lakhpa Singh Lodhi said he voted for the Congress for the first time in the last elections. “We thought they had lost thrice and we should give them a chance. And they promised the waiver. But I have got nothing. I will return to the BJP.” Similar voices can be heard across constituencies, where people either allege they have got no relief, or that it is stuck in procedural delays, or only those with very limited liabilities have got loans waived off. This perception has resulted in a crisis of credibility on Nyay, the party’s big idea to win over poorer voters by promising ?72,000 per year to the bottom 20% of India’s poor. Pradeep Jat in Sonkach, on the outskirts of Bhopal, said, “They do not deliver what they promise. And then they make these bigger promises.” Congress supporters claim that Modi instead should be held responsible for his failure to deposit ?15 lakh, a 2014 campaign pitch.

BJP will find it hard to replicate the success of 2014, but the Congress will find it hard to translate the gains of 2018 too. A tough battle lies ahead.

First Published: Apr 28, 2019 07:42 IST