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SC/ST Act, reservations, GST: BJP’s challenge in MP is to curb discontent among‘core voters’

Is the BJP’s core vote of upper castes angry enough to sit out the election and vote for NOTA, or rebel to the Congress in the upcoming assembly elections in Madhya Pradesh? The answer to that question could well determine whether Shivraj Singh Chouhan returns to power for the fourth time in the state.

Madhya Pradesh Elections 2018 Updated: Nov 09, 2018 11:18 IST
HT Correspondent
HT Correspondent
Hindustan Times, Sanchi/Hoshangabad/Mandasur
Madhya Pradesh Election 2018,Madhya Pradesh Election 2018 News,Madhya Pradesh Constituency
A banner in Barkheda Jaising, a village in MP’s Mandaur district. A section of the party’s core voters is unhappy with the BJP over amendments to the SC/ST act and reservations. They are, for the first time in 15 years, actively voicing these concerns.(HT Photo )

As one enters Barkheda Jaising, a village in Mandasur, a protest banner proclaims in bold letters: “This is a village of general castes. Political parties - don’t shame us by asking for votes. We will vote for NOTA [none of the above].” At the top of the banner are the reasons for the protest: the SC/ST Act and reservations.

A group of young men is walking by. All of them are Thakurs, the dominant caste in the village. Rajendra Singh, the most vocal of them, says, “We have been with the Bharatiya Janata Party [BJP] for decades. But look at what they did with the Prevention of Atrocities Act [SC/ST law]. The Supreme Court weakened it. They brought an ordinance to strengthen it. We will not forgive them.”

Since the government merely restored the original provisions of the act that were diluted by the Supreme Court, when asked why that would invite such fury, Singh replies: “The original act was the problem. Three of us here have cases because there was a scuffle with a Scheduled Caste who was trying to steal our motor. Our people are stuck even now.”

Yashwant Singh, another young Thakur in the group, nods along and says, “And they have continued with reservations. We want reservations on economic basis.” Singh refers to the BJP’s stand in favour of reservations in promotions as yet another instance of the “betrayal”.

When asked how not voting for BJP will address either of the concerns -- for the Congress would not dilute the atrocities act or reframe reservations either -- the group falls silent for a moment. Rajendra Singh then says, “We just want to teach the BJP a lesson. They only work for tribals and Dalits. The tribal village next door has been with the Congress all along. But the BJP is giving them gas, houses, roads. They will still not vote for the BJP. People like us who have voted for them all along need to show them their place once.”

It is in the testimonies of Singh and his friends in Barkheda Jaising that the BJP’s challenge in Madhya Pradesh comes through starkly.

How does the party retain its substantial ‘core vote’? Why is it upset? And is this core vote of upper castes, who constitute over 20% of the state’s population, angry enough to sit out the election and vote for NOTA, or rebel to the Congress, or will they be persuaded to stay on with their old party as polling day nears? The answer to that question could well determine whether Shivraj Singh Chouhan returns to power for the fourth time in the state.

Voices of discontent

In Hoshangabad’s Sarafa bazaar, Hari Govind Saini and Rajesh Jain are sitting in Saini’s jewellery shop. Both have been long-time BJP supporters, but cannot hide their displeasure this time around.

“The GST [goods and services tax] destroyed us. It was good for bigger businesses, but for those like us, operating on a smaller scale with lower margins, it is a huge burden. We have still not been able to recover.” He echoes Singh’s complaint about the SC/ST act and claims to have reduced his business transactions with members of the SC/ST communities.

“They come to exchange their jewellery or mortgage it for money here. But I am slowly cutting down on business with them. What if they complain tomorrow? I can be arrested even without an enquiry,” he says.

Jain adds that the BJP has forgotten its original constituents. But does this mean they will shift to the Congress? Both Saini and Jain reject the possibility. “A mother and child also fight. It does not mean you leave each other. They have to be less arrogant. They have to listen to us. That is what they want.”

Bhimsen Munyar is not in a forgiving mood though. A former district president of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), Munyar is a community leader and runs a big grocery wholesale shop in Hoshangabad bazaar.

“The BJP has invited foreign companies despite talking about swadeshi. They are concerned about Ambani-Adani, the big corporates, not about us small traders anymore,” he says. When asked if this means he will go against them despite belonging to the same Sangh and ideological family, he adds: “In the Sangh too, sycophancy is now rampant. I will not vote for them this time for sure.”

The BJP will have to manage about not just the traders but the demographic that has been remarkably supportive of the party in election after election -- the first-time voter.

Sanchi, home to the famous stupa, is within the Vidisha Lok Sabha constituency, represented by Union external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj, but is in Raisen district. This has been an old BJP stronghold.

Farmer Jai Rajput is unhappy with the government for its stand on the atrocities act. But when pressed that the government only restored the original provisions, he responds: “If the BJP can defy the Supreme Court for Dalits, why can’t they defy the Supreme Court on the question of Ram Mandir and bring a law?”

Rajput is attracted to the SAPAK (Samanya Alpasankhyak Pichda Kalyan Samaj), a grouping that claims to represent non-Dalit and non-tribal identity groups, but is not sure whether he will vote for them.

Others around him, however, say they will remain with the BJP. Shivam Chaurasia, who belongs to an OBC group, says that Narendra Modi’s hand must be strengthened; Rajesh Chauhan, a farmer, says that despite all their weaknesses, the BJP has provided roads and electricity and development to MP; Anshu Rajput who runs a hardware shop, claims that in no other state has the government offered as many tangible subsidies and concessions to such a wide range of social groups - farmers, youth, Dalits, tribals.

Listening to these perspectives, Rajput eventually says, “I am not saying the BJP will lose. They should form the government. But they need to win lesser seats. Dhakka chahiye [they need a jolt]. They will then learn their lessons.”

The voting variable

It is in these voices that a pattern can be discerned. Core voters are unhappy with the BJP for a range of reasons. They are, for the first time in 15 years, actively voicing these concerns. But it has not yet translated into an electoral wave against the party -- many of those who are angry are still considering it an option -- or attraction for the Congress.

A BJP leader involved with the MP campaign said, “We are doing a balancing act. The CM has made it clear that on the atrocities act, there won’t be immediate arrests. We are also telling communities that there is no point in voting for the Congress, for they will not even listen to their concerns. But with us, they have access all the time.”

He added that that the party believes that like Gujarat, these segments will eventually return ‘home’. “Remember all of you reported on the anger from Surat among traders. And we won all the seats. The act of voting is different from pre-election rhetoric.”

Yatindra Singh Sisodia, director of the Ujjain-based MP Institute of Social Sciences, says that this election is different from the past because of its closely contested nature and believes the upper-caste challenge could damage the BJP.

“The party had embarked on a high-stakes political gamble. It thought that since upper castes and OBCs [other backward classes] are with them anyway, if they can win over the SCs and STs, they will become invincible. But in politics, when you appease someone, another group gets angry. So in their quest to expand, BJP upset its core vote. This election will tell us whether the gamble succeeded or failed.”

First Published: Nov 09, 2018 11:14 IST