Malwa’s people have depth and sobriety; their land is flush with food and water: Malwa maati gahan gambhir, pag pag roti, dag dag neer. The adage befits the region that is home to a legion of Bharatiya Janata Party(BJP) stalwarts. This is the region that gave the party a huge lead over the Congress in the 2013 assembly polls in Madhya Pradesh. But 2018 could be different. That’s the view of local journalists, civil servants and politicians familiar with Malwa’s politico-social terrain. Encircled by Rajasthan, Gujarat and Maharashtra, life here is an amalgam of shared cultures, traditions and colloquial lores with some nuanced improvisations. For instance, the baked baatis (dough balls) one associates with Rajasthan are boiled before baking in Malwa. That makes baati a “bafla” in Ratlam which is MP’s snack-bar, besides Indore, the way Bikaner is of the nearby desert state. The accompaniments are broadly the same: desi ghee with watery lentils, finely cut onions, papads and sweet kadhi which apparently is a Gujarati influence.The similarities aren’t restricted to culinary tastes. Fusion could as much be of political preferences. It’s understandable then that the desire for political change one discerns in Ratlam and Mandsaur is in tune with the reported mood in Rajasthan —-ruled also by the BJP. Adjoining Malwa towards the south-west is the Nimad region comprising districts mostly bordering Gujarat in the catchment area of the Narmada river: Khargone, Khandwa, Harsood and Barhwah. Together, the Malwa-Nimad belt aggregates 66 seats, of which the Congress could win just nine in 2013. The remaining 57 were won by the BJP. The much-flaunted native political wisdom is that the party that wins Malwa and Nimad, rules Madhya Pradesh. The forecast currently is of 30-odd seats for both parties. Perhaps for this reason, the satta market in Malwa’s and MP’s biggest city, Indore, is betting on less than a hundred seats for the BJP in the 230-strong assembly. The people with whom this writer spoke along the 250-km stretch between Indore and Mandsaur had an interesting prognosis to offer. They said anti-incumbency in the cities was more against Narendra Modi’s New Delhi than against Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s Bhopal. It’s in the countryside that the chief minister gets criticised for failing to deliver to the rightful claimants, the flat bonus his government fixed on a variety of farm produce: Rs 800 per quintal for garlic and rs 500 for soya and maize. Farmers assembled at an agriculture produce market in Dalouda near Mandsaur complained that online registration for the otherwise ‘attractive’ scheme was rigged by big farmers. Acting in cahoots with revenue officials (patwaris) who keep records of land under crop, the rich and the politically connected cabals of agriculturists claimed bonuses even against crop they never sowed, these small farmers alleged. “The nexus has ruined small farmers like me,” said Paras Ram, who grew garlic at Rs 2000 per quintal but sold it between Rs 400-1000. Officials at the market confirmed that countless small farmers missed online registration that was mandatory for availing the benefit. Mandsaur-based businessman Purshottam Shivani said disenchantment in rural interiors bordered on anger compounded by the arrogance of BJP’s leadership at the level of panchayats, zila parishads and municipalities. For its part, the Congress’s problem is its weak organisation despite the residual social clout of Jyotiraditya Scindia’s Gwalior family. “The ambience otherwise is for a change,” explained Prithipal Rana, a water conservationist who is the president of the Rajput Samaj. He said the forward caste angst (against the Centre negating the Court-decreed dilution of the law to prevent atrocities against Scheduled Castes) has petered out. But the candidates of SAPAKS, a forward caste outfit, will hurt the saffron party more. The BJP’s superior organisational muscle and poll logistics can help it contain if not entirely reverse the slide, noted a journalist working for a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh publication in Ratlam. The urban voters’ anger is over demonetisation and the GST (Goods and Services Tax) that have both hit small and medium businesses. That was New Delhi’s doing. So the CM’s appeal has declined in rural Malwa, but not as much in small towns and cities, where he gets praised for better roads, power and water supply: sadak, bijli, paani. The goodwill Chouhan retains in urban pockets seems squandered in the countryside, where the farmers awaiting remunerative prices for their crop remember the police firing that killed six agitating farmers last year. What should really worry him and his party are complaints of declining incomes and paucity of jobs across the urban-rural divide. On the brighter side, the CM’s delivery on programmes aimed at women and the girl child is impressive. The festering wound is rampant joblessness. For instance, in Ujjain’s Badnagar, a semi-urban hamlet famous as the abode of the legendary Kavi Pradeep and the place where Atal Bihari Vajpayee did his early schooling, this writer met Kundan Chouhan. A first-time voter with proclaimed family links with the BJP, he was desirous of a change of guard: “Hum BJP ke log hain par chahate hain eik bar Congress aaye.” But why? For that he cited the lack of jobs and a quality life besides the 15-year fatigue of dealing with the same set of people in power. Small wonder then that the BJP looks unlikely to repeat its clean sweep of five seats in Ratlam and three of the four it won in Mandsaur. On account of these factors, Marx’s theory of religion being the ‘opium of the people’ may not find traction despite the Sangh parivar’s rising Hindutva pitch to entice the majority vote. For Ratlam, Mandsaur and Neemuch constitute the state’s poppy belt that grows the real thing.