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Friday, Nov 22, 2019

BJP awaits star campaigner Narendra Modi, Congress bets on candidates in MP

Most analyses about the Madhya Pradesh assembly polls are premature at this juncture. The slog overs for the November 28 contest haven’t yet begun.

opinion Updated: Nov 15, 2018 07:43 IST
Vinod Sharma
Vinod Sharma
The Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) star all-rounder, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, is yet to walk on to the field.
The Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) star all-rounder, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, is yet to walk on to the field. (Bloomberg)

Most analyses about the Madhya Pradesh assembly polls are premature at this juncture. The slog overs for the November 28 contest haven’t yet begun. The Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) star all-rounder, Narendra Modi, is yet to walk on to the field.

The party considers the Prime Minister a match-winner capable of converting defeat into victory. An example of this was Gujarat, where he helped the BJP retain power in a close finish. It’s another matter that in the final phases, he played cross-bat shots, or chucked as his party’s pace spearhead.

The parallel between the two states, however, is a tad misplaced. Madhya Pradesh is not Gujarat, where the cities came to the BJP’s rescue. By a rough calculation, there are 40-45 urban seats and 25-30 semi-urban constituencies in the state. Its largest city Indore —known locally as ‘Mini Bombay’ — alone has nine assembly segments.

The BJP won eight of these seats in 2013, barring Rau on the city’s rural outskirts. The story this time could be different with local analysts rating the Congress’s chances as being better in four-five constituencies.

“The business community is angry due to the twin assault of demonetisation and GST [Goods and Services Tax]. There’s no clean sweep happening for the BJP this time,” said Ankit Jain, a food entrepreneur. Others nodded in approval on his table of six in a restaurant on the popular food street, Chappan Dukaan.

Be that as it may, MP is more rural than Modi’s increasingly urban home state. As the Congress’s Digvijay Singh pointed out in an interview to this writer, the state’s rural-urban ratio is 7:3. The battle is keener in the countryside, where the saffron spread seems either stalled or pushed back due to agrarian distress. The political pitch in MP helped Team BJP since 2003, when Digvijay Singh failed with bat and ball. After Shivraj Singh Chouhan earned his cap in November 2005 —in the aftermath of the failed Uma Bharti and Babulal Gaur captaincies—the top spot has stayed with him despite challenges from outside and within the party.

The soft and understated leader from Budhni in Madhya Bharat, a region sandwiched by Mahakaushal and Malwa, hasn’t looked back since. But he comes across now as the BJP’s Julius Caesar without any Mark Antonys. With conspirators on the prowl in the ruling dispensation, the Congress is trying to paint him as the ruler of an empire reminiscent of a decadent Rome.

The Congress’s poll-time narrative is as exaggerated as the BJP’s claims of good governance. Yet, to bury Chauhan won’t be easy. His connect with the people might have declined, but it hasn’t dissipated. The CM cuts a solitary figure because he himself eliminated potential challengers within the party: Uma Bharti, Narendra Singh Tomar, Kailash Vijayvargiya and Prabhat Jha have been effectively exiled with ministerships and organisational portfolios in New Delhi. The fate of former Union minister Vikram Verma is no different. He is busy campaigning for his wife in Malwa’s Dhar, adjoining Indore.

Even Sumitra Mahajan and Sushma Swaraj, MPs from Indore and Vidisha, aren’t reportedly happy. The former’s son, Mandar, has been denied a ticket to accommodate Vijayvargiya’s son, Akash, in Indore-3 seat, where a BJP vs BJP situation is now more probable than avoidable. Swaraj’s confidant Jitendra Daga has revolted to enter the fray as an independent candidate from Bhopal’s Huzur. That renders risky a safe BJP seat.

The Congress had an unedifying record in candidate selection for the 2008 and 2013 polls that it lost badly. For a change, its candidates for the upcoming elections look better than the BJP’s. One found resonance for this on the ground in Dewas, the birthplace of legendary classical vocalist Kumar Gandharva. Predicting victory for the BJP’s Gayatri Raje Pawar, who is from the erstwhile Dewas royalty, local farmer Virendra Gaur conceded that the Congress’s candidates in the area were qualitatively better.

In-house, the Congress assessment is that its nominees are better in 180 of the 230 assembly constituencies. The challenge in the remaining seats has been rendered weak by allocations on factional lines. In an election where local anti-incumbency is a major factor, the candidate’s goodwill and popular connect can be decisive. Along the 250km road journey from Bhopal to Indore, via Ujjain, many voters seemed determined to teach sitting legislators a lesson despite the BJP dropping several incumbents.

The impact of Modi’s campaign and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s (RSS) role is crucial for Chouhan’s fortunes. In Ujjain, for instance, in the vicinity of the Mahakaleshwar temple, the Sangh has built a sprawling Bharat Mata Mandir complete with facilities for overnight stay and medical aid.

The complex, where RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat recently stayed, is a promotion of sorts of the RSS’s social service orientation. Not surprising then that shop owners vending floral baskets to devotees of the Mahakaal deity were livid over the Congress’s pledge to ban RSS shakhas in government premises. They said the attack on the Sangh has sealed Rahul Gandhi’s fate.

But a Sikh tour agent a short distance away predicted a close fight. His reading was based on Jyotiraditya Scindia’s Gwalior family’s ties with Ujjain—besides fears of prospective dislocation of homes and businesses under the Smart City plan.

These contrasting views mirror the complexities of the upcoming battle.