Shivraj Singh Chouhan Faces His Toughest Election Yet

MP.jpgIN THE BASEMENT of a residential building in Bhopal, the capital of Madhya Pradesh, a heavyset, middle-aged man is seated in a chair, watchful and slightly tense. He is multi-tasking as his team of 70-odd volunteers clicks away at computers, creating content and editing videos. They send slogans, promos and other material to the BJP headquarters in the city, mostly meant for use as WhatsApp messages to bolster the party’s campaign to have Shivraj Singh Chouhan re-elected as Chief Minister for the fourth time in India’s second-largest state by area. They work closely with Chouhan, apart from some state-level and central leaders of the BJP, which is prepared to fight to the finish in a poll battle that is considered Chouhan’s biggest fight yet since he assumed office in November 2005, two years after his party achieved power; he had succeeded Uma Bharti and Babulal Gaur after months of wrangling within the BJP.

Chouhan has consolidated his power since, demolishing rivals and winning the Budhni seat in the 230-member Assembly thrice, improving his margin of victory as he went along: from around 36,000 votes in 2006, he widened the gap to 84,000 in the polls held five years ago.

At the ‘war room’ in this tony part of Bhopal, posters hang from the ceiling to declare the BJP’s target: ‘Lakshya (target): 150-plus’. Last time, the party swept to power winning 166 seats, spurred by Chouhan’s charisma, the Narendra Modi wave in the run-up to the 2014 General Election and anti-incumbency against the Congress-led Central government of the time. This time, the team members must think on their feet and churn out lines to counter efforts of the Congress social media division, which operates from the official residence of a senior Congress leader. The BJP’s ‘war room’ concedes that their Congress counterparts are giving them a good fight, but they expect that by pitching Chouhan’s credentials as the most popular politician in the state, they will have the last laugh.

Senior members at the team offer me a survey of the strengths and weaknesses of each party’s campaign and explain why they see the BJP ahead. Their focus, like that of the Congress, is WhatsApp and then Facebook. Twitter users in the state are only 300,000 while Facebook regulars 12.5 million, over a fifth of the state’s electorate. Some of these managers are die-hard pros who, unlike many others in the trade, have remained low-profile. They are also hard-working. Though the leader they are hard-selling has the backing of the well-oiled electoral machinery of the RSS and BJP—two entities which in no other Indian state are as indistinguishable as in Madhya Pradesh—2018 is proving to be their biggest challenge yet in their long years as publicists.

There are signs that Chouhan realises that things are tougher than ever before.

Though he had earlier announced that he would skip campaigning in his home constituency Budhni, he decided to drop by after his wife Sadhana Singh came across angry voters who complained about water scarcity and other disruptions to public services. Of course, he still has a lot of well-wishers in this constituency, which he’d represented thrice earlier in the Assembly. Yogesh Tiwari is one such voter. A postgraduate in commerce, he makes a living as a shopkeeper. “My vote is for the BJP because my vote is for Shivraj,” he says. A little distance away from his shop, a lady tells me she is worried about the slow growth in jobs in the state. She doesn’t wish to disclose her name because she is a government servant; neither does she want to reveal whom she will vote for. “I am anxious for my children because as Brahmins, we don’t have reservations, and in this job scenario, their future is uncertain.” However, young men who loiter around expect things to get better once their favoured ‘Shivraj’ wins. These sentiments of those who harangued Chouhan’s wife on her visit here are echoed as well. “Nothing has changed for us,” says Lalji, “I have not decided whom I will vote for this time.”

Notwithstanding such mixed feelings in a place as crucial as Budhni, the BJP is buoyant about its prospects across MP. Dharmendra Pradhan, a Union minister who is also the BJP central leader in charge of the state, told me in an earlier interview: “We hope to win with a greater majority than last time. The Chief Minister is addressing a record number of meetings in the state. I am hopeful we will meet our target.”

In Vidisha, which has not elected a Congress candidate since 1977 and which was Chouhan’s second seat in the last elections, too, there are angry crowds that feel taken for granted. “We are BJP voters, but the government has not met many of the promises it made, especially on water, power and jobs,” says Prabhuram Choudhary, a Vidisha voter, adding that “while it is not clear whether people will vote against the BJP, there is widespread resentment here.” He feels that it is the Centre’s policies besides the apathy of the state that have incurred the wrath of small traders and farmers. He, however, wouldn’t bet on voters picking the Congress over the BJP. “Many voters who are forty -plus, my age, are aware of the record of the Digvijaya Singh government of the Congress. Still, there is a lot of confusion among voters now.” To tide over concerns regarding unemployment, the BJP in its manifesto has promised 1 million new jobs a year and a Rs 10,000 grant to the unemployed.

Political analysts Open spoke to say confusion among voters is no confirmation of a complete loss of faith in the government, especially one that has been in power for 15 years. But a worrying trend for any government with that longevity is that from 2004 to 2018, unemployment has grown by 16 per cent and various parts of MP—especially in the Bundelkhand region—face acute water scarcity. The government has also come under attack for the Vyapam entrance-test scam, illegal sand- mining (notably in Bhind), farmer unrest in Mandsaur, rising incidents of communal crime, and its poor record on women’s safety. The state’s overall sex ratio dropped from 961 females per 1,000 males in 2005-06 to 948 in 2015-16, much lower than India’s sex ratio of 991.

Indeed, the stakes are high for the ruling BJP, which hopes a fourth consecutive term here would set the stage for the 2019 Lok Sabha victory.

For the Congress, it is a now-or-never fight, concedes its key campaigner and leader in the state, Jyotiraditya Scindia. The opposition party, under the stewardship of Kamal Nath, is hoping to capture the state after a long gap. Both parties had to face numerous odds, including dissent within, as they tried to maintain a caste balance while naming candidates for each seat.

““We don’t typically vote on caste lines. But this time around we may think differently”,” says Basant Kumar Sahu, 30, a grocer who also makes a ‘miracle cure’ for piles. He says the so-called development touted by the BJP has not reached the disadvantaged in many parts of MP, and so he will vote for a backward- caste candidate of a local party, though he is sure he won’t win. “It is a vote to show my protest,” he says, squirming as he hears ad spots of the Congress and BJP on the radio: ‘Bhajpa hataao, Madhya Pradesh bachaao…’ versus ‘Maaf karo maharaaj, hamaara neta Shivraj.’ Sahu refuses to link his choice with the rise of an anti-quota political outfit that made headlines with its launch last month, the Samanya Pichra Alpsankhyak Kalyan Samaj (Sapaks), which arose in response to the Centre’s restoration of provisions of the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act in September. Upper-castes and Other Backward Classes (OBCs) were up in arms against the Modi Government’s move to bring back parts of the law that they say lets the accused be arrested without a proper legal process. Sensing trouble, Chouhan had tweeted, ‘The SC/ST Act would not be misused in MP. Arrests will not take place without enquiry.’

Both the BJP and Congress have dismissed Sapaks as a feeble political entity that cannot draw votes. Some Congress leaders, however, expect upper- castes and OBCs, whose protests have waned now, to vote against the BJP in the Malwa region, especially in places such as Mandsaur and Ujjain. In these areas, Open finds the mood among these groups rather subdued, except in Indore, where some homes have posters at the entrance warning canvassers not to ask for their votes if they are in favour of the Act’s stringent provisions. “You cannot fathom the real undercurrents even if you speak to people at length,” says a state Congress leader.

The Congress, say some of its functionaries, will do extremely well in the Mahakaushal region, the turf of party heavyweight Kamal Nath; the Gwalior region, home of the Scindias; and even in some urban areas. To attract farmers, Congress President Rahul Gandhi promised that if voted to power, the party would set up food processing units across the state and turn MP into an agricultural hub. The Congress is asking farmers to defeat what it labels an ‘anti-farmer government’. According to various reports, the plight of small and marginal farmers has not improved in the past decade despite MP’s farm sector outpacing that of other Indian states. Gandhi has raised the issue of farmer suicides in the state, as also last year’s police firing that left several protesting farmers dead in Mandsaur. The BJP, according to some of its Dalit leaders, faces discontent among Dalits who they allege were targeted for attack by upper-castes during the agitation over the SC/ST Act. “The worst part is that Dalits who were BJP members were also victims of the attack in some parts of the state,” says a leader.

The BJP is confident of making gains in urban areas, especially in the Bhopal and Indore regions, and adjoining seats, apart from its strongholds such as Dewas. It is also counting on the Malwa-Nimar belt, where the party secured 59 of 66 seats in the 2013 elections. The party, which dismisses any farmer unrest, citing numbers and a good harvest, is also banking on first-time and other young voters.

A tour of some urban and semi-urban areas in various parts of MP, however, shows that the BJP’s efforts to woo its traditional voters, including traders and upper castes, tends to cut both ways. Raju Kokkar, who runs a cooking-vessel shop at Teen Batti Chauraha of Dewas, is unhappy about how little the state government and the Centre have done for traders. A traditional BJP voter, he is upset with the Centre’s demonetisation followed by the Goods and Services Tax (GST). “Digitisation and such things are a foregone conclusion whichever government is in power, but demonetisation hit traders very badly, which is why people are contemplating voting differently this time,” he notes; last year, he says, he suffered his worst loss in 20 years. The BJP’s candidate Gayatri Raje Pawar had won the Dewas seat three years ago in a bypoll. A descendant of the Puar dynasty that once ruled the area, she commands much respect in these parts. Which is why Kokkar hastens to add, “But finally, one might come around to the idea of backing the maharani herself. Yet I would be lying if I said I am not angry at the government and the BJP.” He is also piqued that with new centres of industry emerging in the state, Dewas is getting left behind. “No effort to mend the city and develop it further is being made. And thanks to poverty in villages, more people are fleeing to cities. Who can shoulder the burden if cities like Dewas are not developed fast?”

In Sonkatch, a seat which the BJP wrested from the Congress in 2013, it appears that voters are disenchanted with local governance and local BJP leaders.

Shopkeeper Pawan Namdeo says that he meets a lot of people from Dewas district (of which this constituency is a part). “I get the feeling that my sentiments and theirs are the same. That there should be change this time,” he says, adding that the“gundaaraj” of local toughies who claim allegiance to the government has put the ruling party in a spot. Besides, he says, faulty policies of the Union Government and state dispensation have added salt to the wounds. “There is a widespread feeling that the Congress’ stock is on the rise,” he says. Dharmendra Bengali, who runs an adjacent shop and is a voter in the Hatpipliya constituency, agrees with his friend. Bengali affirms an anti-incumbency wave, though not exactly because of Chouhan but because of local candidates. “Chouhan’s image as a big leader is still intact, but he is under stress because of his party’s candidates and leaders.” In Sonkatch, Rajendra Phulchand Verma of the BJP has a strong contender in veteran Congress leader and former legislator from the seat, former MP Sajjan Singh Verma. In Hatpipliya, BJP’s Deepak Joshi, who is also state education minister, was heckled by voters while he sought votes from them. He wasn’t the only BJP minister who had to face an irate crowd. Umashankar Gupta, Rajesh Sonkar, Gaurishankar Shejwar were among the others. Some other legislators had to be rescued as people threw stones at them along their campaign trail. Says Bengali: “All this is confirmation of the resentment that is building. Let’s not forget that the Chief Minister’s wife was also booed.” Sadhana Singh is often seen as the power behind the throne in Bhopal.

Ashish Silawat, a voter in the Indore- 5 constituency, had a shop which he claims was demolished without notice by officials one morning more than a year ago. Since then, he has been hawking tobacco products and chocolates by the roadside. “When it rains, it is tough for us. I am ready to pay the rent and run my shop, which was bigger once. Now I sell fewer products. The government is concerned only about the welfare of the rich and not the poor. That is what I have learnt the hard way. I approached several leaders but to no avail.” This traditional BJP voter says he will vote for change now because someone else deserves a chance in power. In Indore-5, former Congress MLA Satyanarayan Patel takes on sitting BJP MLA Mahendra Hardia, who has won this seat thrice. BJP’s senior leader Kailash Vijayvargiya too had represented this seat in the past. Vijayvargiya’s son Akash is contesting from Indore- 3, which was wrested from the Congress after several defeats by Usha Thakur of the BJP who is contesting this time from Mhow, which Vijayvargiya Sr had represented in 2008 and 2013.

If it was bitter experience that shifted Silawat’s vote, Ram Singh, a driver from Indore-2, feels that BJP’s Ramesh Medola may still win, given the 91,000-plus margin he secured in 2013. He is disillusioned with the current government because it has failed to crack down on crime. “This happens because many BJP leaders take law into their own hands and walk away with impunity because of their proximity to power. Things are very unfair here. Poor people end up bearing the brunt,” says Singh. Over the years, the BJP government has been accused of favouring partymen in the award of various contracts.

MOST VOTERS THAT Open spoke to agree that having Chouhan as the face of the BJP campaign is a plus for the party. However, the challenges it faces are daunting. Besides political reasons, there are also organisational ones: for instance, Lok Sabha member Rakesh Singh is seen as relatively inexperienced as BJP chief. He took over the post only this April. Earlier, the BJP had a seasoned campaigner in then state party chief Narendra Singh Tomar, now a Union minister, who had a good rapport with Chouhan. Also, the BJP’s current state organisational secretary Suhas Bhagat pales in comparison with his predecessor Arvind Menon, considered a ‘sharp and ruthless go-getter’ by many state leaders. The replacements aren’t up to that mark, says one leader.

The BJP also hopes to attract votes through various religious organisations and sects that are close to the party. In Bhojpur, Rajendra Jain ‘Gandhi’ vows to vote for the continuance of the Chouhan government, which he says has given MP “a good name”. Jain, who does social work and manages a Jain temple in the region, tells me that he is originally from the RSS and has worked closely with such Sangh veterans as Dattopant Thengadi, Kushabhau Thakre and Pyarelal Khandelwal. He adds that he salutes Modi for “taking India’s name all over the world”. There is no way he would not vote for the BJP, insists Jain, who is given to breaking into guffaws. “The BJP has done a lot for this state and the Bhojpur region.”

Chathar Singh Silawat and his visually challenged friend Vijay Yadav in Bhojpur offer a contrarian view. “There is acute water scarcity in this region and we have to travel far to avail of good government healthcare facilities. Bhojpur is like a slave to the government. They do nothing for us, but many still vote for the ruling party,” says the latter. Not anymore, he adds. For this seat, the Congress has pitched a veteran Congressman who has good ties with the Gandhi family, Suresh Pachauri, against BJP’s state minister Surendra Patwa who had defeated him in 2013. Pachauri may get lucky since Surendra Patwa, nephew of the late Sunderlal Patwa, former BJP Chief Minister, is grappling with cases related to financial crimes. “There is also strong anti-incumbency against him,” says Silawat.

At a well-attended rally in Indore on November 18th, Modi appealed to the crowd to vote for Chouhan to help him fulfil his mission, arguing that the Chief Minister has been able to deliver on his promises only after the Centre began to cooperate with the state—since 2014, that is, when he became Prime Minister. When the “remote control government of Madam was there”, MP was treated like a pariah, Modi said, showering praise on Chouhan and deriding former Congress chief Sonia Gandhi.

Chouhan, for his part, has been campaigning tirelessly to live up to his party’s expectations. But the ambiguity among common voters suggests a lack of enthusiasm for the incumbent government. The time perhaps is ripe for an opposition victory. Whether it can seize the moment is the question.

First published in Open magazine

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