The largest among the five states that went to polls ahead of the general elections, Madhya Pradesh saw a keen contest that defied history and threw up a fractured mandate. Having won just five seats more than the BJP in the 230-member Assembly, the Congress is being extra cautious; it won 114 seats but its vote share was marginally less than BJP’s. For the first time in 15 years, it will contest the general elections as the ruling party in the state.
How has the BJP fitted into the role of opposition?
It took a little while for many BJP leaders to reconcile with the narrow defeat and the unfamiliar role after 15 years. Shivraj Singh Chouhan, who was Chief Minister for 13 years, is now back on the move. Though veteran leader Gopal Bhargava was made Leader of Opposition in the Assembly, it is Chouhan who is the face of the Opposition on the streets. He has been constantly on the move, meeting victims of crimes, party workers allegedly targeted in the new regime and farmers affected by frost. When the Congress government missed the monthly recital of Vande Mataram in the state secretariat, the BJP questioned its patriotism and announced protests, forcing the Congress to come out with a scaled-up version of the programme.
What has the Congress been focusing on as the ruling party?
Within the first couple of hours of being sworn in on December 17, Chief Minister Kamal Nath cleared the file relating to a farm loan waiver and followed it with an announcement that industries enjoying incentives like cheap land and electricity will have to reserve 70% jobs for the local population. It was followed by expansion of his ministry by making 29 MLAs cabinet ministers, including an independent. Four independents, two BSP MLAs and one Samajwadi Party members have extended their support to the government. The next challenge was to prove its majority. The Congress proved its numbers amid a boycott by the BJP. There is still pressure on the CM to fill up some posts in the Cabinet to accommodate contenders who may take to arm-twisting.
What were the major talking points in 2018, and how are they expected to play out in 2019?
In a state where 70% of the population is dependent on agriculture, directly or indirectly, farmers were the focus of attention last year, and will remain so. Having received more than 50 lakh applications, the biggest challenge for the Kamal Nath government will be smooth implementation of the farm loan waiver and raising requisite money to finance it. Even though the scheme was announced immediately, the actual transfer of money in bank accounts will start only on February 22. The BJP government had implemented a price deficiency payment scheme called Bhavantar Bhugtan Yojana to provide a cushion to farmers when prices of certain commodities fall below the minimum support price. The Agriculture Minister announced he was scrapping the scheme because it was flawed. This was in the Chief Minister’s absence; the Agriculture Minister clarified later that the scheme will continue with some changes.
Caste tensions in the wake of alleged dilution of the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, and later the amendment to the Act, had kept parties on the edge. It is seen as one of the reasons why the BJP did not fare well in the Gwalior-Chambal belt, which had bore the brunt of violence during a bandh called by Dalit organisations on April 2 last year. However, the BJP did exceedingly well in the Vindhya region, another area where caste politics is dominant. There, caste tensions have eased.
The Congress promised to ban RSS shakhas on government premises and stop participation of government employees in these shakhas, but it has so far avoided a decision on it, arguing that the promise itself has worked as a deterrent.
In the recent electoral history of Madhya Pradesh, how differently have people voted in Assembly and Lok Sabha polls?
It has been a mixed bag in the last three pairs of elections. In 2004 and 2014, the BJP’s performance after the respective Assembly elections improved even though different dispensations ruled the Centre at the time of elections. In 2009, the BJP was reduced to 16 seats from 25 seats, even though its vote share in the Assembly elections had gone up. The influence of the BJP’s projection of Narendra Modi was distinct even in the 2013 Assembly elections. It helped the BJP improve its assembly tally to 165 from 143 and the Lok Sabha tally from 16 to 27. Anticipating that a victory in 2019 is not assured, many BJP MPs had sought Assembly tickets.
How do the two parties compare on organisational strength?
The BJP has retained its organisational muscle in part, due to the presence of the RSS, while there is a visible improvement in the Congress’s organisation. Some district units that were almost defunct have now come to life. The state Congress headquarters in Bhopal is now abuzz with activity. Though a divided house, it fought the Assembly elections cohesively. For the first time in more than a decade, the Congress has seen BJP leaders like former legislators switching loyalty to it. Until now, it was the Congress that had had to deal with defection from its ranks on crucial occasions. However, the CM continues to be the state Congress chief.
Has the Congress continued the soft Hindutva that marked its campaign?
It has started implementing most of what it had promised in its manifesto to deny the BJP any chance of painting it with an anti-Hindu or pro-minority brush. The government has begun by underlining that despite seeking votes in the name of the cow, the BJP had not opened even one gau shala in the state. The new government has come out with its plan to open 1,000 gau shalas in four months. Its initiatives have won praise from a couple of leading Jain saints. From setting up a spiritual department to increasing honorarium of temple priests, the new government has not slackened its pace.
Are there camps in conflict within the two parties?
The Congress had made it clear that either Kamal Nath or Jyotiraditya Scindia would become the chief minister. Once Nath was made CM, the Scindia camp did not raise a fuss, knowing that he has age on his side. The party has given Scindia a huge responsibility in Uttar Pradesh. After many of his supporters made it to the Assembly, Digvijaya Singh now wields huge clout, but he has made it clear that he is not after any chair. Two Congress leaders, Suresh Pachauri and Ajay Singh, lost.
In the BJP, a section had projected then Chief Minister Chouhan as a counter to Modi ahead of the 2014 elections. Modi’s emphatic victory had made the talk redundant. After losing the 2018 elections, Chouhan apportioned the blame to himself, saying only he was responsible. Now a party vice-president, he continues to praise the Prime Minister the way he did when he was in power. Except veteran Raghunandan Sharma who blamed a remark on reservation by Chouhan for the loss, no other leader has challenged him openly.
Has there been any indication of which sitting MPs the parties are likely to renominate, and which ones could be denied tickets?
The Congress has only three members. Chief Minister Kamal Nath will have to win an Assembly seat in a byelection to validate his stay in office; his son is a strong contender for the Chhhindwara Lok Sabha seat. There is a question mark over Jyotiraditya Scindia contesting the Lok Sabha elections because he has been given charge of Western Uttar Pradesh. Former Union Minister Kantilal Bhuria is the third Congress MP.
The BJP, on the other hand, may be called upon to drop a few; it has reportedly got feedback that these MPs are unlikely to retain their seats. In the Assembly elections, the BJP had denied tickets to 53 MLAs.