In Madhya Pradesh, the relatively better-off among the farmers, those with a marketable surplus, have been debating the depressed farm prices, letting their political loyalties swing in the countdown to the assembly elections. But what is striking is the absence of any single uniform talking point down the rural economic ladder, any one issue that could force the electorate to choose between the ruling BJP and the Opposition Congress.
During conversations with rural voters across assembly segments in Vidisha, Ratlam, Rajgarh, Khandwa, Khargone, Shajapur, Seoni, Sagar, Panna, Damon and Betul districts, those seeking to justify their vote preference for the BJP reel out names and benefits of several small welfare schemes implemented by the Shivraj Singh Chouhan government.
While “change” is in the air after 15 years among a section of the rural strata, it doesn’t appear to have been supplemented by a coherent Congress narrative among voters lower down the economic ladder who want to vote out the Chouhan government. In fact, there is no discernible common strand. Most calling for “change” are those who have been traditional Congress voters.
And in conversations with those have voted BJP in the past, the common refrain is “people are talking about change, there is no harm in change”, clubbed with a litany of local complaints. There’s no indication that they have been won over by Opposition arguments. While examples of beneficiaries of welfare scheme near them is a common factor among voters indicating their preference for the BJP, what at times is common to those trying to justify why they do not want to vote BJP is an uneven grievance, of alleged unfair exclusion from the beneficiary lists of a few schemes. Even here, there appears no single scheme that seems to be the common target across the board.
The talk of “change” does offer a window of opportunity to the Congress to build upon over the next few weeks, but what should worry the Opposition is that all schemes, whether funded by the state or Centre, are credited to Chief Minister Chouhan. Not only does the Congress find no mention in the cheap foodgrain scheme of 5 kg per person, first instituted under the National Food Security law brought by the UPA, not once does anyone the NREGA flagship scheme, even from those indicating their vote preference for the Congress. The credit for the rural roads scheme, launched during the NDA I government of Atal Bihari Vajpayee which was fast-tracked in the UPA era, too does not elicit any Congress mention, either by those supporting the BJP or the Congress.
In Padalipur village of Maheshwar assembly segment in Khargone district, Suresh Naik, who is in his 50s, says, “There are 11 members in our family. We get 55 kg of foodgrains per month. It’s one rupee a kilo now.” Some around him nod in agreement as he tries to explain his vote preference. Narayan Gurjar, many years younger than Naik, asserts his preference for the Congress yet doesn’t think of the UPA food guarantee law as a counter. Instead, he justifies his preference for an altogether different reason — that he has been made to run from pillar to post but has still been unable to secure welfare benefits on account of his disability.
In these conversations, complaints against the BJP government appear more likely to be apportion to the local bureaucracy, virtually distancing Chouhan from any blame. “Shivraj has brought good schemes for the poor, but it is local officers who are troubling the common public. After all, one person (Shivraj) can’t attend to all the problems,” says Jawahar Singh Vishwakarma as he disagrees with another unhappy with the government in Layra village in Kurwai assembly segment of Vidisha district.
A range of schemes, targeted to offer benefits from the cradle to the grave, are all credited to Chouhan by the majority among the rural electorate.
“Earlier when it was Rajiv Gandhi’s government, people used to to get Rs 60,000 or Rs 80,000 for an inter-caste marriage. In the Shivraj government, I received Rs 200,000 for my inter-caste marriage,” says Vishal Pal, who is in his late 20s. From a shepherd community in Junapani-Damdama in the Khandwa assembly segment , he married a Dalit woman and they now have a child.
In contrast, those indicating their preference for the Congress, appear to rationalise their choice on grievances against implementation of these scheme, before falling back to the theme of “change is necessary after 15 years” and how they have been traditional Congress voters. “I have got a two-room house under the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana, but I am told people in neighbouring villages have got 4-room houses,” says Ram Gopal, a tribal in his mid-30s, at Kalighodi in Harsud assembly segment of Khandwa district, justifying his decision to switch to the Congress this time.
Irrespective of reasons behind their vote preferences, the absence of references to crop insurance payments and Bhavantar Bhugtan Yojana, in a way, sets apart this set of electorate from the other which appears relatively better-off with agricultural surplus.
“We can’t bury 100 good things going right in the government for one thing (crop prices),” Pawan Kumar Patel of Koha village in Bima assembly segment in Sagar district. In his mid-30s, he echoes a sentiment of satisfaction over schemes meant for the poor.