In Madhya Pradesh, the gains of the Congress are even more remarkable than what the aggregate figures suggested: Not only has the party doubled the number of its seats, but this achievement is even more interesting when scrutinised at the local level.
First, the Congress has swept the polls in areas which used to be the BJP’s strongholds, including Malwa, the oldest bastion of the Hindutva forces where the Jana Sangh had carved out its first base and from where stalwarts of the BJP had been elected — including AB Vajpayee and Shivraj Chouhan who had won in Vidisha, a seat now lost to the Congress.
Second, the Grand Old Party has doubled the number of Scheduled Tribe seats, jumping from 15 to 30, including in regions where the BJP used to be strong like Khargone, the constituency of former Chief Minister Kailash Joshi.
Thirdly, and more importantly, while the performance of the Congress has much to do with its inroads in rural Madhya Pradesh — it bagged 78 of the 148 rural seats — it has almost caught up with the BJP in urban constituencies, which is probably the most unexpected result: It won 33 of the 82 urban seats.
How can we explain this “success story” that took place in spite of Chouhan visiting each district at least twice during the election campaign — he has held more than 300 meetings in all?
The BJP has been badly affected by the anti-incumbency effect that was bound to unfold after three terms. But for good reasons: The peasantry had been neglected in such a way that protests had multiplied in 2017, as evident from the Mandsaur district incidents last year; even more than the farmers, if we go by the Lokniti-CSDS-ABP survey of November last, the BJP had alienated the farm labourers who, after the reduction of the MGNREGA scheme, resented joblessness the most, the number one issue for everybody according to the survey; the tribals had also been at the receiving hand of the BJP’s policy vis-à-vis access to forest products and land. The government had not handled the caste issue very well either: On the one hand, it wanted to reassure the SC/STs after the dilution of the anti-atrocities act by the Supreme Court, on the other hand, it tried to resist the counter-mobilisation of the upper castes who got organised under the banner of the SAPAKS (Samanya Pichda Varg Alpsankhyak Karmachari Sangathan) and were behind the Savarna Bharat Bandh in September last.
Madhya Pradesh has been one of the states where Dalits mobilised the most intensely in reaction to the Supreme Court’s judgement, their protest resulting in police repression that caused eight casualties in Gwalior area in April last. The Lokniti-CSDS-ABP survey showed that the controversy over the SC/ST Act was “a very important election issue” for 50 per cent of the upper caste interviewees, 53 per cent of the Dalit interviewees and 62 per cent of the Adivasis. It also mentioned that corruption was a particularly salient issue in MP, the Vyapam state, compared to Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh.
This analysis needs to be qualified, though. First, the resilience of Chouhan after three terms is exceptional: After all, the BJP and Congress got the same percentage of the valid votes and the BJP lagged behind the Congress by only five seats. Second, the Congress won this election as much as the BJP lost it, as is evident from the impact of the party’s unity (in a state known for Congress factionalism), the effectiveness of Jyotiraditya Scindia’s campaigning and the relevance of Rahul Gandhi’s tactic, including his promises to waive farmers’ loans and his attacks on the BJP’s alleged corruption and demonetisation — as well as his visits to Hindu temples that deprived the BJP of its claim to solely represent the majority community, a move that did not prevent Kamal Nath from relating to Muslims directly. Incidentally, according to the Lokniti-CSDS-ABP survey, Rahul Gandhi was more popular in MP than in the other states which went to polls this time.
Can this scenario be a blueprint for 2019? Here, many “ifs” need to be factored in.
First, Rahul Gandhi, whose authority over the party — and on the Indian political scene at large — has suddenly increased, will have to contain the return of factionalism after the appointment of the chief minister, a decision that will inevitably result in frustrations and resentments. The chief architect of the Congress’ campaign in his capacity as MPCC president, Kamal Nath, is not as popular as Jyotiraditya Scindia in the state.
Secondly, the element of anti-incumbency that worked in favour of the Congress will have vanished. One implication of this development will be in respect to the shifting of supporters of BSP and other small parties like the Jai Adivasi Yuva Shakti that could not attract tribal voters in large numbers: While they sided with the Congress so as not to waste their vote this time, they may not feel the same way in 2019 — one more good reason for the Congress to tie up with the BSP next year, if this is not yet done. The Lokniti-CSDS-ABP survey shows that 56 per cent of “the BSP leaning voters” wanted a tie-up between the BSP and Congress before the elections.