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Is 2023 MP Assembly Election CM Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s Waterloo?

A touch of personal angst against the BJP animates the Congress campaign led by Kamal Nath, but will promises be enough?
Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan(PTI)

Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan. Image Courtesy: PTI

Will four-time Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan meet his Waterloo in the high-stakes Assembly election, for which the campaign is in full swing? After eighteen years in power, Chouhan is waging a do-or-die battle, countering a strong anti-incumbency wave and a series of corruption charges against him and his party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

In the rival Congress camp, battle-hardy Kamal Nath, 77 years old, is in the thick of perhaps his last major electoral contest. There’s surely a touch of the personal in his campaign, for he and the Congress were out-manoeuvred by the BJP just a year and a half into their last term in power. The Congress has claimed that the BJP engineered the defection of its leader, Jyotiraditya Scindia, with a band of 17 legislators, to the opposite camp in 2020.

Accordingly, Nath has travelled to every nook and corner of Madhya Pradesh, describing Chauhan as “Lootera Mama” and insisting his government is synonymous with “a 50 per cent commission sarkar”, implying that it takes excessive and illegal payments to provide the public and businesses with access to government services and benefits. 

This summer, the Congress party released an Aarop Patra, or letter of allegations, listing over 250 “scams” during the Chouhan terms. The most prominent allegations relate to irregularities in recruitment schemes, including for contractual nursing staff and the infamous Vyapam case, which seems to have gained some resonance on the street. 

There are also charges of wrongdoings in the Patwari Recruitment Scheme, in which seven of the top ten candidates were allegedly from the same college, which a BJP Member of the Legislative Assembly is said to run.

“Mama”, or maternal uncle in Hindi, is Chouhan’s nickname in Madhya Pradesh, a symptom and an outcome of the strong support he has garnered amongst women voters in the state. He has initiated many of the state government’s welfare schemes, which have women and girls as direct or indirect beneficiaries. 

But the Congress party alleges that there were ‘scams’ in the schemes for women and families, including the so-called Poshan Aahaar scam, in which around Rs 500 crore worth of supplementary nutrition reportedly failed to reach malnourished children. The grand old party has also raked up alleged irregularities in the mid-day meal scheme in Madhya Pradesh.

Women Voters Matter

Chouhan has countered this barrage of criticism by introducing the much-publicised Ladli Behana [Beloved Sister] Scheme, in which it is claimed Rs 1,250 has been deposited in the bank accounts of over 1.32 crore underprivileged women over six months. The BJP believes this scheme will help them win the electoral battle again.

But what is the perception of the women in Madhya Pradesh? Do they believe this monthly payment can ensure one more term for the Chouhan government?

Neelam Agnihotri, a Bhopal-based housewife who runs a small boutique from her home, says, “Middle-class families are not eligible for all these ‘sops’. We have to deal with the rising cost of education, health care and food. We have not received any respite from this government.” 

Budhabai, a resident of village Multai in the Betul district of southern Madhya Pradesh, from where the Tapti River originates, says, “Of the 1,200 women in our village, only 470 were found eligible for the Ladli Behana Yojana. They have been getting Rs 1,000 a month for three months, but what about the rest? I, too, had applied, but I I am not a recipient.” Incomplete coverage, she believes, is the case in most villages.

In Madhya Pradesh, women comprise a sizeable voter base. In the last state election, women voters exceeded male voters in 52 constituencies. “Mama” has wooed them with schemes like the Ladli Lakshmi Yojana, the Kanya Vivah scheme and Nikah Yojana (both for marriage expenses) and he has promised to hike the monthly instalment of the Ladli Behana Yojana to Rs 3,000 if he is re-elected.

The Congress has countered with Rs 1,500 per month for women, cooking gas for Rs 500, a hefty cut from the current price of LPG cylinders, free power up to 100 units of consumption and a 50% waiver for up to 200 units of consumption. It has also promised to revive the Old Pension Scheme and a farm loan waiver.

Dr Sunilam, a physicist, anti-corruption crusader and former Samajwadi Party MLA, believes the Congress made a strategic error by announcing its commitments six months before the election. “These could have proved a game-changer but Chouhan turned the tables with the Ladli Behana Yojana. Now, its beneficiaries believe it is better to vote for a party already delivering money than one who claims it will once it comes to power,” says Dr Sunilam, who also heads an outfit called the Kisan Sangarsh Samiti, which is fighting a long-drawn-out legal battle for justice for the 24 farmers killed in police firing on 12 January 1998.

Farm Distress

Given the high number of farmer suicides in Madhya Pradesh—around 21,000 farmers have died by suicide during successive Chouhan regimes—and as farm distress grows, especially in the Malwa-Nimad and Chambal regions, it is natural the farmers are upset. 

Around 70% of the state’s agriculture is rain-fed and recurrent drought-like conditions and floods have broken the back of farmers. Madhya Pradesh farmers also reel under the burden of high-interest loans, especially from informal channels such as moneylenders. 

In Chouhan’s Budhni constituency in the Sehore district, just 70 km from Bhopal, unhappy farmers complain about their damaged soybean crop and how the Prime Minister’s crop insurance scheme has brought them only a fraction of what they ought to get.

Alleges farmer Ramesh Bhalla, “We are getting [insurance claims at a rate of] Rs 1,200, whereas according to the provision, the rate should be Rs 32,000. This is because the patwaris are siphoning off the money.”

The Congress party’s long list of promises includes the “Krishak Nyay Yojana”, promising free power to 40 lakh farmers and a rebate in power consumption for agricultural purposes. 

The farmers’ ire is also getting directed against Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar, whom they blame for the unpopular farm laws, which were withdrawn two years ago. Tomar is one of four ‘hand-picked’ leaders (and possible chief ministerial aspirant), but he is fighting with his back against the wall from the Dimani Assembly constituency in the Morena district, which he represents in the Lok Sabha. 

That said, the Chambal region has for long been the Achilles heel of the BJP. The Congress won all six Assembly seats in this belt in the 2018 Assembly election. The farmers here lack water, fertilisers, and much more and they are determined to defeat the BJP.

Recent video clips, allegedly of Tomar’s son Devendra, “discussing transactions” worth crores are being widely discussed in the Chambal belt. Tomar has described this as a “well-planned conspiracy”.

Landless farmers in Chambal and other parts of Madhya Pradesh are especially angry over the dysfunctional MNREGS, which, they say, has not been operations for six months. Congress leaders such as Indore-based former minister Suresh Pachouri has alleged that 75% of MNREGS funds are unutilised.

Says Dr Sunilam, “The poor and distressed were no longer getting money from this scheme. The same applies to the pension schemes for the widows and disabled. These funds were being diverted for other schemes.”

Muslim Voters

Many Muslims in Bhopal believe that the “soft” Hindutva appeal that Chouhan had cultivated got him their votes. Now, they say, Chouhan has been forced to adopt a hard Hindutva approach due to the hardline approach of his rivals within the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). This rivalry saw bulldozers bringing down homes of the poor and Muslims in the state.

That action has given wings to the Congress’s campaign, in which Nath has been saying the people will drive a bulldozer over the “corruption and ineptitude” of the government.

Muslims comprise around 7% of the population of Madhya Pradesh and live across 19 districts, including Bhopal, Indore, Jabalpur, Ratlam, Gwalior, Shajapur, Neemuch and Ujjain.

In the predominantly Muslim Jahangirpura locality in Bhopal, Pervez Mohammad, who runs a small hardware shop, admits he is unhappy with the soft Hindutva adopted by Congress leaders, including Nath. But he believes a Congress victory would give the Muslims “some breathing space”. He says, “We will vote for the Congress because they will end this bulldozer culture and the discriminatory policies of the BJP.”

Party Conflicts

Loyalists of the heavyweight leader and BJP general secretary Kailash Vijayvargiya believe he might be pitted against Chouhan if the BJP wins this election. The Congress has accused him of concealing a pending rape charge against him from the Election Commission, after which Vijayvargiya had publicly said, “I had no desire to contest… I am a senior leader—will I ask for votes with folded hands?” Yet he filed his nomination from the Indore 1 constituency.

Nath certainly appears to be the face of the Congress party in Bhopal. Party banners feature his pictures alongside local leaders, but few posters display Rahul Gandhi or Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge.

In Nath’s constituency, Chhindwara, around 280 km from Bhopal, it is obvious that this is a much-favoured town with numerous showrooms selling branded goods and roads littered with multi-speciality hospitals. Nath hopes to ride an anti-incumbency wave while raising price rise, unemployment, and other peoples’ concerns. 

But the Congress campaign lacks the financial muscle and organisational strengths that favour the BJP.

Bhopal-based commentator Anurag Modi, a member of the Samajwadi Jan Parishad, believes the Congress has an edge in this election. “The BJP has only Hindutva as its achievement. Kamal Nath is ideologically neutral. He has neutralised the Hindutva card by organising pujas, etc. During his 15-month stint, he ensured a loan waiver for 21 lakh farmers, which has not been forgotten. The BJP is strong in urban centres but the 170 rural seats are likely to support the Congress.”

The author is an independent journalist. The views are personal.

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