Santosh’s tea stall, up the hill from Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Chouhan’s residence, is where BJP workers stop to catch their breath while campaigning for State Home Minister Umashankar Gupta. Santosh is an ardent supporter of Narendra Modi, not just because he is attracted to the idea of having a former fellow tea seller as the Prime Minister, but also because Mr. Modi is a strong leader who constantly attacks people Santosh calls “jame hue log” or status quo-ists.
But Santosh feels that projecting Mr. Modi during the assembly polls was unwise. “Ask even the Congress workers and they will tell you they like Modi. But in MP, especially in Bhopal, there are many Muslim voters. Last time the BJP won despite [former CM] Uma Bharti rebelling. That was because Chouhan sahib is liked by Muslims. Now it is difficult over there,” he says pointing towards a Muslim locality covered with Congress flags.
Muslims can tilt the verdict in at least 70 seats in Madhya Pradesh, in the absence of a wave either for or against any party. From the seats of Bhopal (Central), Bhopal (North), Narela and Burhanpur, where more than 40 per cent of the population is Muslim, three went to the BJP in 2008. The attraction of Muslims to Mr. Chouhan vis-a-vis Mr. Modi is due to the relative peace that has prevailed in the State, despite minor communal flare-ups in Harda and Indore.
“After Modi ji addressed two rallies in Bhopal, we have had to spend more time convincing our people that in MP, Chouhan sahib will continue to be our benefactor,” a Muslim worker of the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh — which backs the BJP — told The Hindu, under anonymity.
The bulk of Mr. Modi’s support and attendance of his rallies comes from the youth. While the BJP claimed that more than seven lakh people attended his meeting in Bhopal on September 25, Mr. Modi’s rally on November 18 saw a turnout of around 5000. The presence of young supporters was the saving grace that allowed the rally to be justified with minimal loss of face.
Former Chief Minister Babulal Gaur of the BJP, a nine-time MLA, says that the pros of Mr. Modi outweigh his cons. “So many young voters are attracted to him. He is projecting the image of a good leader who wants India to develop. Finally the public will decide which MLA they choose, but Modi ji is certainly winning new supporters, and not damaging any votebank as you may think,” he said.
A senior minister told The Hindu that while Mr. Modi definitely has a salutary effect on the youth, assembly polls are won on the basis of familiarity with the candidate and the image of the party. “We will reap the dividends of Modi ji in the Lok Sabha polls. Of course, he should campaign here but we must not overuse him. He does not control the verdict of this election as it is the State government’s work which will be judged,” he said
Mr. Modi’s images are conspicuous by their absence in poll paraphernalia, except during rallies when his masks are distributed. He has addressed several areas in seats reserved for Scheduled Tribes such as Shahdol, Singrauli, Barwani and Jhabua. The BJP holds 30 of the 47 seats reserved for tribals.
A functionary of the Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha in Shahdol said that non-Adivasis are able to enjoy Mr. Modi’s speeches and sarcasm better than Adivasis.
“Most Adivasis in rural areas only know the face of Shivraj Chouhan as it is on the government signboards. For Modi ji’s rally, we had to tell them that he is going to become to ruler of the country and he is bigger than Chouhan sahib.
For Congress workers, it is easier to bring crowds as they say that Rahul ji is Indira Gandhi’s grandson and villagers know Indira ji’s name,” he said.
Mr. Modi himself said in his recent speech in Bhopal that victory had already been earned due to the efforts of Mr. Chouhan, and he had merely come to the State “to earn punya [blessings] by washing my hands in the Ganges of victory.”