The Madhya Pradesh polls on November 25 are being seen as an acid test for Shivraj Singh Chouhan and Jyotiraditya Scindia. This election could very well make or break their political careers. Pheroze L. Vincent reports

The battle for control of the 230-member Madhya Pradesh Vidhan Sabha has evolved from populist promises and trading of corruption charges to a clash of personalities. The ruling BJP has become synonymous with its Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan — who is aiming for a hat trick. The main Opposition, Congress, is rallying around the head of its campaign committee — Union Minister of State for Power Jyotiraditya Scindia. The competition between the two parties is symbolised by the contrasting styles and ideas of their commanders in this election.

Mr. Chouhan projects himself as a doyen of the masses; the son of a peasant who is being prevented by royals like Mr. Scindia from continuing his welfare schemes. He refers to himself as “Mamaji” or maternal uncle in his speeches. Mr. Scindia, who is one of the few politicians untouched by any major allegations of corruption, has been cast as the voice of the youth whose aspirations, he claims, the BJP cannot fulfil. Referred to by his supporters as “Maharaja” or “Shrimant” — the honorific of the Scindia royal family — his bases are in the districts that formed the erstwhile Gwalior State, which extended from Mandsaur bordering Rajasthan, to Bhind in the North, bordering Uttar Pradesh.

According to A.P.S. Chouhan, head of the politics department of Jiwaji University in Gwalior — the capital of the erstwhile Scindia Kingdom — it is traditional loyalty to the royal family, coupled with anti-incumbency that is drawing crowds to Mr. Scindia’s rallies. “He benefits from the goodwill generated by welfare trusts his family runs. This coupled with his record, youth, looks and oratory attracts voters. Shivraj may still maintain a good image but there is widespread resentment against corrupt ministers and BJP leaders, even from their own cadre. These people are looking for an alternative,” he says

But votes have eluded the Congress in the past decade of BJP rule, even in Mr. Scindia’s native Gwalior and his parliamentary constituency of Guna. The Congress cumulatively holds a fourth of the Assembly segments in these two Lok Sabha seats. While the Scindias — be it Jyotiraditya, or his aunt Yashodhara Raje of the BJP — win hands down, the performance of their parties has depended on the popularity of individual candidates and the public perception of the Shivraj regime.

“Shivraj,” says journalist and author Shirish Khare, “has built his image with great care. He has taken credit for all welfare schemes, irrespective of the individual ministers who implement them. The BJP, as a party and an ideology, has vanished to make way for Brand Shivraj.” But this image of a populist son-of-the-soil has created formidable rivals for the Chief Minister within his own party — the most influential of them being former Chief Minister Uma Bharti.

Ms. Bharti continues to command the respect of her Lodi caste, besides the admiration of the Hindutva fundamentalists in MP, even though she is now an MLA in Uttar Pradesh. Mr. Chouhan’s Kirar caste has increased its clout, during his eight-year rule. The support of both the communities is critical in more than a fourth of seats.

But where Mr. Chouhan gains over Mr. Scindia is experience. “He has no experience of State politics, and by choosing to hold his ministry even during campaigning, he is unable to do justice to either,” says Rasheed Kidwai, veteran journalist and author of two books on the Congress. “The Congress’s rallies have been for each administrative division, unlike Mr. Chouhan’s Jan Ashirwad Yatra, which is constituency wise.

Mr. Scindia’s lack of exposure had led him to take (Union Urban Development Minister) Kamal Nath’s help for campaigning,” he explains.

Mr. Kidwai adds that while Chouhan is facing dissent from within his party, his familiarity with grassroots electoral equations give him an edge over poll management vis-a-vis Mr. Scindia.

To Mr. Scindia’s credit, the faction-ridden Congress in MP has managed to put up a united front and attract large crowds to its rallies despite the differences between Mr. Scindia, a Maratha, and Rajput leaders like former CM Digvijaya Singh.

Mr. Chouhan is seen by his admirers within and outside the BJP, including former Deputy PM L.K. Advani, as an alternative to the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi. Mr. Scindia is seen as a reflection of his father, the late minister Madhavrao Scindia. A defeat for the Congress will not end Mr. Scindia’s political career, as much as it will decimate his party in MP. A defeat for Mr. Chouhan would cast a long shadow over his political future.