Madhya Pradesh, with its 51 districts and myriad climes and cultures, can be described as a state of states. Covering its Assembly poll was wonderful not just because it was my first time covering one, but also because it was a time when the electorate wears its true colours on its sleeves.
Don’t assume. There were things I took for granted earlier. For example, if a prominent politician makes a declaration or enters an agreement on a public platform, she or he usually means business. The constants we assume in this equation is that the clout of the leader applies universally in the space he or she operates in. In the case of a public agreement with another party, we also assume that the sanction and acceptance of the agreement by their supporters will largely remain constant. In May this year, former Lok Sabha Speaker PA Sangma addressed a public meeting, in Mandla, with the leadership of the Gondwana movement—a mostly tribal political tendency in Central India that focuses on securing human rights of Adivasis. One of their main demands is the formation of a separate Gondwana state that includes districts with significant populations of Scheduled Tribes in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh. The meeting was also a unity conference of leaders from most of the splinter groups of the Gondwana Gantantra Party (GGP) that once held three of the 230 seats in the Assembly. Sangma’s National People’s Party (NPP) and the GGP even announced an alliance. Less than six months later, the three main factions of the GGP and the NPP fielded candidates against each other. With the Gondwana politicians however, the split was predictable. Unlike the Left, which up until the last day of filing nominations hoped that its wishful alliance with the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Rashtriya Samanta Dal (RSD) would hold. Even without the SP, it’s ally in Bengal, the union with the RSD— a party that makes hay representing the marginalised Kushwaha caste— was considered a done deal. Communist politicians in MP spoke fondly of their alliance with the RSD almost as if they had infused working class consciousness into a purely casteist party devoid of any economic ideology or philosophy. All that’s left of the unborn alliance of the Left are accusations on each other of either selling tickets or not being serious about politics to begin with. Feudalism for some is culture for others. It’s no secret that former princes and their descendants have been a significant political force in Central India since Independence. It’s also known that despite the abolishment of titles in 1971, former royal families continue to be addressed by their imperial honorific. What I assumed was that this applied only to their immediate associates and not large sections of the populations throughout the territories of former princely states. A recent visit to Shivpuri demolished all my illusions that we had completely transformed from a colony to a republic. On reaching the town, I went to the BJP office to ask for the local candidate Yashodhara Raje Scindia, the daughter of George Jiwaji Rao Scindia—the last Maharaja of Gwalior. On referring to her as “madam”, the office secretary instantly retorted: “You will only address her as Shrimant or Maharaj Saab.” Almost everyone I interviewed in Shivpuri echoed the same platitude, “This is Maharaj Saab’s territory.”Although many admitted privately of growing discontent over unemployment and inaccessible bureaucracy, almost no one, not even the Congress workers, were willing to discuss Yashodhara’s politics. This however does not take away from the fact that her politics is as serious as any other candidate’s. She remembers the names of her supporters and their children. In fact all the Scindias in the race, which include her sister Vasundhara Raje in Rajasthan and her nephew Jyotiraditya Scindia in MP, put in far more leg work that many provincial politicians. The perk Yashodhara enjoys vis-a-vis the other candidates on Shivpuri is that she doesn’t need to exit her jeep too often on the campaign trail. People a drawn towards her; they simply bow and pay their respects. She is spared the messy demands and theatrical anger of the electorate faced by other politicians. That’s for her party men to deal with. “It’s our culture,” a local trader— who confessed that he was not voting for the BJP— told me. “Brahmins are called Pandit ji, Rajputs are called Thakur saab or Dao Saab in the Vindhya region. We traders are called Lalaji. Kings are called Maharaj. Law or no law, this is the language we use.” I asked him what he calls dalits or tribals or even the lower peasantry among the backward castes. “But these are common people,” he replied exasperated. “Not respectable people like you and me.” Don’t predict. I admit this is one lesson I have not learnt well enough. A long time back, a journalist from Bihar told me about a political editor who had written an OpEd in 2005 saying the Rashtriya Janata Dal would return to power. After he filed his copy, the Resident Editor called him to his cabin and said that his inputs from the field indicated that the Janata Dal (United) would capture power. “Spike it,” said the political editor using an old journalese term for scrapping a report. “I’ll write a fresh OpEd and make Nitish Kumar the CM.” What seemed opportunistic to me then, seems realistic now. At any point of time, in any polling booth, it is impossible to be a 100 per cent sure of who may win. Indeed, if there was certainty, then why would 2583 candidates fight for 230 seats in MP. A police officer posted in the Election Commission told this blog that the state president of a national party— that currently does not have any representation in the assembly— told him that he was sure of winning at least 30 seats. Almost every independent or small party in the race has statistics to prove that he or she has a chance provided there is a level playing field. It is tempting to predict, which I have done when pressed for my opinion. But behind the two main predictions that either BJP or Congress will win there are several other factors such as high voter turnout in minority or tribal settlements, surge in voting in the last hour, whether smaller parties will split the votes and so on. These are nice ideas to hedge one’s bets on but the main reason why I think it’s unwise to predict is due to what a village elder, who presumably influences the voting pattern in his hamlet, told me at a Congress rally in Morena. “I am with the SP although we are BSP voters here. We will make Chouhan saab (the incumbent BJP CM) our CM but this time we won’t vote for the BJP.”