To view the Assembly elections to the five States as primarily a pointer to or a rehearsal for the Lok Sabha election next year is to downplay the significance of the local, livelihood issues at the heart of the current campaign. In Madhya Pradesh, the largest of the five States, the hero of the Bharatiya Janata Party is not Narendra Modi, but Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan. More than the corruption charges against the Congress, what seems to matter for the moment is the performance of Mr. Chouhan. With two signature schemes, the Ladli Lakshmi Yojna, which provides financial assistance for education to girls, and the Kanyadhan Yojna, which extends financial assistance at the time of marriage, Mr. Chouhan seems to have won over the support of large sections of women. If there is any anti-incumbency sentiment in Madhya Pradesh, it is certainly not on a scale that could be a cause of worry for Mr. Chouhan. But while the BJP is able to make the most of the successful implementation of State government schemes, the Congress is struggling to do the same with its own pet schemes at the Centre. Indeed, credit for some of the Central schemes is being given to Mr. Chouhan. The relatively better schemes of the Centre such as the one under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, date back to the first term of the United Progressive Alliance government. And other initiatives, such as the Food Security Act, came rather late in the second term of the UPA.
Over the last eight years, in sharp contrast to the brief period when Uma Bharti was at the helm, Mr. Chouhan did shift the focus to development from Hindutva. Voters repaid him with a new mandate in 2008, and the BJP must be hoping nothing much has changed on the ground since then. But alongside the battle between the BJP and the Congress in Madhya Pradesh, another battle between Mr. Modi and Mr. Chouhan is being played out. As a fellow-BJP Chief Minister, and of a State larger than Gujarat, Mr. Chouhan would not like to cede ground to Mr. Modi in Madhya Pradesh. Of course, thanks to his greater national visibility, Mr. Modi will have his own band of supporters everywhere. But as was evident during the controversy stirred up by senior BJP leader L.K. Advani against the elevation of Mr. Modi as a prime ministerial candidate, Mr. Chouhan could turn out to be a player at the national level as well. Mr. Advani went out of the way to argue that Mr. Chouhan was among the best-performing chief ministers of the BJP. A big win in Madhya Pradesh would not only be a boost for Mr. Chouhan, but might also change some of the equations at the national level for the BJP.