Although Shivraj Singh Chouhan is very popular in Madhya Pradesh, the opposition campaign alleging corruption and the discontent within the BJP have made the Congress a close contender

Three forlorn figures — all former Chief Ministers, now in their 80s — sat huddled together on a vast stage in Bhopal’s Dussehra Maidan on November 18, waiting for Bharatiya Janata Party star Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi to arrive. An hour rolled by, the evening temperature dipped, and Sunderlal Patwa wrapped his head in a white shawl, shrinking into his chair, as Kailash Joshi and Babulal Gaur (a Minister in the Shivraj Singh Chouhan government and again in the electoral fray) looked sadly on.

If a picture could tell a story, this one does like no other.

The three men, who spent six decades helping to build the Jan Sangh and then the BJP in Madhya Pradesh, and rose, by turn, to become Chief Minister, now hover on the margins. They grew up in an era when the emphasis was on collective effort; today, they find themselves at odds with a BJP where the individual towers over the party, as Chief Minister Chouhan does, gazing down at the populace from giant billboards across the State.

Indeed, Mr. Chouhan has, in his own quiet way, built an aura around himself. But he does not play the strong man, like Mr. Modi; he prefers to be “Mamaji” to his adoring nieces with schemes aimed at schoolgirls, young brides and expectant mothers. It is hard to find people critical of him, as one travels through the State.

But is that enough to power the BJP to a third straight victory? “Elections revolve around, content, campaign and candidates,” Mr. Gaur tells The Hindu. “A good governance record and an effective campaign can be neutralised by corrupt, ineffective candidates.” Mr. Chouhan, he stresses, can, at best “create positive atmospherics,” but the average voter “is more concerned about the candidates’ record.” Therefore, the BJP may have to pay a price for failing to drop many of its unpopular MLAs, he says.

Old guard and rivals

Mr. Gaur’s critique of his own party is corroborated by the fact that praise for Mr. Chouhan from ordinary voters is only too often accompanied by complaints of corruption against the local MLA. In Khargone district’s Kasrawad Assembly constituency, Narendra Patidar, a tea stall owner says, “Atmaram Patel [the BJP candidate] should not have been renamed but, yes, Shivraj Chouhan is very popular.”

Add the fact that the party’s old guard, which continues to wield influence in the State, wants to see Mr. Chouhan cut down to size, while rivals from the Chief Minister’s own generation won’t mind seeing him stumble. Former Chief Minister Uma Bharti, whose protégé Mr. Chouhan once was, BJP sources say, is unhappy with the way she has been treated since her return to the party while Industry Minister Kailash Vijayvargiya is nursing his wounds.

The Congress, plagued by factionalism, poor selection of candidates and rebels (rebellion has affected the once disciplined BJP as well) has, in recent days, therefore, focussed its energies on shattering Mr. Chouhan’s image by allegations against his immediate family.

Manak Aggarwal, a senior Congress functionary in the State, unfazed by the defamation suit filed by the Chief Minister, says the party will continue to train its guns on Mr. Chouhan: “This should have been our strategy from the start. There has been so much corruption in these 10 years of BJP rule, and the Chief Minister wants to pretend he has nothing to do with any of it.”

Spotlight on Jyotiraditya

The Congress has also made positive gains from Union Minister of State for Power Jyotiraditya Scindia being named the Congress’s campaign committee chief. The general belief among voters is that he is the party’s chief ministerial candidate, even if he has not been named as such. BJP leaders admit that Mr. Scindia’s vigorous campaigning has made a dent in their vote base because of two reasons — his appeal to youth as well as his ability to reinvigorate the family support base in the Gwalior-Guna-Shivpuri-Vidisha belt. Posters of Shashank Bhargava, the Congress candidate challenging Mr. Chouhan in Vidisha, are dominated by images of Mr. Scindia.

It is also widely believed that he has the backing of the Central leadership, even if party heavyweights in the State are wary of his rise. On the ground, he has gained traction with voters repeatedly saying Mr. Scindia should have been brought in to campaign at an earlier stage. He is also the first new face after years of the State’s politics being dominated by former Chief Minister Digvijaya Singh (whose critics say he did not allow a second rung to emerge), and Union Urban Development/Parliamentary Affairs Minister Kamal Nath. Of course, there is the late Arjun Singh’s son, Ajay Singh, the Leader of the Opposition, but he has not made much of an impression.

Congress leaders also point out that over the last six months or so, the party has won the municipalities of Umaria, Mandideep, Harda, Churhat, Betul, Omkareshwar and Anuppur. In Anuppur, the Congress’s victory in September this year was noteworthy as several senior BJP leaders camped in the town close to the Chhattisgarh border.

Modi factor

Finally, Mr. Modi simply has not made the impact in Madhya Pradesh that he was expected to: attendance at his election rallies have been uniformly thin. In villages people see Mr. Chouhan as their saviour, Mr. Modi as an outsider. On the other hand, Muslims who have no aversion for Mr. Chouhan see the Gujarat Chief Minister as an enemy of the community.

So, as the people of Madhya Pradesh go to the polls today, the contest between the BJP and the Congress might just be closer than the opinion polls have so far suggested.

smita.g@thehindu.co.in

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