Congress-BJP fight in Madhya Pradesh: Tie on Hindu credentials, toss-up on livelihood issues

Congress won only two of the 29 in Madhya Pradesh in 2014. In the 2018 Assembly election, the Congress took a lead in 11 Lok Sabha constituencies.

Updated - March 31, 2019 10:44 pm IST

Published - March 31, 2019 09:20 pm IST - Bhopal

This city has not sent a Congress member to the Lok Sabha since 1984, and nobody expected anything different in 2019, even a month ago. But Congress veteran Digvijaya Singh’s abrupt entry into the fray has opened up the possibility of a fierce contest in an otherwise predictable seat.

“Every contest has its challenges. Let us see,” Mr. Singh told The Hindu . “The Congress will win 20 seats in the State.”

The party won only two of the 29 in Madhya Pradesh in 2014. In the 2018 Assembly election, the Congress took a lead in 11 Lok Sabha constituencies. The party returned to power in the State after a break of 15 years, though without a simple majority in the Assembly.

Without a break

The BJP has been winning several seats in the State election after election. Though the Congress was in power in the State, the BJP did better than it in the Lok Sabha elections of 1996, 1998 and 1999. Eleven seats in 2009 was the best performance of the Congress after 1984.

The Congress leadership mostly included Rajputs and Brahmins, while the BJP had a long line of backward caste leaders — Babulal Gaur, Uma Bharati, Shivraj Singh Chouhan — to consolidate the Hindu votes.

The Congress leaders were targeted as “anti-Hindu” and “pro-Muslim”. Mr. Singh and other Congress leaders made an effort to repackage themselves as authentic Hindus in the face of this BJP campaign.

Mr. Singh, 70, went on a tough pilgrimage last year — the circumambulation of the Narmada, walking around 3,000 km — and reinvented his political image in the process. “He has buttressed his Hindu credentials with the yatra,” a government official said. A slew of measures by Chief Minister Kamal Nath also has burnished the “pro-Hindu” image of the Congress.

“People do not see much of a difference between the Congress and the BJP with regard to Hindu sentiments,” Rakesh Dixit, political commentator, said. Even “Jai Shri Ram” slogans are heard in some Congress meetings these days.

With the BJP’s Hindutva edge blunted, the Congress hopes to focus the campaign on economic and livelihood issues.

The massive crash in prices of agricultural commodities in the past five years, particularly of soya bean, chickpea and black gram, has angered the farmers. Soya bean fetched ₹4700 a quintal in 2014; now it is less than ₹3000.

Even in Vidisha, a BJP stronghold, there are murmurs of protest against Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Just murmurs, not any outcry.

At a market nearly 20 km from Vidisha, Vijay Aggarwal, a trader is all outraged against Mr. Modi. “He has done nothing, and what he has done is harmful. Trade has been messed up by demonetisation. And where is the temple in Ayodhya? Everyone wants change,” he said.

The farmers who dropped in on the conversation on and off, largely did not agree. While they express resentment about poor prices for produce and the debt trap, the target of their ire is not Mr. Modi.

Curiously, the Congress government in the State, which is only 90 days old, faces flak for incomplete implementation of the farm loan waiver that the party had promised during the election.


The absence of any palpable anti-incumbency sentiments against Mr. Modi is what the BJP hopes to cash in on.

“The BJP government at the Centre has been a pro-poor government, and the people of the State have benefited from it. On the other side, within three months, the State government of the Congress has exposed itself for its betrayal of the promises of loan waiver. People have not got what they were promised. We will win no fewer than the seats we won in 2014,” Govind Maloo, BJP spokesperson, said.

But the Congress believes that the BJP’s plans to make it a referendum on Mr. Modi and his hypernationalism and national security will not succeed in the State.

“Those will be marginal factors and constituency-level factors will be determining the outcome. Here, the BJP is at a disadvantage as they are the incumbents in most constituencies,” a Congress strategist, who did not want to be named, said.

The Assembly election in November did not produce a conclusive victory for the Congress or the defeat of the BJP. Several observers expect the confusion to continue in the Lok Sabha election. But one trend of November could likely continue — a reduction in the gap between urban and rural voters.

The Congress performed less unevenly across urban and rural constituencies in 2018, compared with 2013. It won 56% of the rural seats and 40% of the urban one against 32% and 8%, respectively, in 2013. Disappointment with Mr. Modi’s economic scorecard in urban centres is the most cited reason for this. These are tentative pointers, and could change when Mr. Modi unleashes his unmatched ability to frame issues in a manner that suits him once campaigning picks up.

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