On a political high road from Bhopal to Chhindwara via Budhni

From the constituency of incumbent Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan to the bastion of Congress veteran Kamal Nath, while the BJP and Congress fight a pitched battle, the voters’ concerns are more or less the same

November 07, 2023 08:07 pm | Updated 10:08 pm IST - Bhopal, Budhni, Betul, Chhindwara

Anita Selu (centre), a tribal woman from Betul district of Madhya Pradesh, goes to fetch the wood in the forest on November 7, 2023 with her mother Darshama (left) and her niece, as her husband, a labourer, struggles to find regular work.

Anita Selu (centre), a tribal woman from Betul district of Madhya Pradesh, goes to fetch the wood in the forest on November 7, 2023 with her mother Darshama (left) and her niece, as her husband, a labourer, struggles to find regular work. | Photo Credit: A. M. Faruqui

The national highway from Bhopal to Nagpur could easily be one of the most politically significant routes in Madhya Pradesh now. Around 70 km from Bhopal is Budhni, the constituency of incumbent Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan, while Chhindwara, the bastion of Congress veteran Kamal Nath, is roughly 280 km away from the State capital. A journey down this road, passing through several constituencies, including Hoshangabad, Ghoradongri, Amla and Betul provides a glimpse of the pitched battle that is being fought between the BJP and the Congress.

At a dhaba that falls under the Budhni constituency, an intense debate breaks out over who would be the next Chief Minister. “Shivraj bhaiyya is popular but it will be difficult for him to become CM again,” declared Nemi Kushwaha, who is in his early 40s. “This time, there is a wave in favour of Scindia-ji,” he added, referring to Civil Aviation Minister Jyotiraditya Scindia as a potential chief ministerial contender.

Among a section of the BJP’s supporters, it is a common refrain that the party should pick a young leader like Mr. Scindia as the next CM to bear voter fatigue with Mr Chouhan. However, there are many loyalists of Mr. Singh batting for another term for him. “How can Scindia-ji be the CM? He has recently come from the Congress and he is too young to be CM,” argued Nilesh Mehra, Mr. Kushwaha’s friend and co-worker.

For now, the BJP has settled the debate by emphasising Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s leadership. Mr. Modi’s image stand out in every poster, and he continues to be the BJP’s chief campaigner.

Neither Mr. Kushwaha nor Mr. Mehra mention as their choice Mr. Nath, the Congress challenger contesting his second Assembly election from Chhindwara. But as one gets off the Bhopal-Nagpur national highway, after crossing Shahpur, voices supporting Mr. Nath grow.

About 110 km before Chhindwara lies the tribal-dominated Betul district where Anita Selu, 21, is walking to the forest with her mother and niece to fetch wood they will sell to make a living. Ms. Selu says the Congress is more popular among tribal voters in her region. “I do get money under the Ladli Behna scheme [of the BJP government] but the Congress is stronger here,” she said.

In nearby Sarni of the Scheduled Caste (SC)-reserved Amla constituency, several residents believe the Congress would have had a better chance in wresting the seat had it fielded former Deputy Collector Nisha Bangre, who resigned from the service to join politics. The Congress had initially held the seat for her but the party eventually fielded Manoj Malve as there was a delay in the State government accepting Ms. Bangre’s resignation.

“She had gained good momentum here. Had she contested, she would have wrested the seat from the BJP. The Congress candidate isn’t popular here,” Chandra Kant Jain, a pharmacy shop owner, said.

While the constituencies change over the journey, key discussions are centred more or less around the same topics. They range from unemployment, inflation, and the lack of basic amenities in villages to trust in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s leadership.

“I have made several rounds of the village head and government offices but I still don’t have a water connection in my house,” Mamta Parteti, a tribal woman from Sonapipri village of the SC-reserved Parasia constituency, said.

Ms. Selu’s grandmother Darshama, meanwhile, spoke of the lack of work opportunities in her area. “We just cut wood and sell it in a nearby market, while my son-in-law is a labourer and does not find work regularly,” Ms. Darshama said.

Locals in Sarni also expressed their displeasure over the shifting of a Western Coalfields Limited workshop from Sarni to Chhindwara. “The employment opportunities here have been severely impacted ever since he [Mr. Nath] took the central workshop to Chhindwara and left us with a smaller area workshop,” Mr. Jain said.

Sanjay Pawar, a car mechanic, added that migration due to lack of work opportunities had been a problem in the area ever since he workshop had been shifted.

Anjali Vishwakarma, who runs a pathology centre in Sarni, believes that even though these are State Assembly elections, they would be crucial to keep the momentum going for Mr. Modi’s prospects in the 2024 Lok Sabha elections.

The much talked about ‘Chhindwara model’ can be seen as one enters the district. In Damua town of Chhindwara district, the roads are well metalled, a hostel for tribal girl students looks in good shape, the local tehsil office appears to be newly built, and there are showrooms selling everything from motorcycles to branded clothes. Chhindwara town can easily compete with tier 2 cities with its large car showrooms, multi-specialty hospitals, air-conditioned restaurants, and branded stores.

“The BJP has fielded a good candidate from Parasia, but it is not easy to defeat the Congress in Mr. Nath’s bastion,” Rajesh Patil, 33, who runs a small business in Sonapipri, 20 km before Chhindwara town, said.

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