The BJP's entry in Madhya Pradesh in 2003 was grand. The Congress, under the leadership of Digvijaya Singh who used to claim that election is an "art of management", was so badly routed that it could not stand on its feet for another 15 years. Uma Bharti then became the Chief Minister. She was a going fire-brand and backward caste leader who deftly combined the cocktail of religion and politics. She claimed to be a Sadhavi who delved into politics due to the Ram Mandir movement. But once she became the Chief Minister, Uma wandered a different path, and very soon it was realised that she would ruin all the gain. A non-bailable warrant issued by a Karnataka court on the issue of Idgah flag-hoisting in Hubli was used as an excuse to get rid of her as Chief Minister. Uma was replaced by Babu Lal Gaur who proved to be another liability for the party.
Finally, the BJP anointed Shivraj Singh Chouhan who successfully carried the party and the people along, and won three elections. He is considered to be popular. There was a time when the party was looking at him for a role at the centre, but of late, Chouhan has been riddled with serious corruption charges. The Vyapam scam has tarnished his image badly.
Chouhan had made these by-elections a prestige issue. He wanted to prove a point: that he was still the most popular leader in Madhya Pradesh; that the central leadership and RSS could still count on him to swing the state. Chouhan's desperation was evidenced by media reports that he stationed himself for more than two weeks in these two constituencies, addressed more than 40 rallies, did more than ten road shows. 21 of the state's 36 ministers and four dozens MLAs campaigned for several weeks there.
These two constituencies, Mungaoli and Kolaras, are considered to have a big population of tribals and Other Backward Castes. It was to lure these two sections of voters that Chouhan inducted three MLAs of the OBC community into his cabinet just a month ago. He also leisurely distributed and announced many sops for these two communities. He was heard saying in his rallies and road shows that he needed only five months to bring development in these areas. He made Yashodhara Raje Scindia, aunt of Congress leader Jyotiraditya Scindia, in-charge of campaigning in Kolaras. Kolaras is part of the Gwalior-Guna region which is considered to be the strong hold of the Scindia family. Yashodhara was allegedly filmed saying that if the BJP did not win, voters would be deprived of government schemes.
There's no denying the fact that the Congress also did not leave any stone unturned. The Congress has asked Jyotiraditya Scindia to lead the state till assembly elections. The two constituencies that have just voted were held by the Congress. Scindia toured this region like never before. According to a news report, he addressed 75 rallies and did more than a dozen road shows. It was a do-or-die situation for him too. He had to prove that he can manage the faction-ridden Congress and step out of his comfort zone to fight and win a big battle. After the victory, his supporters are demanding that be the chief ministerial candidate in the assembly elections.
As for Chouhan, it is normally understood that the ruling party has an edge in by-elections. The might of the government is an advantage, the local administration tends to favour the incumbent party. Voters also normally don't want to be seen as going against the ruling dispensation to ensure there is no risk to developmental work in the constituency. So to say that the loss does not mean much is a statement in self deception. The BJP can't afford to be delusional. It has to realise that there are serious issues in Madhya Pradesh and the party has to address them. There is no doubt that despite the loss, Chouhan is the tallest leader in the state but it is also a fact that he looks tired and jaded, the old smile is missing. He has failed to come up with a new idea of late. He is repeating himself. He is using the same phrases which once endeared him to the masses. It is to be seen and analysed if "Shivraj fatigue" has reached the critical mark.
At the governmental level, two schemes had worked in his favour till now - Laxmi Ladli Yojana and the Annapurna scheme for the poor. In the latter, a kilo of wheat is provided in one rupee, rice is given in two rupees and iodised salt in four rupees. The Laxmi Ladli Yojana is for the betterment and empowerment of the girl child. Both the schemes are popular and had been copied by the other other state government. But now the people want more.
The only saving grace in the state election could well be the combined organisational strength of the BJP and RSS. The late Kushabhau Thakre was the inspiration for creating a phenomenal party structure in Madhya Pradesh. The Congress, divided in many factions, can't match this leviathan. Its booth/level organisation is in shambles. Its leaders are fighting among themselves.
Still, the by-election result is a clear indication that the BJP can't take things for granted. Ahmed Patel's victory in the Rajya Sabha, the BJP's near loss in the Gujarat assembly election, the recent massive defeat in the Rajasthan by-elections and now in Madhya Pradesh are weaving a new narrative. Let's not forget that the BJP which was planning to bring another new state, Odisha, to its kitty, has also suffered badly there. The BJP lost the Bijepur assembly by-election with a huge margin of 40,000 votes.
The Congress's first test will be Karnataka. If it holds its ground there and can wrest Rajasthan or Madhya Pradesh or Chhattisgarh, it will certainly spell doom for Modi's dream for a second term in 2019.
(Ashutosh joined the Aam Aadmi Party in January 2014.)
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