Voting over in MP and Chhattisgarh, the ruling BJP is tense and the Congress quietly optimistic

As the curtain came down on a keenly-contested election in Madhya Pradesh on Wednesday, the mood in the two rival political camps presented a study in contrast. While the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party was clearly tense, there was quiet optimism in the Congress that it could yet spring a surprise when the election results are declared on December 11.

Not just Madhya Pradesh, reports from two other Hindi heartland states – Chhattisgarh, which voted on November 12 and November 20, and Rajasthan, where elections will be held on December 7 – also suggest the BJP is on a slippery slope.

After 15 years in power in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh and the fatigue that has set in as a consequence, the BJP is banking on its organisational capabilities, workers’ outreach at the grassroots level and efficient booth management to offset the disenchantment with its state governments. The high turnout of women voters in Chhattisgarh is also being seen as a positive sign as they are seen to be strong supporters of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

No Modi magic
While it was expected that Shivraj Singh Chouhan and Raman Singh, the three-term chief ministers of Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, would face strong anti-incumbency sentiment, the worrying factor for the BJP is that people’s anger was directed equally against Modi.

When the BJP was preparing for these crucial Assembly polls, the constant refrain in the party was that there would be a decided shift in its favour once Modi hit the campaign trail. Party strategists maintained the prime minister’s charisma and powerful oratory would successfully deflect attention from the grievances against the chief ministers while BJP national president Amit Shah’s famed organisational skills would ensure the party’s foot soldiers worked aggressively on the ground.

But as the campaign progressed, it became evident that the Modi magic was not enough to distract people from bread-butter matters. If the state governments were in the firing line for growing unemployment and a deepening farming crisis, the Centre did not escape the wrath of voters either. They accused the Modi government of crippling the rural economy with its allegedly anti-farmer policies and its demonetisation of high-value currency notes two years ago.

Fearing that Brand Modi could lose its sheen well before next year’s Lok Sabha elections, the prime minister did not campaign as vigorously in these states as he did in Gujarat last year and Karnataka earlier this year. He has addressed far fewer rallies this election season, which will enable the party to blame the incumbent chief ministers in case of an adverse electoral verdict.

Realising the party was on the back foot, Modi and Shah concentrated on launching personal attacks against Congress president Rahul Gandhi and branding the Opposition party as anti-national for taking up the cause of “infiltrators” and “urban Maoists”. Attempts were also made to polarise the polity with periodic references to the Ram temple in Ayodhya, with Modi declaring that the Congress was putting pressure on the Supreme Court to delay construction of the grand temple.

The Congress did not react to the BJP’s personal attacks on its president Rahul Gandhi while the party’s Madhya Pradesh unit kept any discontent over the distribution of tickets under control. (Credit: PTI)
The Congress did not react to the BJP’s personal attacks on its president Rahul Gandhi while the party’s Madhya Pradesh unit kept any discontent over the distribution of tickets under control. (Credit: PTI)
Congress strategy
On its part, the Congress did not take the bait. It did not react to these statements and focused on highlighting the woes of farmers and unemployed youth and how the BJP had failed them. “We were given strict instructions not to get provoked and to highlight the grievances of the people and the deficiencies of the state government,” a Congress leader from Madhya Pradesh pointed out.

Congress campaigners, by and large, stayed the course. What also helped the party was the fact that there was no great angst in its ranks over the distribution of tickets. There were a few cases of rebellion but these were quickly contained by Madhya Pradesh Congress chief Kamal Nath and senior party leader Digvijaya Singh. Consequently, the Congress is hopeful of a favourable outcome even though the party is still in the process of assessing the impact of its high-decibel campaign and its mobilisation on the ground.

Looking back on the elections in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, Congress leaders recount that the party was not taken seriously initially but the mood on the ground changed as the campaign progressed.

Chhattisgarh’s changing mood
For instance, the BJP was seen as a sure-shot winner in Chhattisgarh in the initial days. It was widely believed that the absence of strong state leaders in the Congress and a weak party organisation, along with the alliance between rebel Congress leader Ajit Jogi and Bahujan Samaj Party chief Mayawati, would work to the BJP’s advantage. Political observers maintained the presence of a third force in a bipolar state would hurt the Congress as it would split the anti-BJP vote. Also, as in the case of Shivraj Singh Chouhan, there were no major grievances against the three-term chief minister Raman Singh, though there were signs of voter fatigue and anger against individual legislators.

“Everyone was convinced that the BJP would eventually scrape through thanks to the Jogi-Mayawati partnership and Congress ineptness,” said a Congress leader from Chhattisgarh who did not want to be identified.

But there was a perceptible change as the campaign picked up pace and the polls drew closer. News of the Congress’ promise to waive the loans of farmers and to increase the minimum support price for their produce spread like wildfire. Farmers stopped selling their produce in the hope of getting a better deal if the Congress was voted to power.

This rattled the BJP’s state unit, till then confident that despite the close contest, it would get a shot at power for a fourth consecutive term. A nervous Raman Singh is learnt to have called up Modi and Shah, seeking permission to make a similar offer to farmers. But it was too late by then.

The voting pattern in Chhattisgarh further perplexed political observers and party pundits. Though the overall voting percentage of 76.35 was 1.05% lower than the turnout in the 2013 elections, the Congress drew comfort from the fact that there had been a dip in urban areas, especially in the second phase of elections held in 72 of the state’s 90 Assembly seats on November 20. Urban voters generally tilt towards the BJP and their low turnout suggested a disenchantment with the saffron party.

On the other hand, the rural areas recorded a high turnout with the number of women voters reportedly outnumbering men in at least 24 constituencies. Traditionally, women have been Congress supporters but have shifted their loyalties to Modi following the implementation of the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojna and Swachh Bharat campaign, which have provided them cooking gas connections and pucca toilets. The BJP is hoping their continuing support will eventually tilt the election in its favour.