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Battle Royale: Packed with surprises

All eyes are set on Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh as the ruling BJP is slated to face stiff competition from the Congress, BSP and other regional parties in the upcoming legislative polls

While five states go to polls this month and the next, national gaze is fixated on the three currently ruled by the BJP: Madhya Pradesh, Chattisgarh and Rajasthan. These three states contribute 65 Lok Sabha seats of which 58 are currently with the BJP, a repeat of which is not expected. Further, a loss in even two out of three will be a political facepalm for the ruling party.

Royal Rajasthan

Almost every opinion poll has predicted a clean sweep for the Congress, given the character of the province to alter with every election, the unpopularity of incumbent CM Vasundhara Raje Scindia, the internal Sangh Parivar and BJP conflicts between pro-Raje and anti-Raje factions, and a surprisingly united fight by the Congress while any third force is too feeble to make a dent, whether it be the BSP or AAP or the Bharat Vahini Party of a former popular BJP MLA.

With each human development index figure in Rajasthan being lower than what it was five years ago, the much-hyped startup melas not showing impact on ground, communal tension on the rise and the CM's inaccessibility for nearly 50 of the 60 months in power even to her party leaders – the writing on the wall is all too visible. Even the prospects of changing as many as 40 sitting BJP MLAs have not altered the anti-incumbency wave.

Chhattisgarh Jeopardised

Dr Raman Singh-led BJP has been ruling Chhattisgarh for 15 years. But 18 years into its existence as an Indian province, around 47.9 per cent of its people are below the poverty line, down by a solitary per cent from 2000, and the state is placed at the 23rd position in the Human Development Index among all Indian states. Per capita income is still below Rs 8,000 a month and 12.5 per cent is the official unemployment rate (some 26 lakh youth), double the national figure. Alongside, and riding on this abysmal poverty, we see the rise of Naxalism from eight districts in 2000 to 18 districts today (some carved out of earlier larger districts).

In all these years, in every Assembly or Lok Sabha poll, the BJP has been winning with varying seats in a straight contest with the Congress but the vote percentage difference has always been below 2 per cent – in the last Assembly polls, it came down to as low as 0.77 per cent. A minor shift of 1 per cent votes may mark an immense difference in the final tally of seats in a first past the post electoral system.

Congress, first failing to quell a rebellion by its erstwhile leader and former CM, Ajit Jogi, and then failing to strike a partnership with Mayawati's BSP, has caused an unprecedented political situation in CG. Ajit Jogi formed Janata Congress alongside an alliance with BSP and CPI and has led a spirited campaign trying to unite the scheduled tribes and castes.

While Congress bears the brunt of the Jogi-Maya combine, the BJP has also lost ground due to demonetisation harshly impacting the farm economy, which has been further incapacitated due to denial of Minimum Support Price and an absence of crop bonus in the last two years. Also, with a majority of SC-ST seats being in the BJP's kitty now, the rise of SC-ST consolidation is also no good news for them.

Anti-incumbency is another albatross on the neck of the ruling BJP, facing public rage against many ministers and MLAs, in spite of Dr Raman Singh's individual popularity.

There is an evident local consolidation of SC and ST voters this time as they see a viable alternative in the Jogi-Maya combine, and even the Naxalite campaign against voting seems to be less critical of them. BSP, fighting in 35 seats, is very hopeful of at least eight of them. CPI is strong in two to three, and Ajit Jogi's writ runs large in at least 10 seats. Even if half of these seats are won by the third front, both the national parties are up for a rude shock.

While most opinion surveys have predicted a victory for the BJP in Chattisgarh, independent observers, including at least one opinion poll by CVoter, opine that the Jogi-Maya combine may end up with 20 per cent+ votes and 15+ seats, which may result in a Karnataka-type situation with the BJP being the single-largest party, but none with 46 out of 90 seats to form a government. And, we may see an action replay of the Bengaluru-model here too, with Rahul Gandhi offering Ajit Jogi the CM-position and calling for a Congress-Third Front alliance, which is unprecedented in the Chattisgarh context.

Shaky Madhya Pradesh

The ABP-CVoter survey says Congress is poised to scrape through Madhya Pradesh with 119 out of 230 seats, while the BJP will manage only 105, with six going to others, mainly BSP. A drastically different picture was presented by Times Now nearly two weeks earlier, giving BJP 142 and Congress 77, and others 11. Truth on the ground is hence all compounded. And, the MP polls perhaps are the most watched now. MP has 29 Lok Sabha seats and among all states going to polls now, contributes the most to the LS.

Being an agrarian state, the disparity within the agricultural economy has kept the per capita farming family income lower than the national average in a state where 76 per cent of the farmers are small, largely landless, relying on rural wages. The farming community is not happy with the new MSP rates of the Centre, which have not yet been executed. Today, the farmers' wrath is a major issue, more so after the Mandsaur firing that killed several protesting farmers. Actually, the rural unrest we see now is as much a result of the lack of growth in farm incomes as by the lack of alternative job opportunities for most of the state's populace. As is well known, caste and religion have played a key role in past MP elections. No wonder then, both the BJP and the Congress have publicly advertised their Hindu credentials in the run-up to the polls. BJP has been known to be a hard Hindutva votary, but the fact that its state leaders are vehemently criticising Congress President Rahul Gandhi's temple run, janeudhaari and Shiv Bhakt claims, shows that it is hurting the original Hindu brigade. The growth of Hindu identity in a predominantly Hindu state (91 per cent of the state's population) explains why both the BJP and Congress have made public displays of their Hindu credentials.

However, the controversy over the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities Act) and the differing stances of BJP leaders of the Centre and the state on the issue have opened a chasm between tribal and upper-caste voters. While tribal voters seem to be dissatisfied with the government's handling of atrocities against marginalised communities, the BJP's core upper-caste vote bank seems to feel that the government is pandering to tribal and Dalit interest by refusing to dilute the Atrocities Act. The ruling party is on the back-foot amidst both support groups today.

A whiff of relief for the BJP has been the failure of the Congress to strike an alliance with the BSP, which has an assured 6-7 per cent vote-share in the state. A Congress-BSP alliance would have sealed the fate of the BJP in these 82 reserved seats to a large extent. The loss among SCs hence is being tried by the Congress through an alliance with the tribal party, Jai Adivasi Yuva Shakti (JAYS), which is yet to firm up.

The combination of farmer protests, SC/ST tensions and a general anti-incumbency sentiment towards the party that has been in power for the past 15 years, in theory, offers hope to the Congress. However, the Congress in Madhya Pradesh has been historically marred by factionalism. A united front with a focus on improving their poor votes-to-seat ratio could revive fortunes. The Congress High Command has taken a tactical decision not to name the Chief Minister candidate, giving state leadership to Kamal Nath but campaign leadership to Jyotiraditya Scindia, while Digvijay Singh has been asked to lay low.

The factionalism within BJP is also for all to see with Indore legislator and a central general secretary Kailash Vijayvargiya and the Bhopal Mayor Alok Sharma flexing their muscles, Kailash and Sumitra Mahajan nurturing their CM aspirations, and CM Shivraj Singh Chouhan facing pressure from the RSS to drop 78 sitting MLAs and 12 sitting ministers, which are now reflected in the first list of candidates being announced by the BJP. What impact the disgruntled elements of BJP will have on electioneering in the seats where the winning margins are low needs to be seen.

As on today, both sides are on an even keel. If the Congress wins, it is due to heavy anti-incumbency and farm distress. If the BJP wins, it is due to the failure of opposition politics. The original discussion of a Mahagatbandhan of Congress, BSP, Samajwadi Party and JAYS would have sealed the results this time, but that did not happen, and hence it is a battle royale now, open on either side.

As of today, the Congress is poised to take Rajasthan, both are on an even keel in MP, and in Chattisgarh, it is a royal confusion ranging from a fractured mandate to a narrow BJP win.

Ujjwal K Chowdhury

Ujjwal K Chowdhury

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