Narratives of development and social justice fade into irrelevance inside the deep fault lines of caste equations that dominate the ravines and towns of the Chambal region in Madhya Pradesh (MP), which goes to the polls on November 17. If, in the 1970s and ’80s, fearsome baagis (brigands), who took up arms primarily because of caste-related oppression, conjured up images of bihaads (ravines) of Chambal as the most dangerous badlands, today it represents the reign of the sand and mining mafia, who are patronised by politicians of all shades. Crime and politics are like cojoined twins in this part of India, which is one of the poorest and least developed regions in the country. The MP elections along with polls in four other states is also being perceived as the semi-finals before the 2024 General Elections.
As one leaves the highway to venture deeper into Morena town—the gateway to the Chambal region comprising seven districts—overflowing drains of thick sewage, herds of marauding stray cattle, broken and potholed roads, dilapidated buses belching noxious black smoke, and the lawlessness of maddening traffic whip up a jarring symphony of chaos and neglect that throws into sharp relief the dichotomy between reality and prime-time TV news propaganda that weaves a chimera of development every evening.
“Why would anyone want to live the hard life of a baagi?” asks a Morena-based journalist, who works for a Hindi newspaper published from MP. “Today, every connected person in Morena is a baagi because sand mining is far more lucrative than robbing a few people belonging to the landed class. Every morning, dozens of tractor trollies loaded with sand can be seen lining up on the side of the bridge over the Chambal river that marks the boundary between Rajasthan and MP. Anyone opposing sand mining is bumped off without any repercussions. The mining mafia enjoys strong political patronage.” The name of the journalist has been withheld for his protection.
For the majority in Morena, the Chambal region is an idiom for close to two decades of the BJP’s alleged poor governance under the chief ministership of Shivraj Singh Chouhan.
Though, this time around, there is rather strong anti-incumbent sentiment against the state BJP leadership, and Chouhan in particular, caste-based electoral arithmetic continues to dominate ticket distribution, both in the BJP and the Congress. With campaigning now shifting into high gear, old alliances are being reworked and new ones forged.
“In a big district like Morena, which has six assembly constituencies, there is not a single good hospital. For anything serious, we have to undertake a two-hour road journey to Gwalior for treatment. Many times, patients simply die in transit in ambulances. In the entire Chambal region, barring Gwalior, there is not a single good higher education institution. You can see the condition of the roads. Nothing has been done in the past 10 years in this place,” says Ram Kushwaha, a social activist.
The 2023 MP elections will also determine the trajectory of Jyotiraditya Scindia’s political career. The Chambal region is considered the stronghold of the Scindia family. In 2018, the Congress, which emerged as the single largest party with 114 seats and went on to form the government with the support of independents, won 26 of the 34 seats in the Chambal region comprising Sheopur, Morena, Bhind, Gwalior, Datia, Shivpuri, Guna and Ashok Nagar districts. In this region, Scindia loyalists dominated the Congress ticket distribution.
However, when Scindia switched loyalty in March 2020 and joined the BJP along with 25 Congress MLAs from across the state, bringing down the Kamal Nath government, 15 of them hailed from the Chambal belt. This time around, the BJP has given tickets to 18 of the defectors across the state, of whom nine belong to the Scindia camp in the Chambal region. It’s clear that the outcome here will determine Scindia’s future political heft.
Asked who has the best chance of winning the Morena seat, Kushwaha weighs in for BSP candidate Rakesh ‘Ratan’ Singh, who is the son of Ratan Singh—a former minister in Chouhan’s cabinet, but was denied a ticket by the BJP. Kushwaha says that Singh, despite hailing from the dominant Gurjar community, will attract Dalit, Other Backward Communities (OBCs) and some tribal votes.
Keeping an eye on the substantial Gurjar community vote bank, both the BJP and Congress have also fielded candidates from the same community.
“In the end, people in Morena will vote on caste lines…promises of development or social guarantees that both the BJP and Congress are offering in their campaigns will get relegated to the background on the day votes are cast,” explains Deepak Dixit, a local journalist. “The BSP has a good chance in Morena district because of consolidation of OBC and Dalit votes in their favour, while the Gurjar votes will split three ways. One needs to understand that caste loyalties of voters are way stronger than any political affiliations.”
According to unofficial estimates, Morena has approximately 60,000 Gurjar, 40,000 Dalit and OBC, including Kushwahas, 30,000 Bania and 30,000 Brahmin voters. The BJP has given Raghuraj Kansana its ticket while the Congress is betting on Dinesh Gurjar, who is considered a Digvijay Singh loyalist and is touted to become a minister, if elected and if the Congress forms the government.
In neighbouring Dimani Assembly constituency, the BJP has turned it into a high-profile contest by fielding Union agriculture minister Narendra Singh Tomar. But the word in the dusty bazaar of the mofussil town is that by fielding Tomar, a Member of Parliament from the Gwalior parliamentary seat, in Assembly elections the BJP has lowered the prestige of the Rajput community. BJP supporters counter this negative sentiment by saying that he is the next chief minister, if the BJP pulls through. The Congress has responded by fielding Ravinder Singh Tomar. In this seat, the BSP has added an interesting twist by putting former two-time MLA Balvinder Dandotiya—a Brahmin—in the fray.
Political pundits of both parties estimate that Dimani has approximately 60,000 Rajput, 30,000 Brahmin and 90,000 voters of other communities, including OBCs and Dalits. The fact that Dandotiya, a Brahmin, won twice from a Rajput-dominated seat due to the consolidation of other community voters is not lost either on the BJP or the Congress.
“Narendra bhai has not been able to campaign in his own constituency because he is one of the BJP’s star campaigners. So, he is campaigning in other constituencies on behalf of the party,” says Yogesh Singh Tomar, a former Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) pracharak (propagator), who is running the minister’s campaign. It is interesting that Narendra Tomar has entrusted his campaign to an RSS functionary because political observers point out that the RSS cadre is not involved with BJP campaigning, indicating a strong undercurrent between the party and the Sangh. “There are some issues between the Sangh and the sangathan,” says Yogesh. “People in the party in MP went after power and forgot the core values of the Sangh. The party failed in its messaging to the people about all the good work done in the state…for this reason people are voting on caste lines and, unfortunately, we have to accept this reality.”
In Morena Assembly segment, which has six seats, the Congress feels it’s in a good position in four seats, though they say all six will be ultimately won by the party’s candidates. In 2018, the grand old party won all six seats.
In the Sumawali Assembly constituency bordering Rajasthan, the fight is between the BJP’s Adal Singh Kasana, a defector, and Ajab Singh Kushwaha of the Congress, who party insiders say is facing a tough battle against the sitting MLA. They point out that after the BJP fielded a Gurjar candidate at the last moment, the Congress changed the ticket that was earlier given to Kuldip Singh Sikarwar, who belongs to the Thakur (Rajput) community. They say it was a wrong decision and has turned a safe seat into a tight contest. Miffed by the party’s treatment, Sikarwar has entered the fray as a BSP candidate.
According to rough estimates, this seat has 40,000 Kushwaha (OBC), 30,000 Rajput, 20,000 Gurjar, 20,000 Yadav and 7,000 Muslim voters. In such a salad bowl of caste-based voters, Sikarwar has emerged the dark horse, complicating the calculations of both the BJP and the Congress.
In Shivpuri constituency, the BJP’s denial of a ticket to sitting MLA Yashodhara Raje Scindia hasn’t gone down well with voters. As a result, the Congress’s K.P. Singh, who won from neighbouring Pichore seat in the Morena assembly segment, has emerged as a clear favourite. “Though Yashodhara Raje Scindia barely visited her constituency, denying her the ticket has worked against the BJP as her supporters are not campaigning for the party,” said Ajay Sikarwar—a sweet shop owner in Shivpuri, who has been traditionally a BJP voter. “It’s time for change in MP. People have had enough of Shivraj Singh Chouhan.”
In the prestigious Gwalior (East) constituency the mood is decidedly against the BJP’s Maya Singh, who too hails from the Scindia royal family and is up against Satish Sikarwar of the Congress. It’s a common refrain in the region that leaders connected to the Scindia royalty barely visit their constituencies, once elected.
The Congress pledge to carry out a caste census in MP if it is voted to power has roused some discomfort in the BJP. A clear indication of this came in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speech in Morena on November 8. He said that his party, and he personally, cared for OBCs, Dalits, and adivasis. On the other hand, the Congress is banking on the five guarantees it has promised to the voters. Congress President Mallikarjun Kharge, addressing an election rally in Gwalior (East) on November 7, yet again emphasised the importance of a caste survey in MP, while launching a scathing attack on Modi.
“Modi is not interested in governing the country, removing poverty, education of children, improving healthcare or increasing the income of farmers. He is only interested in votes,” said Kharge. “That’s why we will do a caste census. It will tell us how many Kushwahas are graduates, how many Jats are graduates or how many backwards (OBCs) are graduates. Who owns how much land, what’s their income and how educated they are. We can make plans based on this data.”
Though the Congress has the edge in the Chambal region and party officials are claiming that it will eventually improve its 2019 tally of 26 seats to 28 out of the 34 seats, the BSP can very much upset some of its calculations due to the caste preferences of voters. The Chambal region offers a sobering reality check of how far removed realpolitik is from the drawing room discussions that are shaped by propaganda, driven by prime time news TV.