The 2023 Madhya Pradesh elections project a peculiar image on the political landscape of the largest state in India, which makes it hard to distinguish the differences between the ruling BJP and the challenger Congress. If the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is banking on its tried and tested electoral gambit of putting on display its hard Hindutva face to retain its key vote bank, which has paid the party handsomely in MP in the past, to beat the strong anti-incumbency sentiment, the Congress is countering it by flashing the “soft” Hindutva card, wherever necessary.
Similarly, both parties are trying to seduce voters by showering guarantees. Not too long back Prime Minister,Narendra Modi derisively dismissed the social welfare schemes that are being offered in opposition-ruled states as revdi (freebie) culture. If the BJP is hawking its bouquet of freebies as “Modi Ki Guarantee” (Modi’s assurances), the Congress is offering five key guarantees that the party’s chief ministerial face, Kamal Nath, promises to deliver, if voted into power.
In this scenario, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the ideological mother ship of communal politics, finds itself in a sweet spot, where it has nothing to lose in MP, even if the BJP is voted out of power after a 20-year reign.
Also, in the event of the BJP losing in MP, it should hardly be construed as a loss for Modi, despite the prime minister being the party’s face in the state elections. His popularity is likely to remain undiminished as the national leader with no alternative. That’s what the voices on the ground echo loud and clear.
“Hawa mein badlav hai (there is change in the air)…. If the BJP loses, it will be a vote against Shivraj Singh Chouhan and the state unit and not a pro-Congress vote,” said Devendra Sharma, a businessman based in Shivpuri. “Price rise and unemployment are two major concerns, yet people are likely to vote for Modi in the 2024 (Lok Sabha) elections. That’s the general sentiment in MP.” When probed further about the prime minister’s undiminished popularity despite below-par performance on multiple fronts, Sharma obliquely concedes that in MP people vote for Modi due to “other considerations”, which is an euphemism and endorsement of his brand of communal politics. “Aap ka dharam hame pata nahin, lekin hum Modi ko dusre wajah se vote dete hai. Aap samaj toh rahe honge…(I don’t know your religion, but we vote for Modi for other reasons. I am sure you understand…),” Sharma told me. In other words, MP’s electorate rewards Modi for putting the minorities, especially Muslims, in place by enforcing militant Hindutva.
Vote share data of the 2018 Assembly and 2019 Lok Sabha elections in MP lends credence to the deeply polarised sentiment that’s prevalent across the length and breadth of the state. In the 2018 Assembly elections, the BJP’s vote share was 41.02%, which gave the party 109 seats, while the Congress, despite having a lower vote share of 40.89%, won 114 seats to emerge as the single largest party. But in the 2019 parliamentary elections, the BJP’s vote share jumped by a massive 17.3% to 58.5% that powered the party to win 28 of the 29 Lok Sabha seats. The Congress got 34.8% share of the votes polled for just one seat of Nakul Nath—son of Kamal Nath—from the family’s pocket borough of Chhindwara. Such a massive difference in vote share data seems to validate the voting trends of the people of MP—they would want Modi to continue at the Centre, but wouldn’t mind a change in the state.
The BJP’s top leadership campaigning in MP has been trumpeting its role in getting the Ram temple built in Ayodhya. It has leaned on Ram in the hope of turning around the drift of the political headwinds, while paying lip service to real-world issues such as unemployment, price rise, infrastructure development, education, better access to health, stray cattle menace, farmer distress, caste-related crime, etc. The reality of the five-judge bench, headed by the then Chief Justice of India, Ranjan Gogoi, delivering a judgment that paved the way for the construction of the Ram Mandir at the site of the demolished Babri Masjid, is lost on the people.
Home Minister Amit Shah, addressing a rally on November 13 in Rahogarh—Digvijaya Singh’s stronghold—exhorted voters to elect the BJP for arranging a free darshan of Ramlala once the temple is inaugurated on January 22, 2024. In Satna, Modi at an election speech on November 9 invoked Ram to deride the Congress. In Katni and Chhindwara, Women and Child Development Minister Smriti Irani accused the Congress of denying the existence of Ram and promised the residents of MP a free visit to Ayodhya. UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, while humming the same tune in Rewa on November 14, credited the BJP with removing the “disputed structure” that paved the way for building the grand temple.
The BJP alone cannot be held responsible for bringing gods into the political battlefield. The Congress too is making deft use of religion in an attempt to blunt the edge of the BJP’s monopoly of Hindutva. On November 3, Kamal Nath made it clear that the Congress paved the way for building the Ram temple. “Taala khola… Rajiv Gandhi got the locks (of the temporary Ram temple at the disputed Babri Masjid site) opened. Let us not forget history,” he said in an interview to the Indian Express. “The Ram temple (in Ayodhya) does not belong to any one party or person, but to the country and to every citizen. The BJP wants to usurp the Ram temple as its property…. They were in government, they built it. Apne ghar se toh banaya nahin hai. Government ke paise se banaya hai (They haven’t built it with their own money. It’s the government’s money).”
Kamal Nath’s indulgence of controversial godman Dhirendra Shastri is well recorded. He wears his variant of Hindutva on his sleeve for telegraphing political messages in a religion-charged state like MP. His high-profile temple runs in MP are also well documented. A few years ago, the state Congress chief facilitated building of a 101-foot Hanuman statue in his constituency. In June this year, he was instrumental in the merger of a right-wing outfit called the Bajrang Sena with the state Congress unit.
In some key constituencies, Congress candidates have no hesitation in flaunting their “service to religion” to counter the BJP’s Hindutva challenge. In the 2018 Assembly elections, in the Indore assembly segment, the BJP won five of the eight seats and the remaining three went to the Congress. This time around, the Congress is confident of improving its tally in Indore city by flipping the Indore-3 and Indore-5 seats. In the Indore-1 constituency, the BJP, by fielding its national general secretary, Kailash Vijayvargiya, against the incumbent Congress MLA, Sanjay Shukla, has turned it into a high-profile contest. Apart from Vijayvargiya, the party has fielded three Central ministers and four Members of Parliament in these state elections.
Shukla’s campaign office shares its boundary with the Bada Ganpati temple located at the Malharganj crossing in Indore. His team has put up a large placard on the façade of the temple overlooking the campaign office, as if seeking divine intervention to defeat the BJP heavyweight. Voters of Indore-1 constituency say that Shukla is popular for his social work and religious charity. Since 2022, he has funded multiple religious yatras (pilgrimages) to Ayodhya and Mathura for people from his constituency.
“Since 2022, Sanjayji has organised 16 yatras to Ayodhya and Mathura for at least 600 people from each of the 17 wards in this constituency with his own funds. That’s why the BJP cannot claim to be the only guardians of Hinduism in this area…. That’s also a reason why the BJP has not been able to turn this into a Hindu-Muslim contest,” says Pramod Kumar Dwivedi, one of Shukla’s campaign managers. Middle and working-class voters in this congested and crowded constituency say Shukla will retain his seat. “He has done a lot of good work in his area…he has taken many old people on yatras, which they could not have afforded on their own,” said Manoj Jha, an autorickshaw driver from the area. Shopkeepers and small business owners too back Shukla in defeating Vijayvargiya. The BJP candidate has been accused of allegedly distributing sarees to the women in the constituency in violation of the Model Code of Conduct.
Similarly, 180 km away from Indore in Narela constituency, which falls in the Bhopal assembly segment, the Congress has put up Manoj Shukla against BJP strongman Vishwas Sarang, a minister in the Chouhan cabinet, who once famously blamed Jawaharlal Nehru for inflation. The Narela seat, which was carved out in 2008, has been Sarang’s stronghold. But the Congress is betting on Manoj to break this stronghold in a constituency that is dominated by the Kayastha community besides a sizeable number of Brahmins and Muslims. Sarang, being a Kayastha, gets the community votes. Like his namesake in Indore, Manoj too has invested in organising religious yatras for his constituents, burnishing his Hindu credentials. His campaign managers are confident of wresting this seat from the BJP.
In MP, religion and politics are umbilically connected, stretching back to the rule of Jiwajirao Scindia. In the 1930s, under royal patronage, the Akhil Bharatiya Hindu Mahasabha (Hindu Mahasabha) turned the Guna-Gwalior belt into one of its earliest strongholds.
In 1936, the RSS established the first shakha (local unit) in Ujjain from where it expanded to the rest of the state. Another Sangh outfit, the Bharatiya Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram (BVKA), was established in Jashpur, Chhattisgarh, in 1951, when it was still a part of MP. This front organisation of the RSS was founded with the aim of countering the influence of institutions run by Christian missionaries in the remote regions of the state dominated by tribal people. At the time of its founding, the stated aim of the BVKA was to stop alleged conversion of tribals by missionaries in the guise of providing education and healthcare.
In the 1951 elections—the first to be held in independent India—the Hindu Mahasabha won four seats, of which two came from MP, then known as Madhya Bharat, with V.G. Deshmukh winning from Guna and Gwalior. When Vijaya Raje Scindia joined the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, which was the political arm of the RSS and precursor of the BJP, in 1967, she started to fund the party liberally. Her proximity to the Jana Sangh and funding of the party was one of the reasons for the rift with her son, Madhavrao Scindia, who joined the Congress in 1980. Former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee shared very close links with the Scindia clan from before his Jana Sangh days.
Congress officials say that, given the long and extensive Hinduisation of MP’s politics, the party is compelled to follow the political traditions of the land in order to remain relevant and challenge the BJP on its turf. If the Congress is perceived as toeing a soft Hindutva line in MP, they say, it needs to be interpreted in this context.
When it comes to guarantees of social welfare schemes, the BJP is playing catch-up with the Congress. After the Karnataka Assembly elections, which the Congress fought on the plank of six social guarantees and defeated the BJP handsomely, the saffron party has been forced to come up with a mishmash of schemes in MP for different sections of the electorate. Modi is selling these to the electorate as his personal guarantee in an attempt to convey that they are more credible than what the Congress is promising.
The Congress firmed up a list of five guarantees in May this year, well before the MP elections were announced: a monthly allowance of ₹1,500 to every woman, cooking gas cylinders for ₹500, free electricity up to 100 units and 50% subsidy between 100 to 200 units per month, and restoration of the Old Pension Scheme. When the Congress released its manifesto, it listed 59 promises, which include benefits such as health insurance cover up to ₹25 lakh for everyone in the state, 27% reservation in educational institutions and government jobs for Other Backward Castes, which is restricted to 14% in MP at present, farm loan waiver up to ₹2 lakh and free electricity to farmers using irrigation pumps up to five horsepower.
On November 11, when the BJP released its manifesto in Bhopal, its box of “revdis” contained Minimum Support Price of ₹2,700 for wheat and ₹3,100 for paddy, houses for the beneficiaries of the existing Ladli Behna scheme under which women are given ₹1,250 per month, free education of poor students up to class 12 and cooking gas cylinders for ₹450 under the existing PM Ujjwala scheme. Besides, the manifesto talks about a slew of capital-intensive projects such as constructing six new expressways, earmarking ₹3 lakh crore for the welfare of tribal communities, building a new Indian Institute of Technology and an All India Institute of Medical Sciences.
With the BJP terming the MP elections a collective effort, it’s no surprise to find giant hoardings of Modi beaming down on the people, offering “Modi Ki Guarantee, BJP Ka Vishwas” with regard to delivering on the promises made in the manifesto.
The message is clear: the BJP is fighting the MP elections, much like it fought the West Bengal and Karnataka elections, with Modi’s visage, relegating the state leadership into oblivion. The Congress, on the other hand, has thrown its weight behind Kamal Nath, who dominates the hoardings that have sprung up in all major towns, as the one to deliver the social welfare schemes in the state.
The weak point for the Congress, however, is the lack of publicity about its social guarantees in smaller towns and rural areas. “Prachaar ki kami hai…hame logon ko Congress ke guarantees ke bare me samjhana padta hai, khaas kar ki mahilaon ko jinko Ladli Behna ka paisa mil raha hai (There is a lack of publicity on the part of the Congress about the guarantees of social welfare schemes. We have a hard time explaining them to the people, especially women who are receiving money under the Ladli Behna scheme). We are overcoming the lack of publicity through intensive jan sampark (people contact) programmes,” says Roop Singh, a former BJP worker who is now campaigning for Congress candidate Shailendra Patel in Ichhawar constituency. Off the record, many Congress workers alleged that Kamal Nath is holding the purse strings tightly and has not spent money as he should have on publicity and media management.
The mood of the people on the ground and opinion polls indicate that the Congress will get a majority in MP. It remains to be seen what the margin of victory will be. But it’s clear from the way Modi has projected himself in this round of state elections that he is preparing the ground for the 2024 general election. And, for the Congress, in the event of a win in MP and a loss in Rajasthan, where Ashok Gehlot has introduced significant social justice programmes, it will face the major dilemma of whether it should stay the course with its social justice pitch and caste census or toe the soft Hindutva line. The former involves doing the hard yards, the latter is a trap.