Can Congress cash in on Vyapam, Mandsaur?

Madhya Pradesh

Two opinion polls in the last four months have predicted a clear majority for Congress in Madhya Pradesh. However, a 7% drop in the Congress’ projected vote share and a 6% gain in the ruling BJP’s from the first survey to the second indicate that the situation is rather fluid in the state.

The first survey, conducted by Lokniti and the Centre for Developing Societies and telecast by ABP News in May, predicted a 49% vote share for Congress and 34% for BJP. The second poll, by C-Voter, broadcast by the same TV channel on August 13, predicted a 42% vote share for Congress and 40% for BJP. Based on this vote share, the survey gave Congress 117 seats and BJP 106 in the 230-member assembly. Significantly, the C-Voter survey showed that Shivraj Singh Chouhan remains the first choice for chief minister, with 41.7% of respondents preferring him over Congress probables Jyotiraditya Scindia (30.3%) and Kamal Nath (7.5%). It can safely be inferred from that 7% difference that Congress might be frittering away its best chance in over a decade of unseating the BJP, unless it gets its act together. To that end, all that Congress needs to do is to put up a convincingly united face before the voters. The BJP looks to be solidly behind Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan. He is currently riding a chariot on his Jan Ashirvad Yatra, which was flagged off by BJP president Amit Shah on July 14 in Ujjain. His pet theme in the speeches during the yatra is that a ‘Raja’ (Digvijaya Singh), a ‘Maharaja’ (Jyotiraditya Scindia) and a business tycoon (Kamal Nath) are conspiring to prevent the son of a humble farmer (Shivraj) from taking Madhya Pradesh to new heights. On the other hand, Digvijaya Singh, Kamal Nath and Jyotiraditya Scindia are yet to fully convince the party workers that they have buried the hatchet.

Since 1998, elections in Madhya Pradesh have been contested essentially on personalities. Till 2003, politics revolved around former CM Digvijaya Singh. Now, Shivraj Singh is the pivot.

Under his leadership, BJP has gathered support from across the demographic and geographical spectrum, barring Muslims who comprise 8% of the population. Its 165 seats against Congress’ 58 in 2013 came uniformly from four regions -- Malwa in the west, Vindhya in the east , Gwalior-Chambal in the north and Mahakoshal in central and south Madhya Pradesh.

In this election, Shivraj Singh is pitted against the Congress trio of Kamal Nath, Jyotiraditya Scindia and Digvijaya Singh. Each of the top four players is encountering different fault lines. Of them, Shivraj is facing the worst image crisis, particularly due to the agrarian crisis and the Vyapam scam. Anti-incumbency, of course, is his major handicap. For Kamal Nath, the most formidable challenge is to acclimatise himself with the rough and tumble of street politics as MPCC president. He is reputed as a fun-loving king of his citadel – Chhindwara – who is more comfortable in Delhi’s air-conditioned drawing rooms.

Guna MP Jyotiraditya Scindia, head of the party’s campaign committee, too, had a similar reputation until a few years ago. But the scion of the Gwalior family has worked hard to shed that image by reaching out to Congress supporters across the state. Digvijaya Singh, tasked with coordinating with all committees that the MPCC has formed to win the election, has endured the humiliation of being described as the ‘chief destroyer’ of Congress for a long time. Thanks to his arduous Narmada Yatra, which took him away from active social and political life for six months until April this year, the former chief minister has regained prestige to a great extent. He is the only pan-Madhya Pradesh leader of the three.

There is a deep and simmering anger among farmers over the agrarian crisis since June 2017, when five farmers were killed in police firing in Mandsaur. Farmers, who comprise 75% of the state’s nine crore population, are decisive in 170 out of 230 seats. A blatant attempt by the government to bury the Vyapam scam, the biggest job-cum-admission rip-off in India, after the CBI took over its probe in July 2015, has caused revulsion against the CM across the sections.

But the Congress is not seen to be effectively countering the BJP on these issues. The party hopes that Congress president Rahul Gandhi’s campaign in the state could undo the damage to its prospects due to the CM’s yatra. Gandhi is slated to sound the poll bugle in the first week of September from the temple town of Omkareshwar.

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Can Congress cash in on Vyapam, Mandsaur?

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