The ‘Mood in Hindi belt’ polls

The ‘Mood in Hindi belt’ polls

Crucial 3: Can BJP’s Mama, Doctor Saheb & Rani Sahiba retain MP, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan?

The most crucial and final set of state assembly elections ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha polls are just a few months away. These elections are in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Mizoram. The BJP is in power in the three Hindi belt states, facing anti-incumbency and a resurgent Congress. When these states vote, the nation will know the political mood in the wider Hindi belt. While the state elections are important by themselves, they will also give us a hint to the question on everybody’s mind: will Modi return to power in 2019 or not?    

When the final four -- Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Mizoram -- go to polls ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, personalities will be at play more than parties.

In the three Hindi belt states in particular, the BJP is counting on ‘Mama’ (Shivraj Singh Chouhan)’, ‘Doctor Saheb’ (Raman Singh)’ and Rani Sahiba’ (Vasundhara Raje Scindia), the incumbent chief ministers in MP, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan, respectively.

The Congress has no dearth of personalities, either, especially in MP, with ‘Maharaj’ (Jyotiraditya Scindia), ‘Raja Saheb’ (Digvijaya Singh) and party veteran Kamal Nath, the newly-appointed Congress state chief, who recently wrote a letter to Lord Mahakaal in Ujjain to “end the misrule of Shivraj Singh Chouhan”.

Yatras matter, too. So, while Digvijay Singh went on a six-month-long Narmada Yatra and Ekta Yatra, Chouhan took out his Jan Aashirwad Yatra from Ujjain. Congress countered him with its ‘pol-khol yatra’ last month, flagged off by Kamal Nath.

The BJP, facing anti-incumbency in the three states, will also bank heavily on Prime Minister Narendra Modi, while Congress, undecided on who to project as chief ministerial candidates in the three states, will have to rely on party president Rahul Gandhi.

While Shivraj Singh Chouhan and Raman Singh, three-term chief ministers and posterboys of the BJP, have so far warded off the challenge from Congress, Vasundhara Raje in Rajasthan has a tough fight on her hands.

For a while, there was talk within the BJP of shifting Chouhan to Delhi and national politics and handing over Madhya Pradesh to a new CM. But the party decided against the move after realising that there was no one else yet who could match his popularity.

In Rajasthan, the BJP central leadership made a serious effort to shake up things by appointing union minister Gajendra Singh Shekhawat as state party chief as a precursor to projecting him as the new CM candidate, but withdrew when Vasundhara Raje reacted badly to the move.

In Chhattisgarh, the ‘Chawal Waale Baba’ Raman Singh – so called for his scheme of giving rice to poor families at Rs 1 a kilo -- has no formidable challenge from within, though there are voices of dissent.

The poll outcomes will also decide the future of the three Hindi-belt chief ministers of the BJP. A defeat will mean a reappraisal of their roles within the party.

Jyotiraditya Scindia, who was the chief of the Congress campaign committee in 2013 is back in the same role in 2018. The difference is that now, party veteran and former union minister Kamal Nath is now the state party chief. Digvijaya Singh is also learnt to have put his weight behind Kamal Nath arguing that Scindia “still has age on his side.” In 2013, Scindia was clearly the face of Congress.

So, the question being asked is, is it Shivraj versus Scindia or is it Shivraj versus Kamal Nath, The Congress says Scindia and Nath are in the fight against BJP together.

Shivraj Singh, who became CM replacing Babulal Gaur in 2005, has no challenger left in the BJP, though Gaur keeps venting his ire from time to time. But there is serious infighting within the state unit. The central leadership had to rush Saudan Singh, national joint secretary of the party, to Bhopal to quell dissidence.

In Chhattigarh, Congress is desperately trying to bridge the narrow gap in vote share that has so far prevented it from snatching power from the BJP. While Congress had got 0.75% fewer votes than BJP in 2013, it had got 1.7% less in 2008 and 2.6% less in 2003.

What could make it more challenging for it this time is the desertion by its former CM Ajit Jogi, who holds sway over the Scheduled Caste Satnami votes in the state.

Kawasi Lakma, a tribal Gond MLA from Bastar has been made deputy Congress legislature party leader replacing Renu Jogi, the wife of Ajit Jogi, although the woman stayed put in the party when her husband quit to form a new party, Janata Congress. Lakma is expected to make up for the loss of Mahendra Karma, the party’s tribal face in Bastar, who was killed in a Maoist ambush in Bastar in 2013 that wiped out almost the entire party leadership in the state.

Congresss will bank on a strategy of projecting more than one CM face as it seeks to keep both dominant OBC communities, Kurmis and Sahus, that together account for more than a third of the total votes.

State Congress chief Bupesh Bhagel, a Kurmi, and Tamradhwaj Sahu, a member of the party’s apex decision-making body, the Congress Working Committee, are the two prominent faces from the two communities. The two communities have, of late, been voting for the BJP, while Congress has cornered a major slice of Dalit and tribal votes. It will need to redraw its strategy as the BJP has gone after the tribals votes while the Jogi factor could affect Congress’ Dalit vote base.

Facing questions about who the party’s CM candidate was in Chhattisgarh, senior Congress leader TS Singh Deo recently resorted to mythical obfuscation: just as Sita had chosen Ram in the Ramayana, the party would select its CM candidate and it would come back to power in the state, just as Ram returned from 14 years of exile, he said. Congress has been out of power in Chhattisgarh for 15 years.

In Rajasthan, there is no end to the Congress’ dilemma of choosing between former CM Ashok Gehlot and its state party chief Sachin Pilot. The BJP has had to stick with Raje as its CM candidate, but the party has also done some caste calculations, inducting tribal leader Kirori Lal Meena, who did a “ghar wapsi” to BJP after a gap of 10 years and was quickly rewarded with a Rajya Sabha seat.

Sensing that Congress could project Gehlot as its CM face, BJP also sent a member of the Mali community, Madanlal Saini, to the Rajya Sabha.

In 2013, Raje, riding on the gathering Modi wave at the time, romped home with a massive 163 seats out of 200, more than double the 78 her party had won in 2008. Congress was reduced to a mere 21 seats.

In Mizoram, the politics is bipolar, between Congress and the Mizoram National Front, but of late, the BJP has made a concerted bid to make inroads. The BJP could gain from the National Register of Citizens (NRC) issue, which affects Mizoram, too. In October 2017, the Mizoram BJP unit had urged PM Modi to deport all illegal Bangladeshi immigrants from the state.

It remains to be seen whether this is a powerful enough issue to catapult the saffron party to power for the first time in Mizoram. Congress’ octogenarian Chief Minister Lalthanhwala is a well-known face in the state.