Why the BJP looks wobbly in Madhya Pradesh

…and why its desperate welfarism in the run-up to the elections will still not save the day for the party

Madhya Pradesh chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan (Photo: Getty Images)
Madhya Pradesh chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan (Photo: Getty Images)

Kashif Kakvi

At the beginning of this year, the BJP commissioned two state-wide surveys in Madhya Pradesh. The results were far from reassuring. They indicated that the party was facing a strong anti-incumbency. If Shivraj Singh Chouhan continued as the chief minister, the party would win 80 seats in the assembly polls due at the end of the year.

If he were to be replaced, the tally was likely to plunge to 60 in the 230-member house. The leadership toyed with the idea of accommodating the chief minister in the Union cabinet. But who would replace him? Although the party had no dearth of leaders—among them stalwarts like Narendra Singh Tomar, Kailash Vijayvargiya, Narottam Mishra, V.D. Sharma, Prahlad Patel, Gopal Bhargava and Jyotiraditya Scindia—nobody was willing to captain a sinking ship.

The plan to replace the state BJP president V.D. Sharma was also similarly jettisoned. Neither the RSS nor the BJP want Chouhan to return as chief minister for another term, even if the party manages to win the majority, emphasises political analyst Dinesh Gupta.

Given the Hobson’s choice between an unpopular chief minister and an untested one, the party decided to retain Chouhan. In the last week of August, Union agriculture minister Narendra Singh Tomar was pointedly asked by a reporter, “Sasur ke naam pe bahu laney ki baat kar rahe hain. Agar Shivraj-ji nahi toh yeh toh bataiye ki dulha kaun hoga? (You are courting voters in the name of the father-in-law. If it’s not Shivraj, at least tell us who the groom might be?)”

Tomar ducked the question, and proceeded to wax eloquent on the development record of the double-engine government. Union home minister Amit Shah had also sidestepped the same question, stating instead, “Shivraj-ji is the chief minister. It is our party’s job to decide [the] CM and we will decide.”

Meanwhile, undeterred by the party’s refusal to project him as the next chief minister, Chouhan has been valiantly promising in one public meeting after another that when he returns, he would do a lot more for the people. “Behno ke ashirwad se tumhara bhai phir wapas aayega. Congress toh saare schemes bandh kar degi. (Your brother will be back thanks to the blessings of his sisters. Congress is bound to stop all the schemes.)

Despite placing two Union ministers, Ashwani Vaishnaw and Bhupendra Yadav, in charge of the campaign in the state and taking rear-guard action to limit the damage, the exodus of leaders from the BJP continues. Congress sources claim that 35 BJP leaders have so far joined the party in the last four months, including a former MP, eight former MLAs, a sitting MLA and several organisational leaders.

A majority are from the Gwalior–Chambal, Bundelkhand and Malwa–Nimad regions. “These are migratory birds and this is not a new phenomenon, but it does show which way the wind is blowing,” says Rasheed Kidwai, veteran Bhopal-based political commentator.

In Himachal Pradesh and Karnataka too there was a pre-election exodus from the BJP, he points out. The number of ‘migratory birds’ would have been higher but for the refusal of the Congress to take back the 26 Congress MLAs who had defected to the BJP with Jyotiraditya Scindia and brought down the Congress government in the state.

“They will not be taken back in the party until my last breath,” said Digvijaya Singh to this correspondent. Unconfirmed and unofficial information is that many of them, including two ministers and two MLAs, had in fact reached out to the Congress for ghar wapasi. With its back to the wall, the BJP has embraced the ‘revdi culture’ derided by the PM and the BJP in states like Karnataka.

In Madhya Pradesh, the Shivraj Singh Chouhan government has been busy promoting welfare schemes and direct cash transfers under the Ladli Behna Yojana. Huge hoardings have come up, with the slogan ‘Ladli Behno, dus tareekh aane wali hai’ reminding women that the next instalment of the cash transfer is due on the 10th of each month, while reiterating the chief minister’s promise that the monthly amount of Rs 1,000 will be increased to Rs 3,000 after the election.

There are several other hoardings publicising similar schemes. One features the young beneficiaries of the Mukhya Mantri Seekho Kamao Yojana (MMSKY) that offers college graduates a cash transfer of Rs 8,000–10,000 every month for apprenticeship or internship in private firms. State government sources say as many as eight lakh applications were received, out of which 60,000 applicants have been registered so far.

Chouhan, who is virtually making three promises per day, has also offered LPG cylinders at Rs 450 and subsidised electricity on the lines of what Congress governments have done in Rajasthan and Karnataka. The schemes have indeed boosted the morale of BJP workers in the state. BJP leaders appear far more hopeful in September of making it a close fight than they were in January.

While the political wind still favours the Congress, BJP workers on the ground now appear to be more active, points out Dinesh Gupta. The Ladli Behna Yojana is estimated to cost Rs 18,000–20,000 crore per annum and has been allocated Rs 10,800 crore till now.

Officials say that the next government will have to explore ways of arranging adequate funds to sustain the scheme. The cash transfer has undoubtedly boosted BJP and the government’s stock.

Rajbati, mother of four children and wife of a manual worker, does not mince her words. “Jo sarkar ghar de rahi hai, ration de rahi hai, LPG ke liye paise de rahi hai, vote bhi unhi ko denge,” she says emphatically. She will vote for the government that is giving her a house, ration and money for LPG.

“The efforts are showing desired results,” said a visibly satisfied Narendra Singh Tomar on a recent visit to Bhopal. There are signs, however, that not everyone is pacified by the dole. Reactions to the scheme vary from one family to another even within the same locality, because each family is facing a different problem.

In one, the young sons are unemployed and have failed to secure government jobs; in another the household is struggling to repay agricultural loans; while a third family believes that one thousand rupees a month—with an additional 250 promised from October—is not nearly enough. More importantly, the chief minister’s ‘one-promise-a-day’ strategy is creating a crisis of credibility.

This week, he announced that guest lecturers who used to be paid on a daily basis will now receive Rs 50,000 a month. Similarly, guest teachers who used to receive Rs 5,000–9,000 per month would now receive between Rs 10,000–18,000 per month.

Needless to say, these would be paid after the election. Can these welfare schemes and promises be seen as anything more than desperate electoral ploys?

The widely held opinion is that even if the BJP returns to power, it is more than likely that it will be forced to review the schemes and will be lucky if it is able to fulfil a quarter of them. The BJP’s promises and schemes are also neutralised to an extent by the parallel promises made by the Congress, which has pledged to pay Rs 2,000 every month to women.

The Congress is also reminding voters that in all the states ruled by it, the promises made have been kept.

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