Aditi Tandon in Madhya Pradesh
Seated in the verandah of his home in Dhar, the Hindutva lab of Madhya Pradesh, Mansukh Lal is hesitant to call the November 17 election in anyone’s favour. “Kaantey ki takkar hai, kuchh bhi ho sakta hai (It’s a close fight, anything can happen),” quips the 80-year-old, voicing a sentiment dominant across the state on poll eve. This was not the case until a few months ago when the Congress led by former Chief Minister Kamal Nath looked reasonably ahead. The BJP has caught up fast, say locals. Ask them what changed the done deal and an empathic reply follows: “Ladli Behna Yojana.”
Poll date: Nov 17
Total seats: 230
Since June this year, when Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan released the first instalment of Rs 1,000 to beneficiaries under the scheme, the state’s 1.32 crore underprivileged married women have received cash in their accounts consecutively for five months. The November instalment came in time for Diwali.
“I have already received Rs 1,250 for November. Mama (maternal uncle, the popular reference for Chouhan) had said this month’s money will come early so that we can make Diwali purchases. I have bought new clothes for children,” says a visibly elated Dhapu Bai, who runs a small eatery in Sawer segment, adjoining Indore where Union Minister Jyotiraditya Scindia’s loyalist Tulsi Silawat is advantageously placed against Congress’ Reena Borasi.
Every second voter in the state feels the Ladli Yojana has brought the BJP back in the game with Chouhan actively focusing on making women, 47.8 per cent of the population, the centrepiece of the 2023 elections. He appears to be succeeding. Even Prime Minister Narendra Modi last week announced in MP that mothers and sisters will decide the future of the state, launching a new campaign tagline: ‘Congress aayi, tabahi layi’ (Congress will stop all schemes if elected). Of late, the PM has been focusing more on MP’s women rather than himself even though the state BJP’s campaign line is ‘MP ke man mein Modi’.
“The scheme could be a game-changer for the BJP. Never before has one policy become so central to an entire election. Ladli Behna Yojana is now driving the narrative and other issues appear to be paling in comparison,” says Bhopal-based election analyst Yogesh Rathore, adding that the BJP, facing three-term anti-incumbency, was nowhere in the fight until Chouhan, in the chair since 2005, unveiled the scheme this March and implemented it from June. Since then, he has raised the monthly support to Rs 1,250, promising Rs 3,000 if re-elected.
Having rolled the dice, the BJP is now waiting to see if its “master stroke” converts into gains through mobilisation of women, whose turnout in 52 of MP’s 230 seats was higher than males in 2018.
Conscious of the groundswell for Ladli, even the Congress has promised every girl child Rs 2.5 lakh from birth to marriage under ‘Meri Bitiya Rani’scheme, a replica of the MP government’s existing Ladli Lakshmi Yojana, launched on 2008 poll eve to support girls with Rs 1.43 lakh from birth to marriage.
A section of voters still feels the Congress has an edge in the state. Satish Pancholi of Bhopal sees a sentiment for change but admits the election is too close to call.
Confident of dislodging Chouhan, the Congress is also countering Ladli by telling voters that money for the scheme is being pulled by halting widow and disability pension.
“Were you not ladlis for 18 years? Why this sudden sympathy? Were you not struggling before? Beware of Mama’s plot,” Congress star campaigner Priyanka Gandhi Vadra warns women, presenting her own bunch of guarantees for women, including Rs 1,500 monthly support, Rs 500 per cylinder and 100 free power units.
For many beneficiaries though, it appears to be a case of one in hand being better than two in the bush — something the BJP hopes to cash in on. “Hamare ghar toh paisa aa raha hai,” says Savita Patwa in CM’s segment Budhni. Her husband Jagdish Patwa adds, “You can’t imagine the power of cash for families that slog for two square meals a day. The poor are feeling empowered.”
This sentiment explains the ongoing contest of pro-women sops in MP.
Chouhan has even penned a personal letter to all “Ladli Behnas”, promising to make them “lakhpati didis” when re-elected and to expand the Ladli scheme to cover unmarried 21-year-plus girls. Every BJP candidate will hand-deliver the letter to women in their constituencies.
While the BJP targets female voters, the Congress feels its manifesto will ensure support from farmers, government employees, STs, SCs and OBCs. “We have promised a caste census, restoration of old pension scheme, farm loan waiver, Rs 25 lakh health insurance, besides support to women,” says Indore 1 MLA and Congress candidate Sanjay Shukla, pitted against BJP general secretary Kailash Vijayvargiya, a seven-term ex-MLA who is one of the saffron stalwarts in the fray apart from seven Lok Sabha MPs, including three Union ministers (Narendra Tomar, Prahlad Patel and Faggan Kulaste).
So far as issues go, unemployment, inflation and concerns of under-development dominate minds. Across regions, voters rue the lack of jobs, dominance of outsiders in the state’s industries and rising inflation, but few voice their criticism.
Mithilesh Siraswal of Budhni is an exception. “BJP is nowhere in the scene. It will be a surprise if Mama wins Budhni, but even the Congress has no faces. They can’t win a match with one batsman Kamal Nath. I prefer Arvind Kejriwal,” says Mithilesh, a graduate who paints houses for a living as Chouhan’s segment reels under joblessness. Local companies hire only outsiders while local youth drive autos, work as daily-wagers or run shops for a livelihood, he says.
Mithilesh’s remarks signal the importance of third parties in polls. AAP, which lost deposits on all but one of the 208 seats it contested last time, has strategically fielded 66 nominees this year. The BSP, SP, Gondwana Ganatantra Party and three factions of Jay Adivasi Sangathan candidates can also impact around 25 seats. Talk is that the BJP has propelled Adivasi Sangathan candidates in many tribal reserved seats to undercut Congress votes. SP’s ongoing tussle with the Congress over seat-sharing in the state may also harm the grand old party.
“In a close fight, every seat matters,” says Ramesh Chand of Bhopal, who sees 2023 shaping up like 2018 when the Congress had won 114 seats and the BJP 107. BSP and SP’s support had propelled Kamal Nath to power but defections engineered by Jyotiraditya Scindia dislodged the Congress. In the byelections that followed, Scindia’s loyalists swept the Gwalior Chambal belt where the Congress had won 26 of 34 seats last time.
Overall, voters see anti-incumbency as BJP’s principal challenge and factionalism as Congress’.
The eagerness of Congress stalwarts Kamal Nath and Digvijay Singh to project their sons is all too evident, with the PM hammering in on the tensions in all speeches. Nath and Singh have not been seen campaigning together though Congress says the “Jai-Veeru” duo is “united to win”.
Voters, however, feel internal feuds could harm the Congress. “If the party loses, it would be because of divisions and lack of capacity to work hard,” says Anees Khan, a taxi driver in Devas. His reference is to CM Chouhan addressing an average of 10 rallies a day against Nath addressing fewer.
Rebels, the strategists note, will trouble both sides, making voter mobilisation the key to victory. The BJP could have an advantage here with MP’s saffron organisation the strongest nationally, thanks to Dhar-born late veteran Kushabhau Thakre and his legacy.
“We have prepared action plans for all 65,000 booths. Each booth manager has a list of beneficiaries of the area. Booth mobilisation is our top priority,” says a BJP functionary, pointing to top strategist and Union Home Minister Amit Shah’s oft-quoted advice: “Booth hi chunaav ka garbh daan hai (Booth is the uterus of elections).”
BJP’s historic Gujarat mandate in 2022 was credited to micro booth management, an experiment the party is repeating in MP, having listed 2.5 crore beneficiaries it hopes to mobilise. MP’s population is around seven crore.
In the Congress, former CM Digvijay Singh is working on the ground with cadres but organisational weakness remains a challenge for the party, which is banking on people to oust Chouhan.
Importantly, at the grassroots, freebies have captured the popular imagination immensely with people talking of how BJP, critical of sops, has been forced into the game to counter Congress guarantees.
As freebies dominate, Hindutva voices surface but seem far and few, concentrated mainly around the Malwa Nimar belt, a decisive region with 66 seats, of which the Congress had won 35 in 2018 and BJP 28.
Ram Mandir and Mahakal Corridor are the top issues in Ujjain, MP’s religious capital, once a hotbed of SIMI activities.
“Kamal hi aayega. Ram Mandir bhi bana diya. Ujjain Mahakal mein das guna vridhi ho gayi (BJP will come. They have built the Ram Temple and Mahakal temple visitation has grown 10 times changing the local economy for good),” says Prem Chaurasia, 70, a vendor whose ancestors also sold wares at the Mahakal temple.
Polarisation also grips parts of Malwa, which houses Dhar, Ujjain and Indore, and Nimar’s Khandwa and Khargone, where Chouhan last year ordered razing of Muslim houses over Ram Navami violence.
“In 2013, we voted for the CM but this time he has become ‘bulldozer Mama’. We are very unhappy,” says Mubeen Khan of Nimar.
In nearby Dhar, communal tensions simmer, with Hindu organisations moving the MP High Court recently for full ownership of land that houses an 11th century Bhojshala built by Malwa king Raja Bhoj and a mosque. Petitioners claim the mosque stands on the site of a Vagdevi (Goddess Saraswati) temple.
“Bhojshala is Dhar’s Ram Mandir,” local Mohnish Kumar says, bringing back memories of 2003 when BJP’s Uma Bharti stormed to power on the Bhojshala issue.
The Congress counter to polarisation is a caste census and ST outreach. In 2018, the Congress had bagged 31 of MP’s 47 ST reserved seats with 4 per cent higher votes than BJP, whereas the vote share of the two parties in 35 SC seats was almost equal. Tribals, who constitute 21 per cent of the state population, the highest anywhere in India, can swing elections along with OBCs, if the caste census appeals to voters.
Constituencies that can tilt scales
15 districts, a decisive bellwether region with the highest 66 Assembly seats
2018: Congress won 35 seats (including 11 of 22 ST reserved), BJP 28 (7 ST seats)
KEY LEADERS IN FRAY
BJP General secretary Kailash Vijayvargiya (Indore 1); Jyotiraditya Scindia loyalist state minister Tulsi Silawat (Sawer); sitting MLA Neena Verma, mother-in-law of MP Parvesh Verma (Dhar)
Congress Sitting MLA Jeetu Patwari (Rau); Vikrant Bhuria (Jhabua) and Adivasi Sangathan founder Hiralal Alawa (Manawar)
Borders UP, 8 districts, 34 seats with mostly direct fights and rebels on 7
2018: Congress won 26, BJP 7
KEY LEADERS IN FRAY
BJP Union Agriculture Minister Narendra Tomar (Dimani); Scindia loyalist and state minister Pradyuman Tomar (Gwalior); state home minister Narottam Mishra (Datia)
Congress Leader of Opposition Govind Singh (Leher); ex-CM Digvijay Singh’s son Jaivardhan Singh in Raghogarh; MLA Ravindra Tomar in Dimani.
Popularly called the Vindhya belt; 30 seats
2018: BJP 24, Congress 6
Popularly called Madhya Bharat area; 36 seats
2018: BJP won 24 (including four of Bhopal district’s 7 seats); Congress 12
KEY LEADERS IN FRAY
BJP CM Shivraj Singh Chouhan (Budhni); ex-CM Govind Narayan Singh’s son Dhruv Narayan Singh (Bhopal Central); minister Vishwas Sarang (Narela)
Congress Arif Masood (Bhopal Central); PC Sharma (Bhopal Dakshin Paschim)
OBCs and STs dominate; 38 seats
2018: Congress won 24, and BJP 13, the reverse of 2013
KEY LEADERS IN FRAY
BJP Union Minister Prahlad Patel (Narsinghpur), 4-term MP Rakesh Singh (Jabalpur); Union minister Faggan Kulaste (Niwas ST)
Congress Former CM Kamal Nath, ex-minister Tarun Bhanot (Jabalpur)
The region has SP, BSP influence; 26 seats
2018: BJP won 16, Cong 8, BSP & SP one each
OBCs and Brahmins dominate here. Four ministers in the MP Cabinet are from here. Recently, Uma Bharti’s nephew Rahul Lodhi was made a minister to woo OBC Lodhas
- Ladli Behna Yojana (Rs 1,250 a month and ‘houses’ for 1.32 crore women)
- 50% quota in recruitments in MP government schools
- 33% quota in other government jobs
- 1% registration fee if property bought in woman’s name
- Rs 250 to each Ladli Behna beneficiary on Raksha Bandhan
- Rs 450 a cylinder in Saawan months with a promise to continue the same rate
- Rs 2.5 lakh per girl child from birth to marriage
- Rs 1,500 monthly cash support to women if elected
- Cylinder for Rs 500; 100 units of power free; up to 200 units to cost half
- Rs 25 lakh health insurance cover; monthly stipend between Rs 500 and Rs 1,500 to students
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