By Rajdeep Sardesai
Is the ‘new’ BJP a bit like the ‘old’ Congress? And is the ‘new’ Congress a slice of the ‘old’ BJP? These might seem incongruous questions to raise when the BJP and the Congress claim to be waging a sharply polarised ideological war at the Centre but on the campaign trail through battle-ground Madhya Pradesh, the lines between the two major national parties seem unusually blurred. Which might also explain why it isn’t easy to pick a definitive winner in an electoral fight that has much at stake.
Take for example the visual impact of the large hoardings splashed across the state. The BJP’s publicity material has prime minister Narendra Modi typically tower above all others but even four time Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan is sharing space with nearly a dozen state BJP leaders. For nearly two decades, a resilient Chouhan, or ‘Mamaji’ as he is affectionately referred to, has been the face of the BJP in Madhya Pradesh; now there is a conscious attempt to project a ‘collective leadership’ concept beyond any individual focus. The messaging is distinctly similar to the ‘old’ Congress which was always reluctant to project its proven state leadership, preferring to rely instead on the appeal of a ubiquitous Delhi high command. By contrast, the Congress’s pitch is almost entirely being driven by life-size images of its chief ministerial face Kamal Nath with even the Gandhi family missing from many party posters. Rarely has the grand old party placed its First Family well below the pecking order in this manner.
Ironically, the Congress as a result appears for once more cohesive on the ground than the BJP. The saffron party has entered this election amidst growing concerns over a creeping divide between ‘netritva’ (leadership), ‘prashasan’ (administration) and ‘sanghatan’ (organization). In a state where the RSS has always prided itself on a strong grassroot network, many old-time ‘karyakartas’ (workers) complain of being ignored by the central leadership. Almost all those who defected from the Congress in 2020 to bring down the Kamal Nath government have been rewarded with tickets. With half a dozen MPs, including union ministers, being drafted in to fight the state elections, the pulls and pressures within the BJP factions are apparent.
By contrast, the Congress, which for decades was racked by intense faction fighting, now appears to have settled on a working arrangement between the last of its old guard leaders, Kamal Nath and Digvijaya Singh. Neither of them are genuine vote catchers but together the duo provide the party with experience and continuity. If Kamal Nath is the acknowledged chief ministerial candidate, Digvijaya is still the leader with the worker connect.
This is not the only role reversal in the Hindi heartland state. While the BJP unsurprisingly is seeking votes in the name of a Ram Mandir, the state Congress too is keen to ensure that the BJP isn’t allowed to usurp the Hindutva agenda. A promotional video highlights a 101 foot Hanuman statue built by Kamal Nath in his Chindwara constituency, gau-shalas (cow-sheds) sponsored during his 15 month tenure as chief minister and effusive endorsements from the sadhu-sant samaj. While a section of the opposition ‘India’ alliance appears ambivalent on its stance on sanatan dharma, in Madhya Pradesh the Congress wears its religiosity on its sleeve. Asserting that the BJP has no monopoly on Hinduism, Kamal Nath is even taking credit for Rajiv Gandhi’s role in opening the locks of the disputed site in Ayodhya.
Not only are the BJP and Congress competing for the Hindu vote, their slew of promises are also markedly similar. If Chouhan is hoping to turn around the election with his ‘ladli behna’ scheme that provides Rs 1,250 per month as financial assistance to approximately 1.3 crore women from poor families, the Congress has promised to raise the amount to Rs 1500 per month. From subsidized LPG cylinders to monetary support for tribals, Dalits and unemployed youth, cash hand-outs are seen by both parties as their ticket to power. The prime minister may well rail against the ‘revadi’ (freebie) culture bankrupting the exchequer but in Madhya Pradesh his party is locked in what is best described as a fierce ‘freebies for all’ fight with the Congress.
Here then is the conundrum for voters: if the ideological differences have narrowed, if the shower of goodies being offered by both parties are identical, how does one choose one over the other? Even the leaderships on either side of the political divide have a sense of sameness to them. Chouhan has been the BJP’s longest serving chief minister while Kamal Nath made his electoral debut way back in 1980. It is almost as if Madhya Pradesh is a state trapped in a time warp, untouched by the winds of change that have blown through much of the Hindi heartland in recent times. Neither the BJP nor the Congress have been able to effect a generational change in leadership nor in throwing up new ideas that might influence the electorate. Even on the troubling issue of surging localised corruption – a matter that seems to resonate with the youth in particular — both sides only throw mud at each other, neither going into the debate with clean hands.
Which is why a word most frequently heard on the road in Madhya Pradesh this time is ‘thakavat’ or ‘fatigue’. A sense of tiredness at the lack of viable options in what is still a well-entrenched two party state system has left voters feeling weary and frustrated. This weariness may express itself in an anti-incumbency mood against sitting MLAs – both parties have repeated a majority of their legislators – but it is unlikely to reflect in any dramatic change in political fortunes. In 2018, the vote share of both the BJP (41.02%) and the Congress (40.89%) was near identical and the gap in seats was only five. The term ‘kaante ki taakar’ (nail-biting fight) is often overused in election lexicon but in Madhya Pradesh it may well hold true once again. With one caveat: a decisive woman vote could yet tilt the delicate balance of power.
Post-script: On a train from Bhopal to Gwalior, a group is furiously debating on who will win Madhya Pradesh. Amidst the cacophony over the numbers game, a sobering voice is heard: “Madhya Pradesh mein BJP haarti nazar aati hai par Congress bhee jeetti nazar nahi aati” (In Madhya Pradesh, the BJP looks like it is losing but the Congress doesn’t look it is winning either).
(The writer is senior journalist and author. mail: [email protected])