This state election shares many similarities with the Karnataka polls—a BJP government secured through defections, an unpopular Chief Minister and more. But can Congress expect to sweep this state as well? And what would a victory bode for the Lok Sabha election?
Researched by: Rachel John & Aarthi Ramnath
First, some basic deets
The numbers: The legislature has 230 seats—of which 35 are reserved for the Scheduled Castes and 47 for the Scheduled Tribes. The halfway mark: 115—so 116 seats for a majority. FYI: Madhya Pradesh also accounts for 29 Lok Sabha and 11 Rajya Sabha seats. So what happens in MP matters in Delhi.
The political history: Madhya Pradesh was formed in 1956 by fusing two British-ruled provinces and five princely states—including Gwalior. Hence, the prominence of the Scindias since its inception. Congress had a monopoly over the state—until the breakaway factions formed the first non-Congress government in 1967. But its only real challenge was the rise of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (BJS)—now known as the BJP.
The BJP won its first state election in 1990—scoring 220 of the 320 seats—but truly became dominant under Shivraj Singh Chouhan. He remained Chief Minister from 2005 to 2018—winning four successive elections.
Key point to note: Unlike other states, regional parties do not play a major role in MP. It has always been a head-to-head fight between Congress and the BJP.
Good to know: Chhattisgarh was carved out of MP in 2000—and held its first election in 2003. It is also going to polls today—which we covered in this Big Story.
The great coup revisited
As we said, Madhya Pradesh has many of the same dynamics as Karnataka—the most prominent being the ouster of a Congress government.
The 2018 elections: The Congress returned to power with 114 seats—and the support of regional parties like Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party. It broke Chouhan’s four-election winning streak—but the BJP still managed 109 seats. Tantalisingly close and yet so far.
The 2020 coup: was engineered by Jyotiraditya Scindia—who had long been chafing under the shadow of Chief Minister Kamal Nath. At the time, there was a great tussle within Congress between the old guard—close to Sonia Gandhi—and Rahul’s younger coterie. Scindia’s decision to defect to the BJP became symbolic of the party establishment’s inability to meet its younger leaders’ aspirations.
The BJP returns: After great drama—involving resorts in Bangalore (oh, the irony!)—Scindia joined the BJP with 22 MLAs in tow, delivering a decisive majority. Chouhan was restored as Chief Minister—while Scindia was rewarded with a union cabinet portfolio, becoming the minister of civil aviation.
2023 elections: BJP on the backfoot
The problem for the BJP is that not much has changed since 2019. Shivraj Singh Chouhan remains unpopular—and Scindia hasn’t helped to move that needle.
The unpopular Mr Chouhan: The state has been battling inflation, corruption and unemployment—and as recent surveys show, people blame Chouhan for it. Over 60% say his performance has been poor—and his favorability ratings are below 35%. Only 37% want him to return as CM.
Point to note: Kamal Nath isn’t exactly winning popularity contests. Only 37% want him to replace Chouhan.
Chouhan who? The BJP leadership in Delhi has tried to blunt this anti-incumbency sentiment by almost erasing its own CM. Chouhan has been practically invisible during the campaign. The posters instead feature a giant PM Modi—towering next to a line-up of other leaders. Chouhan is just one among them—demoted to hanging with Scindia, party prez JP Nadda and some union ministers. The campaign slogan: ‘Modi Ke Mann Me Basey M.P., M.P. Ke Mann Me Modi’ (M.P. lies in Modi’s heart, Modi in M.P.’s heart).
Collective (Modi) leadership: As with the elections in Chattisgarh, the BJP hopes Modi’s charisma wins the day. So it has not declared a CM candidate—opting instead for what it coyly describes as “collective leadership.” Chouhan has been reduced to making sad speeches to his constituents, telling a gathering of women voters: “Sisters, you will not find a brother like this. When I leave, you will miss me.” Also this:
The [unnamed] BJP leader also said that the party did not want to take any risk before the 2024 Lok Sabha polls. “This is why the Prime Minister is our face in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh. An unfavourable result might discourage the party cadre before the Lok Sabha polls,” he said. Senior journalist and poll observer Girija Shankar told The Hindu, “They are focusing on the Prime Minister because they have started preparing for 2024 polls. They want to create a momentum from now itself.”
But, but, but: A similar strategy in Karnataka in May this year and Himachal Pradesh last year proved to be a dud—resulting in a comfortable Congress victory.
An amusing detail: Congress has pounced on the sidelining of Chouhan—trying to turn it into an advantage among women voters—who still like him: “Our volunteers took this message to voters, especially women to tell them that even if the BJP wins, Shivraj ji is not coming back. This gave us an edge because we have projected a face which has gained its credibility.” Reminder: Chouhan is also one of the few BJP CMs from the Other Backward Caste community. Then again, Modi likely neutralises that loss.
The Scindia factor: Having made a dramatic entry into the BJP, he now has to sing for his supper—rather, his cushy cabinet seat. But his faction has never quite settled into their new home—and are often at odds with the state leadership. As the Congress leader Digvijay Singh wittily puts it: “There was not one—but three BJPs in the state - Shivraj Bhajpa, Maharaj Bhajpa, and Naraaj Bhajpa”—that Shivraj’s BJP, Maharaj’s [Jyotiraditya Scindia] BJP, and the BJP of those angry at Scindia’s entry. Given that infighting is rare in the saffron party, the Maharaj has proved to be a liability.
Show me the seats! Scindia is now under pressure to deliver critical seats in Gwalior and Chambal—which are currently Congress strongholds. Scindia’s former party won 26 of the 36 seats in the last elections. And a number of the defectors from these regions have gone back to Congress in recent months.
A Congress victory, perchance?
Unlike Karnataka, only one of the many polls predicts a sweeping victory for the party—or for the BJP. The numbers are almost the same as 2018. Of the 16 surveys held in the state, eight show Congress close to or over the majority mark. The rest predicted the same for the BJP. In terms of vote share (44%), once again the BJP has a narrow advantage—edging Congress out by 1%. But the BJP had the higher vote share in 2018, as well. It doesn’t always translate to more seats.
The Congress strategy: seeks to replicate its success in Karnataka. It is squarely aimed at Chouhan—and allegations of corruption. Where in Karnataka CM Bommai was described as the ‘PayCM 40%’, in MP, the establishment is being called a “50% commission government.” The party has also released a Ghotala Sheet-listing 254 scams.
But, but, but: Unlike Karnataka, the Kamal Nath-led Congress has embraced soft Hindutva with great gusto. This is not new for Nath or the state party wing:
Since at least 2018, Nath has tried projecting himself as a devout Hindu and a Hanuman devotee. However, Nath has also avoided associating himself with the hardline Hindutva practiced by the BJP and emphasised India’s diversity…
In the 2018 Assembly election... the party’s manifesto had promised to set up gaushalas, or cow shelters, in each of the state’s 23,000 panchayats. It also vowed to develop the Narmada circumambulation route and the Ram Van Gaman Path, the route revered in Hinduism as having been taken by Lord Rama on his way to exile.
But making a distinction between ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ Hindutva has proved tricky. For example, when asked if India is a Hindu rashtra, Nath said:
What is the point of making a Hindu nation, 82% are Hindus here. In a country where there is such a huge percentage, is it a matter of debate? What’s the need to say Hindu nation? The numbers say it.
Though he added: “We also practise secularism as our national resolve and constitution guarantee. I see no contradiction there.”
Nath and his supporters claim this pivot is essential to help Congress shed its image as an “anti-Hindu party”—and to meet “the collective yearning for soft-Hindutva” among grassroots workers. And losing the 6.6% Muslim vote is worth the potential rewards of tilting right.
But, but, but: A Wire ground report shows that it will be very difficult to wrest the Hindutva card from the BJP—which has deep RSS roots in the state:
“The BJP has ended all goondaism. There used to be a lot of atrocities. If the Congress comes back, there will be goondagardi again,” said Sahu, who runs a small kiosk. Atrocities by whom, I asked. “The people from the Muslim community. They used to oppress the poor,” he responded.
The bottomline: Congress may eke out a victory in Madhya Pradesh—and perhaps retain power in Chhattisgarh. But none of this is a guarantee for success in the Lok Sabha elections. Modi-ji has an iron grip on those 29 seats.
The Hindu is best on the role of Modi in the MP election. The Quint has in-depth pieces on Scindia and Chouhan. Indian Express has a couple of interesting pieces—on the Lok Sabha vs state election split, Scindia and MP’s political history. Yogendra Yadav parses the polls in The Print. Scroll is best on Congress’ soft Hindutva strategy—while The Wire’s ground report suggests it’s likely to fail.