Reversal of roles for BJP, Congress in MP - Hindustan Times
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Reversal of roles for BJP, Congress in MP

Nov 16, 2023 10:54 PM IST

If high command loomed large in the BJP campaign, state leadership was the focus of Congress outreach

Is the “new” Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) a bit like the “old” Congress? And is the “new” Congress taking a slice from the original BJP playbook? These might seem incongruous questions to raise when the BJP and Congress claim to be waging a sharply polarised ideological war at the Centre. But on the campaign trail through battleground 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.

 The BJP’s publicity material has Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi typically towering above all others. (ANI) PREMIUM
The BJP’s publicity material has Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi typically towering above all others. (ANI)

Take, for example, the visual impact of large hoardings splashed across the state. The BJP’s publicity material has Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi typically towering above all others. Even the four-time chief minister (CM), Shivraj Singh Chouhan, is sharing space with a dozen state BJP leaders. For nearly two decades, a resilient Chouhan, or ‘Mamaji’(uncle) as he is affectionately referred to, has been the face of the BJP in Madhya Pradesh; now there is a conscious attempt to drive home a ‘collective leadership’ concept. 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. As a result, many old-time RSS-BJP karyakartas (workers) complain of being ignored by the all-powerful 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 seven 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’s poll pitch is almost entirely 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. A party that for decades was racked by intense faction fighting now appears to have settled on a working arrangement between Kamal Nath and Digvijaya Singh, the last of the old guard leaders. Neither of them are tall mass leaders but together the duo provides the Congress with experience and continuity.

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 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 Chhindwara constituency, gaushalas (cowsheds) sponsored during his 15-month tenure as CM and effusive endorsements from the sadhu-sant samaj. While a section of the Opposition INDIA bloc appears ambivalent on its stance on sanatana 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 the Congress competing furiously for the Hindu vote, but their slew of promises is also markedly similar. If Chouhan is hoping to turn around the election with his Ladli Behna scheme that provides 1,250 per month as financial assistance to approximately 13 million women from poor families, the Congress has promised to raise the amount to 1,500 per month. From subsidised LPG cylinders to monetary support for tribals and Dalits, cash hand-outs are seen by both parties as their ticket to power. The PM may well rail against the ‘revdi’ (freebie) culture bankrupting the exchequer, but in Madhya Pradesh, his party is locked in a fierce freebies-for-all fight with the Congress.

Here then is the conundrum for voters. If ideological differences have narrowed, if the shower of goodies being offered by both parties is identical, how does one choose one over the other? Even the leaders on either side of the political divide have a sense of sameness to them. Chouhan has been the BJP’s longest-serving CM 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 has been able to effect a generational change in leadership or throw up new ideas to attract voters. Even on various corruption charges, both sides only throw mud at each other, neither going into the debate with clean hands.

Which is why the word thakavat (fatigue) echoes across the sprawling state. A sense of tiredness at the lack of viable options in what is still a well-entrenched two-party system has left voters feeling weary and frustrated. This weariness may express itself in a creeping anti-incumbency sentiment 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 Congress (40.89%) was near-identical and the gap in seats was just five.

The term kaante ki taakar (nail-biting fight) is often overused during elections, 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 energetically 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).

Rajdeep Sardesai is a senior journalist and author. The views expressed are personal

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