A complex interplay of caste, anti-incumbency, popularity ratings of leaders and the Mahagathbandhan will determine who will win Madhya Pradesh (Part 1)

A fascinating contest is on in Madhya Pradesh. While the Congress party is aiming to cash in on anti-incumbency and end its 15-year vanvaas (exile), the BJP is hoping to consolidate its position further and make the state its fortress. MP Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan is embarking on a state-wide Jan Ashirwad Yatra covering all constituencies, to seek the blessings of the voters for a fourth consecutive term.

The Congress is trailing his route with its Poll Khol Yatra, in an attempt to expose the BJP government’s shortcomings.

No election is won because of a single factor, but rather, due to myriad factors. Likewise, who will win Madhya Pradesh is dependent upon several key factors which I have tried to capture, though this is not an exhaustive list.

Also Read: With Cong Win in MP Bypolls, BJP Will Be Wary of Anti-Incumbency

Social Engineering

Caste is king in MP, just like other Hindi-speaking states and many other parts of India. As per a recent CSDS study, 65 percent in MP vote on the basis of caste, which is the highest in the country. The BJP has traditionally received the backing of the upper caste and OBCs, who make up about 55 percent of the population.

The fact that tall leaders like Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan, ex-CM Uma Bharti, current State President Rakesh Singh all belong to the OBC community, has helped this cause.

SC-STs who make up 37 percent, and minorities who account for 8 percent of the population, have traditionally supported the Congress. In 2013, the BJP managed to gain traction among the SC-ST community and garnered higher support than the Congress.

(Source: CSDS Reports)
OBC Voting Preference Graph 

In 2018, these caste dynamics could change. The upper-caste of the state is unhappy with the BJP, as power positions have been taken over by OBCs; both the CM and state president belong to this community. Further, the chief minister’s stand that nobody can undo the reservation policy, reservation in promotions and the central government’s amendment in the SC-ST Act, overturning the Supreme Court order has not gone down well with a section of the upper-caste. Even if a section of disgruntled upper-caste voters abstains from voting, it could prove to be troublesome for the party.

On the other hand, the trio of Kamal Nath, Jyotiraditya Scindia, and Digvijaya Singh all belong to the upper caste (22 percent of the population). However, the Congress party has not yet come up with a strategy to exploit the anger amongst upper caste, possibly fearing the erosion of its Dalit vote bank if it woos upper castes.

Building the perfect coalition of caste in any seat is a tough task for both parties, especially given the contradictions and animosity among caste blocks.

Voter Turnout & NOTA

Turnout has been a key determinant of results of assembly elections. Normally, a higher turnout denotes anti-incumbency and the desire of voters to overthrow the government. Madhya Pradesh, however, doesn’t follow this trend. BJP came back to power in 2003, with a turnout (67.3 percent) higher than 1998 (60.2 percent). However, in subsequent elections, the turnout has witnessed an increase to 69.8 percent in 2008 and 70.8 percent in 2013. Despite this, the BJP has emerged victorious.

(Source: Election Commission of India)

The other factor which is increasingly playing a role is NOTA. Higher NOTA benefits the incumbent, as it denotes that the people are unhappy with the current government, but not confident about the Opposition being able to resolve their problems. In 2013 in MP, the NOTA vote share was 1.9 percent, which is quite high, and the BJP returned to power. NOTA polled more votes than the margin of victory in 24 seats.

It all boils down to voter mobilization, booth management and effective use of the get-out-to-vote strategy on polling day.

Factionalism in the Congress

It is an open secret that the state Congress unit is ridden with factionalism. There are not one or two, but seven to eight prominent groups led by Kamal Nath, Digvijay Singh, Jyotiraditya Scindia, Suresh Pachauri, Ajai Singh, Arun Yadav, Kantilal Bhuria etc. Most of them have pockets of influence in a specific region, but none of them statewide, except for Digvijay.

A Twitter war followed by a poster war broke out between the supporters of Kamal Nath and Scindia, as to who will be CM if the party wins. The state in-charge Deepak Babariya has been heckled in many meetings by supporters of various groups. In a recent Dainik Bhaskar survey, 55 percent opined that factionalism is the biggest challenge for the Congress. 30 percent feel the Congress is not able to provide a viable alternative due to in-fighting. After Kamal Nath’s appointment as PCC Chief, in the initial days, the various factions did put up a united show.

However, in-fighting has once again come to the fore front.

Popularity of Chief Minister Chouhan and the ‘Modi factor’

Elections in India are increasingly becoming Presidential-style. Chouhan is very popular among the masses in the state. Even the recent ABP-C Voter survey which predicted a Congress victory shows that Shivraj is leading the pack in the most-preferred CM candidate race. Even on a combined basis, Congress leaders are lagging behind Shivraj. Due to Chouhan’s women-oriented schemes like Ladli Laxmi, Janani Suraksha, Kanya Vivah / Nikah, his popularity among women is higher than men.

In recent polls, it has been seen that the party whose CM candidate leads the popularity ratings, normally goes on to win the elections.

The Congress needs to be wary of this and re-think its strategy of not declaring a CM candidate. Modi’s popularity in the Hindi heartland is accepted even by the Opposition. Though Rahul Gandhi is closing the gap with Modi, the latter can swing 2-3 percent votes in BJP’s favor in the last 2 weeks before polls, as evidenced in Karnataka.

(Source: ABP-C Voter survey)
Who is the most preferred CM candidate?

Congress + BSP Alliance

The Congress is trying to form an alliance with Mayawati’s BSP in the state to take on the BJP. The BSP has, on an average, recorded 7 percent vote share in the last 5 elections in the state. The party enjoys 15 percent support among the Dalits in the state. Had the Congress and the BSP contested together in 2013, the contest would have been close, with the grand alliance bagging 102, and BJP 124 seats, down by 41 from their tally of 165.

In the past, the BSP has proved its ability to transfer its votes to an alliance partner. However, the challenge lies in whether the Congress voter would vote for the BSP candidate in seats allotted to Mayawati. Till date, there is no clarity on the alliance. Contradictory statements from both sides have added to the confusion. The alliance will make the contest interesting.

In Part 2, we will have a look at more such factors.

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