Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan is known for his ability to garner votes. His vision is transfixed at elections. He eats, drinks and breaths election, say people close to him. His governance is wired to take all decisions from the perspective of popular votes.
The chief minister is in elections mode, 24X7. He does not take any election, howsoever insignificant, lightly. He is probably the first-ever chief minister of MP who has started campaigning even in municipal elections, which are often decided by a margin of double-digit votes. Most of his predecessors used to consider it below their dignity to campaign in even assembly by-elections. Chouhan goes soliciting votes where even his ministers do not reach.
For such a man, whose top priority has been winning elections at all costs, the report card that people of Madhya Pradesh handed over to political parties in late August, must have come as a shock to Chouhan. The recent round of civic elections in the State have rang warning bells for ruling party. It clearly indicates that anti-incumbency has crept into political arena. Not a surprising development for a party that has been in power for nearly 14 years now.
On the face of it, situation is not alarming for BJP. It seems to have an upper hand. It managed to capture 60 percent seats, winning 25 out of 43 local bodies that went to polls. But its tally has gone down; earlier it controlled 28 municipal bodies. What is more alarming, probably, is that the beleaguered Congress is fast catching up. It increased its seats from 9 to 15, an impressive performance given the massive infighting that continues to plague its ranks.
There are unmistakable signs of anti-incumbency. The dissatisfaction level with BJP administration is high. The party lost power in almost one third of the 28 local bodies where it ruled before August elections. Chouhanâ€™s popularity, understandably, also witnessed a dip after farmersâ€™ agitation that has become a watershed in MP politics.
BJP lost almost half the constituencies where Chouhan, the only vote-catcher of the party, campaigned. An independent opinion poll, whose results were made available to Chouhanâ€™s political team, had anticipated as much. The poll, conducted around farmersâ€™ agitation, had indicated a clear fall in his popularity. The only consolation for Shivraj Singh was that in the poll he was heads and shoulders above Congress partyâ€™s Jyotiraditya Scindia, who aspires to be a challenger to the throne. In fact, such is the gap â€” almost 30 per cent â€” that Chouhan is not unduly worried.
However, just to be on the safer side, the Chief Minister keeps taking occasional pot shots at the scion of Gwalior princely family, often hitting below the belt. On several occasions he went out of his way to recall Scindia familyâ€™s not too glorious past â€“ they had sided with British during the first war of Independence.
The dip in BJP fortunes came despite Chouhan trying hard to win civic elections. He had deployed about a dozen ministers in constituencies that went to polls. MPs, MLAs and party office bearers were told specifically that a defeat in their areas would reflect in their report card when they seek re-nomination. He himself campaigned extensively for a fortnight, holding road shows, going for door to door contact with electorate and reaching out even to those areas where his ministers did not go.
Considered in this backdrop, civic election results emit danger signals for BJP. Two municipalities, Pandhurna in Chhindwara district and Sarni in Betul district, returned rebel Congress candidate. Another Congress rebel ended runner up at Shahdol. There are at least four constituencies where it lost by a slender margin. Congress lost Aathner seat in Betul district by a margin of 46 votes and Chhanera in Khandwa district by a margin of 49 votes. Similarly, it lost Nepanagar in Burhanpur district and Bhikhangaon Khargone district by less than 250 votes.
Congress could have captured these seven seats, radically changing the poll scenario, had its warring top leaders worked in synchronisation. Had that happened, the result would have been 22 for Congress and 18 for BJP. Congress heavyweight Jyotiraditya Scindia may aspire to become his partyâ€™s face in assembly election. But he lost face in civic elections. Congress lost Dabra in Gwalior district and Kailaras in Morena district, both part of Scindiaâ€™s domain, for the first time in electoral history. It seemed like a self goal by Congress. BJP could win these two seats because of Scindiaâ€™s indifference. He did not visit Dabra, in his own backyard, even once.
Apparently, civic elections results point out that Shivraj Singh is no longer the vote catcher he was a couple of years ago. Hence his detractors â€“ both within the party and outside it â€” were taken aback when BJP president Amit Shah announced recently at Bhopal that Chouhan will continue to lead the party in 2018 assembly elections, putting to rest nasty rumours that suggested he was being kicked upstairs to union cabinet. The announcement came, significantly, just a couple of days after the not so heartening results of civic elections. An announcement by Shah, they say, is as good as an announcement by Saheb.
Apparently, the BJP high command acknowledges that under the present circumstances Chouhan is its best bet. The Chief Minister has earned a reprieve despite less than flattering performance in civic elections because, being 24/7 in poll mode, he is always battle-ready. And he continues to be partyâ€™s biggest vote catchers, who could trounce giants like Uma Bharti when she had walked out of the party.
Senior officers, including some former chief secretaries, say that for the past several years the administrators were busy doing everything else except their basic work. For instance, they were procuring buses for CMâ€™s periodical political gatherings, they were garnering crowds for his frequent rallies, they were requisitioning buses to transport people from all over the State for his political jamborees. This year, almost for a month most officers were employed for buying onions from farmers! The gimmicks are good for only one thing â€” generating short term publicity. Can it get votes? Doubtful to say.
The views expressed are the authorâ€™s own.