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Congress aims at 2018 election momentum, BJP 2014-like sweep

In the Mahakaushal and Vindhya regions of MP that are going to polls today and in Budelkhand, Modi remains the most popular leader but BJP faces anti-incumbency against its MPs, even as Congress plays up local issues.

Updated: Apr 29, 2019, 08.46 AM IST
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Madhya Pradesh region
Parliamentary elections begin on Monday in Madhya Pradesh, a state where the Congress just about managed to form the government after a bitterly fought battle in November 2018.

The six parliamentary constituencies — Jabalpur, Chhindwara, Mandla, Balaghat, Shahdol, Sidhi — where polling will be held in the first phase in the state, are keenly watched as except for Chhindwara, the Congress has not won them for at least a decade, some for even 25 years. The region would test the political fortunes of some of the strongmen from both Congress and BJP: MP CM Kamal Nath’s son, Nakul, is making his political debut from Chhindwara, BJP state president Rakesh Singh is pitted against Congress’ legal eagle and Rajya Sabha MP Vivek Tankha in Jabalpur, and former CM Arjun Singh’s son Ajeya Singh is the Congress nominee in Sidhi.

ET travelled through the tribal regions — parts of what are referred to as Mahakaushal and Vindhya Pradesh — to see whether the Congress has regained some ground after it formed the government, how has farm loan waiver worked and if the BJP would be able to retain its iron grip on the two regions.

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The tribal vote
Though only two (Mandla and Shahdol) out of the six seats in the first phase are reserved for Scheduled Tribes, they form a significant electorate in the Mahakaushal and Vindhya regions. Across the state, the tribal belt had overwhelmingly voted for the BJP in 2014, but the people seem to be angry with the Modi government this time. The main cause for this is the denial or scrapping of land titles given to tribal people under the Forest Right Act. Adding to this are rampant acquisition of tribal land for development projects and the impression that the central government did not effectively resist the Supreme Court’s March 2018 order that banned automatic arrests under the SCs & STs (Prevention of Atrocities) Act.

Dadu Lal Kudape, a resident of Chutka who is being uprooted for a nuclear power plant, said he had voted for the BJP in 2014, but for his cluster of 50 villages in Mandla district, it would be the Congress this time. Mandla had voted out sitting MP Faggan Singh Kulaste’s brother in the 2018 assembly elections. In Kulaste’s village Khinha Ripta, people raise issues of unemployment and lack of drinking water. Babu Lal, a resident of Kathotia village, said: “Can you imagine an MP who doesn’t develop his own village? There is no employment. I run a cycle repair shop and my son is studying B Pharma. The scholarship money doesn’t even cover the room rent.” The BJP has already sensed this and has changed sitting MPs in several tribal seats.

Modi following
BJP’s trump card, Narendra Modi, is regarded as the best-suited PM candidate, but his popularity is offset by anti-incumbency sentiment against BJP MPs. Not just Kulaste, Rakesh Singh, who has won from Jabalpur with a margin of more than 1 lakh votes, faces resentment. James, a tribal who drives taxi, said: “He hasn’t done anything. For everything — including chikungunya outbreak in 2018 — we have had to go to Nagpur.”

The Nath factor
One of the biggest factors that swung a cluster of seats in favour of the Congress in the assembly polls was the projection of Nath as the CM candidate. This sense of pride of having a CM from this region is having a ripple effect. Implementation of farm loan waiver has added to Congress’ expectations. “We have two seats (Guna and Chhindwara) right now. But we know the tally will only go up,” said Tankha, the Congress candidate in Jabalpur. “The first phase will only set the tone for the rest of the elections. We are going strong on several seats; Sagar, Hoshangabad, Sidhi, Gwalior, Satna, Jabalpur are just a few.”

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In Bundelkhand region
No assembly-like mood for change now
SAGAR: The Bundelkhand region in Madhya Pradesh has been one of the strongholds of the BJP — on the four seats of Khajuraho, Tikamgarh, Damoh and Sagar, the Congress has not been able to achieve success in the recent past. In the assembly election last year, despite the Congress forming the government, the BJP kept its bastion closely with it. Out of the 32 assembly seats in these four constituencies, the BJP won 20 and the Congress, 10. If there was a general mood of change last year during the assembly polls, there is none like that now. No aggression is also visible among voters to defeat a candidate, or make someone win.

Still, in the places that ET has visited, a palpable anger against the BJP MPs is hardly unnoticed. However, what overrides the local factor, and what party leaders hope to work for them, is the Modi factor. Voting is scheduled for May 6 in Tikamgarh, Damoh and Khajuraho, and May 12 in Sagar.

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The Modi factor
On all the four seats, the BJP is facing local level anti-incumbency. In Tikamgarh, people are unhappy with two-time MP Virender Kumar. But they are willing to bear this when it is a question of Modi. Jitendra Bhaskar, a vegetable vendor in Niwari, said: “I will never vote for him (MP). I am voting for Modi.”

“Modi ne sabka kaam kiya (Modi has done work for all),” said Bakundi Prajapati, an ice-cream vendor. In Khajuraho and Sagar, the BJP has put up new faces, and that has not gone down well with a section of party workers and voters. But they all expect the Modi magic to help the party get past the winning number.

“The Congress candidate is a local person while the BJP has given ticket to an outsider. But I believe people finally would vote for Modi...,” said Maiyideen Choudhary, a social worker in Pawai.

The Congress has fielded Kavita Singh, the wife of Raj Nagar MLA Vikram Singh Natiraja who is also a member of a royal family in the region. The BJP has fielded BD Sharma, who is from Sagar, to beat anti-incumbency sentiment.

There are similar hopes in Damoh and Sagar too.

Bharat Mahobia, a trader in Gujrati Bazar, said Sagar was waiting for PM Modi’s rally on May 6. “Sagar is not easy this time for the BJP. Only Modi-ji can do something now,” he said, emphasising that his vote would always go to Kamal (Lotus, the BJP symbol). “But I know several others who are not willing to vote for the BJP.”

The Congress has not won Sagar since 1991. But for the last three elections, BJP’s vote share has been on a decline while that of the Congress has been rising. This is something that worries the BJP.

Sagar has a sizeable Jain population and all of them are BJP voters. Mukesh Jain, a popular community leader, had stood as an independent to divide Jain votes. But the BJP leadership has been able to convince Jain and he has withdrawn his candidature.
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