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The Chambal Catch-22 for BJP: C for Change but, also, Chouhan | Political Pulse News


The ravines of Gwalior-Chambal resonate in popular imagination with runaway dacoits and runaway Bollywood hits. Now, the steep mud hillocks criss-crossed with deep gullies also reflect the treacherous territory in which the BJP finds itself in Madhya Pradesh.

As an electorate that has been ruled by the party now since 2003 overwhelmingly seeks “change”, Shivraj Singh Chouhan, the longest-serving Chief Minister of the state, is turning out to be the BJP’s biggest asset as well as its greatest liability in this region.

The tightrope walk for the BJP is clear in Chouhan’s popularity among women voters, who have been pointedly wooed by the CM with welfare programmes and cash schemes. Even the rest admit they don’t hold much against the leader with an image of a benevolent “Mamaji”, but for the fact that they want “badlaav (change)” in the November 17 election.

There is an additional layer to this yearning. While seen as a BJP bastion, in 2018, the Gwalior-Chambal region, had voted for the Congress in 26 of its 34 Assembly constituencies. Then followed the defection of 22 MLAs from the Congress led by Jyotiraditya Scindia, and the subsequent bypolls helped the BJP climb to 16 seats in the region.

Scindia’s “betrayal” – felling the Congress government and bringing the BJP back to power – is still a talking point here, the bastion of the erstwhile Gwalior royal family to which he belongs. As is the fact that the feud between his people and older BJP leaders continues three years later; ahead of polls, it has resulted in a mini-exodus from the BJP, including of four senior leaders.

Festive offer

While BJP insiders talk confidently of such doubts dying once its campaign machinery led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi kicks in, many ask why the party leadership did not effect a change at the top earlier, and why this “last-minute” introduction of multi-term MPs and Union ministers in the race now.

Madhya Pradesh polls Banti Kushwaha, a flower-seller in Morena, says under his schemes, Chouhan should have given money to men rather than women. (Express Photo: Liz Mathew)

‘Can’t have one CM forever’

“Why should Union ministers and senior leaders from the centre contest Assembly elections? Don’t they have anyone here to give ticket to? This shows how threatened the BJP is,” says Harish Soni, who sells dupattas from a cart in front of a temple in Gwalior city.

Soni admits he holds a grudge with the local administration, having had to pay a bribe a few years back to get his confiscated cart back. But his sentiments are echoed by Gopal Das Jindal, a fifth-generation brass utensil merchant and an ardent supporter of the BJP.

“The message (in fielding central leaders) is clear, that we have to win anyhow: saam, daam, dhand, bhed (persuade, purchase, punish or exploit). The party knows that people are tired of seeing the same face as CM,” says Jindal, adding that it would be a mistake to write off the Congress.

Manoj Srivas in Ambah and Vishnu Yadav in Morena concur on the desire for a new face. “We cannot just have one person as the CM forever. We also need to choose alternative parties,” Srivas says.

A BJP supporter in Gwalior, Tarun Bowai, however, argues for the party, saying under its government, all promises have been fulfilled. “The BJP thinks about the poor, women. The government that came for 15 months led by Kamal Nath stopped all its schemes. They promised to waive farmer loans within four days, but all we saw in the 15 months was a transfer industry,” says Bowai.

But Chouhan’s bid to don a more hardline image, seen as an attempt to fit in after Modi and Amit Shah’s rise in the BJP, has not won him any new admirers. Some BJP supporters say his government “did not do enough”. Amitabh Soni, the founder and head of a ‘Hindu Tiger Force’, says the Chouhan government prioritised SC/STs and OBCs. “Even if the BJP loses, it will be an opportunity for the Hindu forces to aggressively work for the cause. We shall have more time and space to regroup and revitalise.”

A BJP leader adds: “Chouhan kept the BJP fort protected… But a number of party workers feel he did not keep them in mind, and has focused on keeping his chair safe after he returned in 2020.” Many point to the “hundreds of unfilled posts in committees and commissions” which Chouhan could have given to party cadre.

Madhya Pradesh polls

‘Last-minute revdis’

Beyond Chouhan too, there is anti-incumbency against BJP MLAs after the party’s long stint in power, with many voters talking of “corruption” in the local administration, incomplete development projects and “unequal” implementation of welfare schemes.

“The police and local officials keep harassing us,” says Rohit Pachauri, 23, who owns an e-rickshaw.

Soni, who says he is a BPL card holder, dismisses Chouhan’s welfare agenda: “We do not get any benefit from his schemes… They say some people get houses, jobs or money. I haven’t got any.”

Sanjiv Sharma, who is a popular figure among street vendors in this Gwalior area and known as ‘Naadewala Panditji’, adds: “The schemes may be good, but they are not implemented properly… During the lockdown, they waived off the electricity bills, but the charge later was huge!”

He blames Modi, he jokes. “Modiji ne bola ghar pe baitho… Toh phir humko pankha chalana tha, cooler chalana tha… Modiji ne humko Ramayan aur Mahabharata bhi dikhaya… electricity charges toh banege na (The PM told us to stay at home… So we had to run fans, coolers… Modiji also organised the telecast of Ramayan, Mahabharata… Obviously the power bill was high).”

Among the leaders who might face this ground-level resentment is Union minister Narendra Singh Tomar, who has been fielded from Dimni. Voters in this Assembly constituency complain of “absence” of their political representatives, including MP Tomar (from Morena). The unhappiness in party ranks over the ticket to Tomar, ignoring local aspirations, could also hurt his chances.

In nearby Morena, Vishnu Yadav, who aspires for a police job, uses the BJP’s language to say the ruling party has resorted to “revdis (freebies)”. “Whatever Mamaji (Chouhan) is giving, it is last minute… Voh to abhi revdi baant rahe hein (They are giving freebies now). But they should have helped us find a stable income instead,” Yadav says.

Many youngsters ask why Tier II cities of the state have not seen any major changes in the last few years. They give the example of Gwalior, a major tourist city where no big infrastructure development has happened. This is a sticking point given the Modi government’s high-decibel infrastructure push elsewhere.

‘Money should have gone to men’

Some show barely concealed resentment towards Chouhan’s pro-women push, especially his Ladli schemes – including Ladli Behna Yojana, under which Rs 1,000 is sent to bank accounts of married women aged between 23 and 60. Banti Kushwaha, a flower-seller in Morena town, says “this does not help the family”. “He should have given the money to the men. It is the men who earn and feed them… Even if the Congress fields a donkey, we will vote for it.”

Srivas agrees, saying: “Instead of money to women, the young men in the family should have been supported.

As for women, the pivot that Chouhan is counting on to turn this election, while they match men both in voter numbers and turnout in the state, he could end up falling short even among them.

Many, at least publicly, say they will vote as “the family decides”. Others say that while they are happy with the money Chouhan puts in their hands, the BJP’s lack of clarity regarding him is making them think again.

Anuradha Rajender of Ambah scorns at the assumption that she will vote for the BJP because she got two instalments under the Ladli Behna scheme. “I will not decide my vote just because I got Rs 1,000. I have so many complaints… If they are giving me water through pipe, they are charging for it. The money belongs to us.”

‘Cong can’t be worse’

So, if the option is the Congress, many say they are ready to take it. “Let us give them a chance. With this government taking on huge financial burden from its schemes, we cannot expect much from the next government either,” says Gaurav Sharma, an unemployed youth in Dimni.

Manish, a young student in Ambah, says Kamal Nath deserves another chance. “Where did he get the time to focus on governance? By the time he figured out the system the BJP had built over 15 years, he was pulled down,” says Manish.

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Incidentally, some such as Rohit Pachauri in Gwalior, Deepak Singh in Morena and Surendra in Ambah, wish Arvind Kejriwal and his Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) had provided a viable alternative. While the AAP has announced it will fight in all the seats, it has no presence on the ground.

But even in this desire for new, there is no dent in the popularity of PM Modi. All those who talk of “badlaav” also call him the unambiguous choice when it comes to the Lok Sabha elections next year. “Modi is the only leader who can lead the country now. His judgment is good,” says Akash Rawat, a college student in Gwalior.

He admits that many of his friends are unhappy over how the Modi government has dealt with the Manipur issue and the women wrestlers’ protest, on which the PM has largely maintained silence. “I guess it’s not Modiji’s fault… it’s the people around him. Whatever it is, we cannot question the intention of Modiji,” Rawat says.





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