Anti-incumbency has indeed been the overriding theme of the assembly elections in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. In Madhya Pradesh, anti-incumbency primarily seems to be directed at the Narendra Modi government on the two issues of demonetization and the introduction of the goods and services tax (GST). Shivraj Singh Chouhan continues to be the popular choice for the chief minister’s post, and does not seem to be weighed down by the anti-incumbency sentiment. The more important questions to ask, however, is one, whether this general sentiment of anti-incumbency has translated into a wave of anger against the Shivraj Singh-Modi governments, and two, if the Congress would stand to gain from this sentiment. My answer to both these questions is a “No". There is anti-incumbency, but it has not grown into a wave of anger against the Chouhan government, or even the Modi government. My sense is that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) may end up losing some vote share and seats it won in 2013, but that deficit will not be enough to result in a Congress victory in Madhya Pradesh. For the Congress to win in Madhya Pradesh, the sentiment of anti-incumbency should have escalated into a wave of anger against the government, but that does not seem to have happened.

I also refuse to read much in the high turnout this time around. In 2013 elections, the voter turnout was around 73% and this time it was around 75%. This is a natural increase in turnout that is to be expected given the efforts by the Election Commission and political parties for voter awareness. It is not necessary also that a high turnout is representative of the voters’ anger against the incumbent government, and that is certainly not the case in Madhya Pradesh.

If the BJP does go on to win its fourth successive term in office in Madhya Pradesh, albeit with fewer seats than it won in 2013, I would credit the victory only and only to Shivraj Singh Chouhan. The BJP in Madhya Pradesh has no organizational network and Chouhan is the organization, face, and lifeblood of the BJP here. There is a traditional BJP constituency in Madhya Pradesh that would help the party, but the chief minister is the only factor that stands between a Congress victory, which is improbable in any case, and Madhya Pradesh. In his rule of 13 years as chief minister, Chouhan has earned that kind of goodwill and support that towers above the BJP’s appeal in Madhya Pradesh.

In all three BJP-ruled states of Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, and Rajasthan, there is this sentiment of anti-incumbency, but Madhya Pradesh is still for the BJP to lose because of the popular chief minister. I have always believed that the state assembly elections are fought and won by the incumbent chief ministers, or the chief ministerial aspirants. In Rajasthan, for instance, Vasundhara Raje has become quite unpopular and that has been a big handicap for the BJP there. But in Chhattisgarh, despite there being no resentment against Raman Singh, the Congress party’s promises aimed at the farm constituency, such as loan waiver and minimum support price for paddy, have made the contest quite close and the Congress could actually win this state, considered a BJP stronghold.

The Congress had a late start to its Madhya Pradesh campaign. The Madhya Pradesh Congress committee chief Kamal Nath got only four to five months to ready the organization, which has been a divided house for a long time, and mount some challenge to Chouhan. Had he been made in-charge eight to nine months before, things could have been different.

Girija Shankar is a Bhopal-based political commentator and author of books on elections in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh.

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