New Delhi: Next month’s Madhya Pradesh elections will provide an important litmus test of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) popularity ahead of 2019 Lok Sabha elections. Of the five upcoming state elections, Madhya Pradesh is the most important for national politics, contributing 29 seats to the Lok Sabha. And for the past 15 years, the state has been a BJP stronghold under chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan. After a decade of Congress rule (between 1993 and 2003), the BJP has dominated the state’s politics, securing an average of 70% of assembly seats over the past three state elections. But how has this sustained dominance affected Madhya Pradesh’s economic development?

Like many of India’s states, Madhya Pradesh’s economy still depends significantly on agriculture. The last census showed agriculture employs nearly 70% of the workforce against 55% at the national level while the 2015-16 agriculture census found more than 10 million farms across the state. In the past decade, this land and labour, combined with facilitative state government policy, has generated significant agriculture growth. In 2003, MP accounted for around 5% of total agricultural output; by 2014, this share had increased to 8%.

A combination of factors have contributed to this growth but most significant is wheat production. While Madhya Pradesh has always been a national leader in pulses, it is now one of the largest producers of wheat. Between 2002 and 2007, Madhya Pradesh accounted for around 9% of India’s wheat production. A decade later, wheat production has nearly doubled, averaging 17% of India’s production. Economists attribute the surge to investment in infrastructure, particularly irrigation, and better policies. One successful and popular policy has been the state bonus to wheat’s minimum support of price (MSP). In 2008, and in his first term as chief minister, Shivraj Singh Chouhan, who portrays himself as a champion for the farmers’ cause, added a 100 bonus to the wheat MSP. This, along with other marketing reforms, incentivized wheat production, increased state procurement, and helped power farm growth.

Yet, as this column highlighted last year, farm growth has not translated to farmer prosperity in Madhya Pradesh.

In a 2016 paper, the researchers Sanjoy Chakrovorty, S. Chandrasekhar, and Karthikeya Naraparaju showed that despite a 75% increase in farmer incomes between 2003 and 2013, MP’s farming household’s monthly per capita income of 1,321, as of 2013, is still 7% below the Indian average.

One reason for this is relatively low rural wages which have lagged the Indian average—a disparity that has widened over the last five years. This is particularly significant when 76% of all Madhya Pradesh farmers are small farmers relying on rural wages to supplement their incomes.

Agriculture’s relative success has also been balanced by relative failure elsewhere. Like the Congress before them, the BJP has struggled to stimulate Madhya Pradesh’s industrial sector. The state’s share in the country’s industrial output fell from 3.6% in 2003 to 3.2% in 2014, data from the old GDP series show (the new series is not comparable with the old series, and has not been used here). Not surprisingly, factory jobs are few and far between. Despite accounting for 6% of India’s population, as of 2015-16, Madhya Pradesh only employed 2.5% of India’s industrial workers. The rural unrest in recent years may have been driven as much by the lack of growth in farm incomes as by the lack of alternative job opportunities for most of the state’s populace.

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To compound the lack of diversification, the state has also failed to invest enough for human development, hurting productivity growth. On education and health, where state governments can exert a strong influence, MP fares worse than the Indian average. For instance, infant mortality has steadily improved through both Congress and BJP regimes to reach 47 deaths per 1,000 births but is significantly higher than the India figure (34).

Similarly on education, Madhya Pradesh’s government schools deliver poorer results than average Indian government schools. According to the ASER survey, in Madhya Pradesh nearly 17% of children in rural government schools could not recognize basic letters while 14% could not do basic arithmetic, higher than the corresponding Indian figures (15% for reading and 12% for arithmetic).

These are all enduring challenges for MP that precede the current regime but the BJP’s difficulties in tackling them could play a role in the upcoming elections. For instance, frustration with farm incomes have already manifested itself in farm protests.

But the MP elections will not be won or lost on development alone. Caste and religion have played a key role in past elections, and this time is no different. No wonder then, that both the BJP and the Congress have publicly advertised their Hindu credentials in the run-up to the polls.

This is the first of a two-part data journalism series on Madhya Pradesh. The next part will examine how different segments of voters in the state have voted in past elections.

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