With the Election Commission set to give dates for key state elections later this month, it’s time for this column to start gathering specific feedback on how various parties stack up in different states that are set to go to polls.

Having accurately called the state elections in Uttar Pradesh last year and later Gujarat and Karnataka, the Bottom Line column hopes it can provide readers with a similar early and accurate prediction. While it is early in the game, let’s start with Madhya Pradesh today.

My current reading from the state suggests that the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is on a strong wicket in the state, mainly due to the popularity of its chief minister, Shivraj Singh Chouhan, who has made a strong impact on voters in the last two-and-a-half years that he has been chief minister.

But Chouhan remains one of India’s least known and unexplored chief ministers and so I headed to Tikamgarh and Chhatarpur districts of Madhya Pradesh where, last week, he was on the last lap of a five-week-long tour, dubbed Jan Ashirvad Yatra, or a trip to to seek people’s blessings, for a renewed mandate.

At many small urban locations in Tikamgarh district, which is the native district of Uma Bharati, a former BJP leader and its tormentor in the state now, Chouhan’s rallies attracted some 20,000 strong crowds, mostly comprising young people as well as the poor, with a sprinkling of enthusiastic women.

I asked several people who were at a public meeting in Tikamgarh as to why they came to hear him.

Here is what Mahendra Singh Lodhi, a self-described strong Congress sympathizer had to tell me: “Chouhan is the best chief minister that the state has had for a long time and he has done in a short period what others could not in decades."

That summed up the public sentiment in the state, often cutting across party lines, with many voters saying they appreciate Chouhan’s track record as chief minister, his simplicity, accessibility and frequent travels to their districts.

As Chouhan’s campaign continued into the night, at 1am, I found nearly 5,000 people waiting eagerly in Chhatarpur to hear him. While this isn’t a large crowd by Indian election standards, what surprised me was that the crowd was not hired (as in paid to show up by the local party bosses) and had waited patiently for hours to listen to a sitting chief minister. The crowd responded with a lot of enthusiasm to Chouhan’s speech, which continued until 2am.

The Congress’, also the main opposition, biggest challenge is then to try and overcome the personal popularity of Chouhan.

None of the state’s top leaders, including former chief minister Digvijay Singh, Union commerce minister Kamal Nath and Congress leader Suresh Pachauri, seem to be able to match Chouhan’s popularity.

The decidedly more youthful and charismatic Jyotiraditya Scindia, now a minister in the Union cabinet, could have potentially offered a challenge of sorts but is overshadowed by senior leaders in his own party. Help from film stars such as Govinda is only likely to go so far for the Congress.

It is clear to me that, increasingly, the state leadership is becoming a dominant factor in Indian elections. The success of Mayawati in Uttar Pradesh, Narendra Modi in Gujarat and B.S. Yeddyurappa in Karnataka points to how parties benefit from the personal appeal of such leaders.

Can Chouhan take the BJP to victory in the state, I asked Prem Singh Rathore in Niwari, a constituency that the BJP had never won. Rathore told me he was confident that Chouhan would return but, significantly, added: “The BJP will win Niwar in this election for the first time, if it fields a good candidate."

A “good candidate" is an important point to underscore. Despite Chouhan’s personal popularity, the outcome in Madhya Pradesh will depend mainly on how the BJP contends with the strong anti-incumbency sentiment against specific MLAs, much of it stemming from inaccessibility, non-performance and allegations of serious corruption against these elected representatives.

Despite allegations over what was dubbed as the dumper scam, Chouhan has escaped personal taint despite a spirited campaign by the Congress party to sully his image.

So, for now, the BJP has a significant edge. If the campaign ends up as a vote for or against Chouhan, the party will score a big victory. But, if the Congress party can make the election about local issues and specific candidates, then the BJP will find itself in trouble. But let me go out on a limb early and say that the BJP’s return to power in the state seems assured.

G.V.L. Narasimha Rao is a political analyst and managing director of a Delhi-based research consulting firm. Your comments are welcome at thebottomline@livemint.com

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