Home >Politics >News >How the BJP bounced back in central India

Seven months ago in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) state governments were toppled by the Congress after more than a decade in power. At that time, many thought that the December 2018 assembly election results would serve as a solid platform for the Congress to make gains in the region in the 2019 general election. The results on 23 May, though, revealed that the platform had quickly crumbled. Of the 40 seats at stake in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, the BJP won 37, while the Congress just won three.

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( Graphic by Santosh Kumar Sharma/Mint & Sriharsha Devulapalli/Mint)

The remarkable turnaround was underpinned by a dramatic shift in vote shares in a span of about six months. In the 2018 assembly elections, the BJP could only secure 39% of the vote share across both Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, but this had increased to 56%, the highest vote share the BJP has ever secured in this part of the country in any election. Traditionally, in both states, the BJP has always performed better in Lok Sabha elections than in state elections in terms of vote share, but never has the vote share gap between assembly and Lok Sabha elections been so large.

In Madhya Pradesh, one reason for the dramatic turnaround could be the dissatisfaction with the first six months of the Kamal Nath-led Congress government. According to post-poll survey data published by the Lokniti team at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), only 29% of voters in Madhya Pradesh were satisfied with the new state government. Driving this discontent was the angst among the state’s farmers. According to the 2017-18 Periodic Labour Force Survey, 61% of Madhya Pradesh’s workers are involved in agriculture-related activities, compared to 44% nationally. Consequently, farm policy has always dominated its political economy.

On the first day of assuming office, chief minister Nath had announced a state-wide farm loan waiver to the tune of 10,000 crore. Despite the quick announcement, many farmers are yet to receive the loan waiver money into their accounts. And, it is these farmers who are most dissatisfied with the state government. Such is Nath’s lack of popularity that nearly half of the state’s voters (48%) would re-elect Shivraj Singh Chouhan (the former BJP chief minister of 13 years) in the event of a snap election, suggests the Lokniti-CSDS data.

Farmers’ angst, though, was only one of the many factors driving support for the BJP. The party was also able to draw on support from different castes and communities. Support for the BJP was particularly strong among upper caste Hindus (75% voted for the BJP) and Other Backward Classes (66%), according to the Lokniti-CSDS survey.

Finally, underpinning all this was Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s popularity. While voters had different preferences for state government leadership, they were more united on the question of national leadership. Around 60% of voters in Madhya Pradesh were in favour of Modi continuing for a second term.

Taken together, these factors explain how the BJP was able to bounce back in Madhya Pradesh and even convincingly win seats that were once Congress bastions. The biggest such bastion was Guna where Jyotiraditya Scindia, Congress general secretary and five-time MP, lost to K.P. Singh Yadav of the BJP. To make matters worse for the Congress, Yadav was a turncoat Congress worker who shifted to the BJP after being denied a ticket in the 2018 assembly elections.

Of all the BJP victories in the state, perhaps none reverberated more widely through the rest of India than that of Pragya Singh Thakur, under investigation for terrorism, defeating Congress stalwart and former Madhya Pradesh chief minister Digvijay Singh in Bhopal. Although Thakur’s victory grabbed national headlines, it could be the result of factors unique to Bhopal, according to professor Yatindra Singh Sisodia, director of MP Institute of Social Science Research. “Bhopal was extremely polarized partly because of its sizeable Muslim population, and Digvijaya Singh was constantly portrayed as anti-Hindu by the BJP," he said.

In Chhattisgarh, once part of erstwhile unified Madhya Pradesh, election results have usually mirrored those in Madhya Pradesh and this time too it was no different, with the BJP winning 9 of the 11 seats. Even in the two seats that the Congress won, the BJP raised its vote share significantly compared to the aggregate vote share in these constituencies in the 2018 elections.

Many of the factors that drove the BJP’s success in Madhya Pradesh were at play in Chhattisgarh. For instance, as in Madhya Pradesh, the BJP was able to draw on support from the full spectrum of society, including the significant Scheduled Tribe population in the state, according to Lokniti-CSDS.

However, unlike in Madhya Pradesh, the BJP’s gains in Chhattisgarh do not indicate disenchantment with the state government. According to Lokniti-CSDS, 75% of voters were satisfied with the state government. But the satisfaction with the central government (80%) was higher.

In particular, Chhattisgarh’s voters were happy with the central government welfare schemes, such as the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana (PMUY), according to Lokniti-CSDS data. As one of India’s poorest states, welfare schemes matter more in Chhattisgarh. And the success of schemes, such as PMUY, which explicitly targets women, could explain why the BJP enjoyed greater support among women in Chhattisgarh. Of all the states in the Hindi heartland, in no state did more women support the BJP compared to men than in Chhattisgarh.

The BJP story in Chhattisgarh will have important implications for the new government’s policies. Given that the BJP’s flagship welfare schemes have worked in its favour, the new government could ramp up these schemes to cement the BJP’s status as the dominant party in the heart of India.

This is the fourth of a five-part series on the Lok Sabha election verdict.

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