Madhya Pradesh, which is in the geographical centre of India, will likely witness a straight contest between the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress in the Assembly election in November. The BJP is currently in power in the State, though it was the Congress that won the election five years ago in 2018. Using defections from the Congress, the BJP usurped power two years later in 2020. The BJP hopes to overcome the anti-incumbency that it has accumulated over 18 years through some deft moves and electoral experiments. The party has given enough indications that Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan will not continue in the event of the party winning another term; it has fielded seven Parliament members including three Union Ministers — Narendra Singh Tomar, Faggan Singh Kulaste, and Prahlad Singh Patel. The party is betting that it will be able to generate new enthusiasm among its fatigued cadres. The BJP strategy also deemphasises the performance of the State government and Mr. Chouhan and turns the spotlight on the personal image of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The party’s campaigning focuses on social groups such as tribespeople even as it lays claim to being the sole spokesperson of Hindu identity politics, which manifests itself in acts such as the inauguration of a landmark statue of Adi Shankaracharya recently.
The Congress, which is still nursing the wounds of the 2020 split, is trying to turn that setback in its favour in this round. The entry of Congress defectors into its fold unsettled the power balance within the BJP, particularly in the Gwalior-Chambal region, which might translate into electoral dividends for the Congress. The defections also shed some weight from the top for the Congress, helping it to better balance its internal affairs. All leaders now defer to former Chief Minister Kamal Nath who is firmly in command of the party campaign. Congress leader Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra had generated enthusiasm in the State, and he now commands a following that adds additional heft for the party. The Congress’s uncharacteristic plunge into caste politics by promising a caste-based survey across the country will be on test in Madhya Pradesh. Unlike Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, the Congress does not have a considerable number of Other Backward Class leaders in Madhya Pradesh. The party may also have to deal with sniper attacks from the Aam Aadmi Party which may try to alter the bipolar nature of the contest. The biggest challenge for the Congress is to walk a tight rope on the question of Hindu identity politics, and avoid communal polarisation that the BJP instinctively resorts to when on the back foot.