Just five months after the end of BJP’s 15-year rule in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, the Lok Sabha polls have fomented another crisis for the Congress party in the two central Indian states. The much-publicised loan waiver for farmers and the outreach to the electorally significant tribals, Dalits and backward castes—hallmarks of the governments in these states since their assembly poll victory—did not help the party against the forceful resurgence of the BJP. Narendra Modi is all that mattered and the Congress chief ministers Kamal Nath and Bhupesh Baghel were simply no match.
Of Madhya Pradesh’s 29 Lok Sabha seats, BJP swept 28, leaving just Nath’s Chhindwara as the last standing bastion of the grand old party. Even Jyotiraditya Scindia, the high-profile Congress general secretary and scion of the erstwhile Gwalior royal family, lost his Guna seat to the BJP’s Krishna Pal Singh by a margin of over 1.2 lakh votes. In 2014, Guna and Chhindwara were the only seats in MP that withstood the Modi wave.
Even in Chhindwara, which Nath represented a record nine times, the BJP’s gains were significant. Nath had vacated the seat after becoming chief minister and the Congress had fielded his son, Nakul Nath, as the Lok Sabha candidate. He won, but by a slender margin of 37,000 votes. In Bhopal, BJP’s Pragya Singh Thakur trounced former chief minister Digvijaya Singh by over 3 lakh votes.
But these reversals pale in comparison to the threat that lies ahead for the Congress. The BJP might dislodge the nascent Congress government in Madhya Pradesh and its stunning win in the Lok Sabha will only make it more determined to do so.
Unlike Nath, Chhattisgarh CM Bhupesh Baghel is leading a government that has an absolute majority of 68 seats in the 90-member assembly and is less prone to being toppled. The Congress sweep in Chhattisgarh during the December polls, however, makes the Lok Sabha results all the more shocking. Various internal surveys of the party had suggested that it was comfortably placed to win eight of the state’s 11 Lok Sabha constituencies—a near reversal of the 2014 outcome, when the BJP had swept 10 seats, leaving only Durg for Congress’s Tamradhwaj Sahu.
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Additionally, former chief minister Ajit Jogi, who had rebelled against the Congress to form his own outfit, the Janta Congress Chhattisgarh (JCC), had not fielded any candidates in the Lok Sabha elections. During the assembly polls, the JCC-BSP alliance had won seven seats and hurt the Congress’s prospects in nearly half-a-dozen assembly segments which went to the BJP. With Jogi not fielding any nominees this time, it was expected that the Congress would gain in these areas.
The turnaround in these states—indicates that SCs and STs, who had en masse voted for the Congress during the assembly polls, are now firmly back in the saffron fold. In both states, BJP suffered a rout in the assembly segments that fall under parliamentary seats reserved for SCs and STs. The shift to the Congress was important because these communities had largely voted for the BJP in the past 15 years. Given the perception that Dalits and tribals had borne the brunt of atrocities during the BJP regime and the Modi government’s flip-flops on the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act in the past year, it was expected that the Congress would hold sway over this chunk of the electorate. But that was not to be.
In Chhattisgarh, the BJP had taken the calculated risk of replacing all its 10 incumbent MPs—including Raipur strongman Ramesh Bais and former chief minister Raman Singh’s son, Abhishek Singh, in Rajnandgaon—with new faces. The gamble paid off and the BJP won nine of the 11 seats, leaving just Bastar and Korba for the Congress party’s Deepak Baij and Jyotsana Mahant respectively.
The speed with which the BJP has managed to resurrect itself in the two states is something that the Congress would do well to learn from. It took the party 15 years to unseat the BJP from MP and Chhattisgarh, but the saffron front bounced back after just five months. However, given the inertia that the Congress has been displaying—victory or defeat notwithstanding—this seems unlikely. In light of its past record, the grand old party will more likely prefer spending time waiting for anti-incumbency against the BJP to kick in rather than getting its act together.
Despite the international outrage over her candidature from the Bhopal seat, Pragya Singh Thakur registered a thumping victory against former Madhya Pradesh chief minister Digvijaya Singh. The controversial sadhvi, a terror-accused in the Samjhauta Express and Malegaon blast cases, trounced Singh by over 3 lakh votes, the second highest victory margin that a candidate has registered in the state capital.
If her candidature was controversial, her comments during the course of the campaign were just as vitriolic. She boasted about her “curse” that killed Hemant Karkare, the decorated IPS officer who had arrested her in the blast cases and was later martyred during the 26/11 Mumbai attacks. She termed Nathuram Godse, the assassin of Mahatma Gandhi, a “patriot”, which even drew condemnation from her own party. Even Narendra Modi, who rarely reacts to the acerbic comments of his party colleagues, didn’t remain silent after Pragya’s praise for Godse. “I will never forgive her,” he declared.
Now that she is set to enter the hallowed precincts of Parliament as a BJP MP, it remains to be seen what Modi really meant by his retort.