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As a little girl, Uma Bharati was often invited to Digvijay Singh's house to deliver religious discourses. Twenty years later, she's leading the political charge against the Madhya Pradesh chief minister and delivering speeches of a kind the Raja is loathe to hear: "Where the road ends, MP begins...where there is an area of darkness, it is MP...an industrial graveyard."
In Delhi last fortnight to finalise the list of candidates, Digvijay was out of character—irritable and aloof. Uma, on the other hand, kept her turbulent temper on a leash. He's talking cows and temples; she development. The face-off between two of MP's most colourful political personalities, the sadhvi and the Raja, makes for titillating TV bytes. But away from the media spotlight rages the grimmest, grittiest electoral battle ever. A tug-of-war that Digvijay appears to be losing, inch by reluctant inch. But Congressmen say it's too early to write off the master manipulator who's known to spring surprises.
A strong anti-incumbency factor has given the BJP a clear edge in MP, say senior party leaders. A generous monsoon mitigated public anger over the Congress government's neglect of infrastructure, but couldn't dispel it altogether. The BJP has ensured the electricity crisis during the exam months, the water riots in the summer and the disintegration of rural roads remain at the top of the voters' minds even six months later. Decentralised administration, the Congress usp in the last election, has lost its lustre, thanks to charges of large-scale corruption at the district level, says BJP leader Prahlad Patel. Digvijay no longer appeals to the urban and semi-urban voters—hardest hit by the lack of infrastructure and utilities. For the BJP, the biggest challenge is the CM's rural party machinery that has penetrated right down to the panchayat level.
The embattled Diggy Raja, say Congress observers, is counting on two things to help him beat the odds in MP: BSP leader Mayawati's determination to ensure BJP's defeat and his own admittedly formidable election management skills. In terms of the last, his 1998 decision to beat the anti-incumbency factor by dropping one-third of sitting MLAs paid off so well, it became a textbook case for psephologists. He has chosen not to repeat the ploy. The rationale: the nuisance value of rejected incumbents outweighs the benefit of fresh faces. Though this means fewer rebels, it also implies that majority nominees will carry the burden of incumbency.
For both parties, the scope for 'creative' election management too has been reduced by the Election Commission. Shortly after Digvijay's now infamous remark that elections are won through 'management', not on development issues, EC officials found thousands of bogus electoral rolls in Rewa district. More recently, it detected the theft of five lakh holograms, used to make voter ID cards. Last week again, 18,000 fake voters were unearthed. In 1998, the Congress won 35 seats by a hundred-odd victory margin, thinner than the number of invalid votes which were in thousands. The invalid votes won't help this time because of the use of Electronic Voting Machines.
The break-up of the BJP-BSP alliance in UP could have been a godsend for Digvijay. Mayawati's utility to the BJP was her ability to cut into Congress votes. Having arrived at a tacit understanding with the latter, she's keeping off 70 of the 230 constituencies. But this has angered her state unit, leading it to split. State unit chief Phool Singh Baraiya, having walked off with virtually the entire party organisation, reportedly intends to focus on the very seats Mayawati is not contesting. This may help the BJP, but how effective a spoiler Baraiya can prove will become evident only at the hustings.Two other spoilers could work to the BJP's advantage: the Samajwadi Party and the Gondwana Gantantra Party. The tribal party has gained support in the last five years and can affect the outcome in 20 of the 45 seats in Mahakaushal (see chart).
Last time, the BJP took a severe drubbing in Malwa, its traditional stronghold, winning just 16 of the 65 seats. A reverse sweep is expected, with Uma drawing huge crowds in this region. Malwa is perhaps the only region in MP where her sadhvi image works. It is also home to the BJP's old guard like Kailash Joshi, Sumitra Mahajan, Sunderlal Patwa and Vikram Verma, and to the influential youth leader Kailash Vijayvarghia.
The Congress had swept Mahakaushal, veteran Kamal Nath's stronghold, winning 31 of the 45 seats. But this time, the BJP has its own strongman in minister of state for coal Patel, firebrand youth leader and an Uma loyalist. In BJP bastion Bundelkhand, the party may retain its seat as Uma's contesting from one of its constituencies, Bada Malara. Likewise, the Congress is expected to retain its influence in Arjun Singh stronghold Vindhya.
What's really up for grabs is Madhya Bharat, where the BSP is influential. The Morena, Bhind, Gwalior and Guna region is regarded as the fiefdom of the Scindias. It was here that the Congress took a beating in 1998, winning only nine of 34 seats. A loss of face for the Scindias at the time, now it will be Digvijay's responsibility, as he's taken charge of ticket distribution.
In fact, the famously fractious Congress leaders are quite content to let the election become Digvijay-centric. So, in the event of defeat, he alone will carry the can. In stark contrast, there is a scramble among BJP ministers—from the PM to senior ministers—to participate in the MP campaign.
Both Congress and BJP are riddled by factionalism. Uma suffered more, encountering stiff resistance from the BJP's MP wing. But the RSS has backed her to the hilt, to the extent that she wryly describes the election as "a contest between Digvijay and the RSS".
With little time left, the Congress is waiting for Digvijay to pull a rabbit out of his turban. But if the BJP retains its tally in Madhya Bharat and sweeps Malwa, as internal surveys by the Congress and the BJP suggest, Uma may very well edge Big Brother off the CM's chair. Ask Digvijay why surveys show he's losing, he says it was the same last time. "Watch out for the CS/DK (can't say/don't know) factor," he says cryptically.