Two opinion polls in the last four months have both predicted a clear majority for the opposition Congress in Madhya Pradesh, which is due to have Assembly elections later this year along with Rajasthan, Mizoram and Chhattisgarh. Yet, a 7% drop in the Congress’s projected vote share and a 6% gain in the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s from the first survey to the second indicate that the situation is rather fluid.

The first survey, conducted by Lokniti and the Centre for Developing Societies and telecast by APB News in May, predicted a 49% vote share for the Congress and 34% for the BJP. The second poll, by CVoter and broadcast by the same TV channel on August 13, predicted a 42% vote share for the Congress and 40% for the BJP. Based on this vote share, the survey gave the Congress 117 seats and the BJP 106 in the 230-member Assembly. Significantly, the CVoter survey showed that Shivraj Singh Chouhan remains the first choice for chief minister, with 41.7% of the respondents preferring him over the Congress probables Jyotiraditya Scindia (30.3%) and Kamal Nath (7.5%).

It can safely be inferred from the discrepancy between the two surveys that the Congress might fritter away its best chance in over a decade of unseating the BJP unless it gets its act together.

After initial euphoria in the wake of the veteran leader Kamal Nath’s appointment as the state chief in May, the Congress has slipped back into internecine squabbles, the greatest scourge of the party. The BJP, in contrast, looks solidly behind the chief minister, unencumbered of discordant voices within.

The Congress’s relative loss and the BJP’s gain in the second survey is evident on the ground. While Chouhan has already reached more than 100 Assembly seats during his Jan Ashirvad Yatra, Congress leaders are still trying to persuade the party’s workers, through district-level meetings, to gear up for the campaign. At two such meetings – in Rewa and Vidisha – irate party workers manhandled the Congress general secretary Deepak Bavaria. At some other places, supporters of rival claimants to the party’s tickets quarrelled in front of senior leaders.

In the absence of demonstrable unity among its senior state leaders, including Digvijaya Singh, Scindia and Nath, the Congress is waiting for national president Rahul Gandhi to sound the poll bugle. He is scheduled to launch the campaign in the first week of September from the temple town of Omkareshwar in western Madhya Pradesh. Gandhi will then undertake a bus tour with the state leaders. Congress officials are confident the bus ride would undo any damage to the party’s prospects the chief minister’s Jan Ashirvad Yatra may have caused.


On a roll

For now, though, the chief minister’s chariot is rolling on without encountering much resistance. Save for levelling allegations of the misuse of government machinery and taxpayers’ money for the Jan Ashirvad Yatra, the Congress is seen as having failed to effectively counter Chouhan’s onslaught.

Throughout his tour with wife Sadhna Singh, the chief minister has been targeting the Congress leadership rather than talking about his three-term government’s achievements. His pet theme is that a raja (Digvijaya Singh), a maharaja (Scindia) and a business tycoon (Nath) are conspiring to prevent the son of a farmer (Chouhan) from taking Madhya Pradesh to new heights of prosperity.

It is quite a change. Until July, Chouhan looked defensive in the face of a barrage of allegations levelled by the Congress about corruption, scams and misgovernance. Back then, he was not even sure the party would field him as the chief ministerial candidate again. BJP president Amit Shah had indicated at a meeting in Bhopal in May that the party could fight the election on the strength of the organisation and not any face. Shah dispelled such doubts while flagging off the Jan Ashirvad Yatra in Ujjain on July 14. He averred the BJP would retain power for a fourth time under Chouhan’s leadership. That assurance boosted the chief minister and it has reflected in his messaging. Taking a cue from Shah, all other BJP leaders fell in line as well.

The Congress, meanwhile, has betrayed disunity. Scindia, Nath and Digvijaya Singh have been holding public and workers’ meetings on their own; their combined clout on a common platform is yet to be seen. The lack of cohesion in their attack against their common foe, the chief minister, has left the cadre confused and restive.

A Congress leader wryly commented that the voter seemed keener than the Congress to defeat the BJP. He was speaking, on the condition of anonymity, after the grand old party won 14 seats to the BJP’s four in this month’s civic body elections. The Congress had earlier swept the election to the Pachmarhi Cantonment Board, winning six of the seven seats with the other going to an independent. The party has also won all four Assembly bye-polls held over the past year.

The bye-election results and the two opinion polls clearly indicate that anti-incumbency against the BJP’s 15-year rule in Madhya Pradesh runs deep. It does not seem so deep, however, that voters will hand victory to the Congress just for asking. To add to the Congress’s difficulties, the BJP’s organisational machinery, its chief minister and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s cadres are out in full force working to beat back anti-incumbency yet again.