If the assembly elections in the five Indian states going to the polls over November and December are a “semi-final” before next year’s general elections, then Madhya Pradesh might well be the tie-breaker. Mizoram and Chhattisgarh are relatively minor, and Telangana is a more regional battle. Rajasthan is a direct Congress vs Bharatiya Janata Party face-off, but it is also a state that has alternated between the two parties for the last two decades. Madhya Pradesh, however, has had a BJP government for 15 years now. Anything other than a comfortable win for the BJP will be a sign that the Hindi heartland – which the BJP swept in 2014 – may be in play in 2019.

The state, which votes on November 28, may also offer some insight into how unrest across India under Prime Minister Narendra Modi will end up playing out politically. Over the last few years, Madhya Pradesh has witnessed protests by farmers due to rural distress that ended up becoming violent, a schism in the BJP’s attempts to forge a base that includes both upper castes and Scheduled Castes because of the alleged misuse of the Prevention of Atrocities Act, and the emergence of an Adivasi political mobilisation.

Opinion polls from the state seem to be divided, with some giving the edge to the Congress while others predict a fourth victory for Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan and the BJP. Currently, out of the 230 assembly seats, the BJP holds 165 while the Congress has 58, followed by the Bahujan Samaj Party with four and other independent candidates with the remaining seats.

What are the major issues?

There have been indications of rural distress across the country over the last few years, despite the government’s stated intention of doubling farmer incomes by 2022. Madhya Pradesh is even more vulnerable to a downturn in agriculture because nearly 70% of the workforce is in this sector, compared to a national average of around 55%. This led to protests in Mandsaur in June 2017, with farmers demanding loan waivers and fair prices for crops. The unexpectedly large agitation turned violent after police forces opened fire and five farmers were killed.

The violence also spread to other parts of the state with the government facing severe backlash for the police’s attitude towards farmers. The concerns have yet to die down, despite the state government’s inquiry committee stating that police fired at the protestors in “an act of self-defence”. Chouhan attempted to allay farmers’ concerns with a crop price scheme, but few seem ready to accept what is being seen as a temporary fix. The Congress meanwhile has promised much higher prices for crops and a bigger loan waiver as part of its election pitch.

In April 2018, another concern brought people onto the streets. The Supreme Court put riders on the Prevention of Atrocities Act, which punishes caste-based discrimination, in a move that many Dalit organisations saw was a dilution of the legislation. Multiple Dalit outfits called for a “Bharat Bandh” in April in a number of states, including Madhya Pradesh where six protestors died in the subsequent violence. In August, the Union government passed an amendment Bill in Parliament which reversed the apex court’s order.

That move, has however, led to a schism in BJP’s social base, which had come to include upper-caste and Other Backward Class communities as well as Dalits over the last five years. These groups, who believe the Prevention of Atrocities Act is unfair, called for a counter bandh on September 5. And Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan made a statement that ran contrary to the Centre’s stance, saying he would issue a directive to ensure that the Act is not misused and no one gets arrested without prior investigation.

The Congress has also made repeated mention of the Vyapam scam, in which there were alleged irregularities in admission tests for medical colleges and recruitment in state government departments. The scam implicated Chouhan and his wife, Sadhna Singh as there were several allegations of involvement against them. In 2017, Chouhan was given a clean chit by the Central Bureau of Investigation but this was questioned as Congress leaders alleged that the investigating agency tampered with the evidence to save the chief minister. The issue came back in the limelight on September 26 as a special court ordered police to file a first information report against Congress leaders and potential chief ministerial candidates Digvijaya Singh, Kamal Nath, Jyotiraditya Scindia and Prashant Pandey, the whistleblower for “fabricating evidence” in the case.

Which are the parties in focus?

Madhya Pradesh remains one of the states where the battle is between the two national parties, the Congress and the BJP. The Congress ran the state for 10 years before Chouhan’s victory in 2003, followed by two more BJP terms since. For the BJP, this election is about whether or not they are able to assert their popularity in the state after previously winning three consecutive terms. For the Congress, this election is more about seeing a possible resurgence in the state and stitching up alliances with regional parties to broaden their vote share.

But the Congress’ attempts at forming an alliance in the state saw cracks emerge. On September 21, Bahujan Samaj Party leader Mayawati put out a list of 22 candidates and said that her party would contest all 230 seats in the state. This move came after the party was in talks with the Congress to form an alliance to fight the state polls and also to form a broader alliance in the run up to the general elections in 2019.

Aside from these parties, this election will also see smaller parties gain prominence. Almost 45% of Madhya Pradesh’s population consists of the Adivasi community. In 2012, Jai Adivasi Yuva Shakti or JAYS was formed by Dr Hiralal Alwa, who earlier worked at All India Institute of Medical Sciences, Delhi and then returned to his home in Dhar district and formed the organisation to consolidate the Adivasi community’s anger against the ruling government.

Following the nationwide protests in September by upper-caste outfits, a two-year-old organisation called Samanya Pichra Alpsankhyak Kalyan Samaj or SAPAKS announced on October 2 that it would contest elections from all seats in the state, reported The Times of India. The organisation had been protesting against reservations and the BJP government’s amendment to the Act.

Who are the leaders to watch out for?

As in the previous two elections also, voters will be deciding if they want yet another term under Shivraj Singh Chouhan, under whom the BJP expanded its social base and built a powerful organisational structure to match. Chouhan is contesting for a fourth term as chief minister, and potentially faces his most difficult election yet.

But he is up against a Congress that has multiple faces and has attempted to turn a pale shade of saffron in order to try and win back a state that it has been shut out off for 15 tears. The Congress campaign has been divided between senior leaders Jyotiraditya Scindia, Kamal Nath and former chief minister Digvijya Singh. The party has chosen not to project a chief ministerial face, out of concern that doing so would lead the other camps to rebel, but leaving the question has meant that the party’s efforts have often been disparate.

Singh earlier served as chief minister of the state from 1993 till 2003. After the party’s decision to remove him from overseeing Goa, and Karnataka in April 2017 and Telangana in August 2017, Singh took a six-month long pilgrimage tour across the state which ended in April 2018. The end of the pilgrimage marked his return to politics but it is still unclear what his role will be in the upcoming elections. As a Congress veteran, he was also missing from the rallies conducted by Congress leader Rahul Gandhi in the state in September.

A senior Congress leader, Nath was appointed as the president of the Madhya Pradesh Congress Committee in May 2018 to lead the party during the state elections. He is seen as a close confidant of Singh and is often called a “mukhota”, or mask. However, his alleged involvement in the anti-Sikh riots in 1984 could spell trouble for him as a potential candidate for the top job. The youngest of the lot, and a descendant of the royal family of Gwalior, Scindia was once expected to be a shoo-in for the top spot in Rahul Gandhi’s Congress, but for now the party has yet to make a decision either way.

What did the previous elections look like?

The BJP has won three elections consecutively in the state and had a massive margin ahead of the Congress in the general elections in 2014. Bye-elections sincee, however, have shown different results. In 2015, Congress won the bye-election held in Ratlam, a Lok Sabha constituency by a margin of 88,800 votes. Later in 2016, another bye-election was held in Shahdol, also a Lok Sabha constituency, where the BJP defeated the Congress. However, it was also noted in this constituency that the victory margin of the BJP had significantly reduced from over two lakh votes to 60,000, reported The Indian Express. These seats were earlier occupied by BJP leaders who won in 2014, but their deaths necessitated bye-elections.

At assembly-level bye-polls in Nepanagar in the same year, the BJP retained its seat and gained victory by a margin exceeding 40,000 votes. In 2017, in Chitrakoot, Congress retained its assembly seat by winning by a margin of 14,000 seats. In assembly bye-polls held in Mungaoli and Kolaras in February 2018, Congress retained its seats. These seats are also a part of Congress member of Parliament, Jyotiraditya Scindia’s Guna constituency.

Ground reports: