On Thursday, a Lokniti-CSDS-ABP survey showed that after three terms and 13 years in office, Shivraj Singh Chouhan remains the preferred chief ministerial candidate of voters in Madhya Pradesh. This was despite the strong anti-incumbency sentiment against his Bharatiya Janata Party-state government. Chouhan received the support of 37% of the respondents to the survey, followed by the Congress’ Jyotiraditya Scindia with 24%.

Elections to the 230-strong Madhya Pradesh Assembly will be held on November 28.

The 59-year-old chief minister is banking on his clean, workaholic image to win a fourth consecutive term in the Assembly. He has decided to contest what many believe is his toughest political battle yet from Budhni, the constituency that elected him to the Assembly for the first time in 1990 and where he has remained undefeated since.

Budhni residents claim that whoever wins their constituency will go on to win Madhya Pradesh. Before becoming a BJP bastion, the seat had been won by the Congress in the 1980, 1985, 1993 and 1998 Assembly elections – and the party went to form the state government.

Chouhan was born in Jait village of Budhni, which is located in Sehore district and is party of the Vidisha Lok Sabha constituency currently held by Union Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj. Chouhan filed his nomination on November 5. But such is his popularity, he has felt no need to campaign in the constituency. Instead, he has focussed on campaigning for BJP candidates in other parts of the state.

Favours for constituents

Manoj Malviya, the owner of a welding shop in the area, is among Chouhan’s supporters. “I am not sure whether he will be chief minister again but his win from Budhni is certain,” said Malviya. “He has done a lot for people in this constituency.”

After Malviya’s brother was diagnosed with cancer in 2016, the family ran into financial trouble after the initial treatment. They approached the chief minister’s office for help and it got promptly. “He [Chouhan] even helped us secure an appointment with a top doctor in Bhopal,” said Malviya. “Due to his efforts, my brother is on the path to recovery and my entire village will vote for Shivraj. He has helped every family in Budhni at some point in his long career.”

Malviya admitted that some constituents have misused the chief minister’s assistance. “He knows this way he can keep the supporters happy and motivated enough to vote for him,” he said. “I won’t call it a bribe, but he needs to keep everyone happy.”

Added Budhini resident Yogesh Rajput, “No one from Budhni ever returns empty handed after approaching the chief minister.”

He added, “I have known people who received thousands for a simple fracture. Once they take this money, they become indebted to the chief minister and are obliged to return the favour during elections.”

A former bureaucrat in Bhopal, who did not want to be identified, claimed that Chouhan had been using the chief minister’s relief fund to oblige voters in Budhni. He said that during the Digvijaya Singh-led Congress government’s tenure from 1993 to 2003, there was a cap of Rs 2 crore on financial assistance by the chief minister to people in need. But after Chouhan came to power in 2005, he abolished this limit, the bureaucrat said. “Since then, he has been splurging this money on people from his constituency to win their support,” he said.

Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan files his nomination paper in Budhni, Sehore district, on November 5. (Credit: PTI)

Caste connections

Chouhan is a member of the dominant Kirar community, a powerful Other Backward Classes group that has dominated politics in Budhni since 1985. The election of Chouhan’s wife Sadhana Singh as national president of the Kirar Samaj community organisation in Kota, Rajasthan, in March has cemented his position within the group even more strongly. In conversations with voters in this predominantly rural constituency, some residents alleged that he favours his community over others.

“It is for this reason that an overwhelming percentage of Kirar vote for him along with other dominant castes like Patels and upper castes,” said a man named Sahil, who runs a small eatery.

At the Jama Masjid nearby, a group of men reiterated the claim that Chouhan did not disburse relief equally to all his constituents. Among them was Rashid Khan, who insisted that Muslims were denied these favours. “He gives lakhs to members of his community but we are never encouraged to even approach the chief minister for help,” said Khan.

Another member of the group alleged that Chouhan was only receptive to requests from Hindus. “We do not receive any such privileges,” he said. “He will win but that means nothing to Muslims as we will continue to be looked at with suspicion. We will vote for someone who can work for us and not against us.”

But in Biyanpur village in the neighbouring Bhojpur Assembly segment, residents complained that they too were being ignored. “This financial aid is reserved only for people from Budhni,” said Gulraj Singh Rajput. “We aren’t that lucky. I understand that he has to win elections but he can’t be doing it so blatantly.”

Tough fight

The Congress, though, finally seems to be putting up a fight. In previous elections, the party had fielded weak candidates in Budhni, including some who were suspected to have made clandestine deals. But on November 8, the Congress leadership sprang a surprise: it announced former state unit president and party heavyweight Arun Yadav as its candidate against Chouhan.

YS Sisodia, who teaches at the Madhya Pradesh Institute of Social Science Research in Ujjain described this as it a “tactical move” by the Congress. “The Congress wants to cut short his [Chouhan’s] schedule in the rest of the state,” he said. “Even if Shivraj cancels his campaign in a few constituencies, it will benefit the Congress. He will have to now spend more time in Budhni.”

Besides, Yadavs outnumber Kirars in Budhni, which is the main reason political strategists believe Arun Yadav has been fielded in Budhini.

Despite the optimism of Congress supporters, BJP leader Kisan Malviya claimed that this time too, Congress leaders in Budhni were on Chouhan’s side. “In Budhni, every political family has people in both parties,” he claimed. “If one brother is with BJP, the other is in Congress. This should explain the tacit understanding between the two parties here.”

All of this works to Chouhan’s advantage. The chief minister looks all set to win Budhni. But whether he will get another shot at the chief minister’s post depends on whether his party remains as popular as him.