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November 24, 1998


The largest state keeps the two parties guessing

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Vaihayasi P Daniel and Archana Masih in Bhopal

Madhya Pradesh is one and a half times larger than the next biggest state of India, Rajasthan.

MP is twice the size of Uttar Pradesh and seven times the size of Gujarat.

The state is covered with forests, the largest green cover in India. MP too has the highest population of indigenous people -- better known as scheduled tribes -- at 40 per cent. Half of MP is cultivated land and 15 per cent of this is irrigated.

Once called the Central Provinces, Madhya Pradesh is in the heart of India. The home of some of India's earliest settlements, MP unfortunately possesses some of the country's most backward settlements too.

Discovering the trends and moods that move Madhya Pradesh at the time of elections is almost like analysing the psephology of culturally polarised Europe. The issues that motivate a poor Adivasi in scrubby Bastar, near the Andhra border, to walk 10 km to cast his vote is very different from what influences a prosperous and upper caste soyabean farmer in Vidisha in the polling booth... or a Muslim resident of Jawra on the Rajasthan border... or a village chief in Chambal valley in northern Madhya Pradesh.

But Madhya Pradesh has its little sub-states that quite often swing together.

In the north-east, in the shadow of Uttar Pradesh, behind the Kaimur range, lies Baghelkhand. Rewa, Satna, Sidhi and Shahdol. Once Arjun Singh territory, trends are changing on this plateau. Says a BJP party worker, "This was once a weak area of the BJP. But we have done a lot of work here."

In the last general election, held early this year, Baghelkhand blushed saffron. All four seats tipped in favour of the BJP. A strong upper caste area -- one of the only -- certain Vidhan Sabha constituencies of Satna and Rewa have a registered 0 percentage (near zero) of scheduled castes, scheduled tribes, other backward castes. In fact, Badwara, Vijayraghogarh and Satna possess negligible populations of OBCs, STs, SCs and minorities.

Says Sunderlal Patwa, the BJP's front-runner for the chief ministership, "These are places that are still difficult for us. For the first time in 50 years we won in Rewa." Interestingly, the margin of win at Rewa was the 16th highest in a state having 40 LS seats.

But that was the Lok Sabha chunav. Down at the Congress headquarters in Bhopal, hope is riding high for Baghelkhand. Says a senior spokesperson, "Rewa is ours."

Believes Anurag Patheria, a senior journalist with Nai Duniya, "It will be an equal fight, I think."

Mahakaushal, on the other hand, is even considered by the ever-optimistic BJP to be the weak/problem child, although Patwa denies this. Located in the central-south part of the state, Mahakaushal consists of Balaghat, Chhindwara, Jabalpur, Mandla, Seoni.

This part of MP has interesting variety and ups and downs. Bifurcated by the Satpura and Maikala range and the Mahadeo hills, parts of Mahakaushal-Kanha is the stuff of Kipling tales. Home to 22 species of mammals and 230 types of birds, this region is also home of several distinct varieties of castes and tribes. And Jabalpur was once the capital of the Gond kings.

The virulently Congress bastion of Chhindwara was the losing battleground for Patwa in the general election. Congress satrap Kamal Nath polled almost twice as many votes as Patwa. And Chhindwara's eight seats went to the Congress in the last Vidhan Sabha election in 1993.

Mahakaushal is a section of Madhya Pradesh most representative of the regional variety of the state. It has its fair share of OBCs, SCs and minorities, as well as a sizeable population of tribals. No particular community dominates the population. And like the whole of MP, this mini MP will be an interesting contest.

While the Congress believes it will hang on to Mahakaushal, the BJPwallahs tell you that maybe, maybe, perhaps, there are chances that Mahakaushal will join Malwa and Madhya Bharat to become a widespread western MP bastion of BJP. In the last Vidhan Sabha election some 26 out of 40 seats went to the Congress. Says Patwa, "We have a good situation there. We are ahead of the Congress."

"We are weak in Malwa," admits a senior Congress office spokesman. Colourful Malwa -- once the heartland of the Holkars, home of the courts of Vikramaditya and the backdrop of Mandu --possesses rich black lands along the Narmada. And also bone dry areas north of Bhopal where it rains hardly 30 days in the year.

Its Lok Sabha constituencies -- Dhar, Indore, Jhabua, Khandwa, Khargone, Mandsaur, Shajapur and Ujjain (opinions differ on which of these constituencies are Malwa and which are Madhya Bharat) -- have become a BJP stronghold, with the exception of the Congress in Jhabua. Strong BJP leaders operate from this area -- Vikram Verma from Dhar, Dalip Singh Bhuria, the ex-Congressman from Jhabua ("We will open our account in Jhabua," said Patwa), Kailash Joshi in Dewas, Shajapur. A former chief minister, Virendra Kumar Saklecha, running from Jawad, once a BJP heavyweight, will probably alter (Patwa says no) trends by running as an Independent in Mandsaur.

Says Patheria, "Of some 36 seats only 18 probably will go to the Congress which is not a good performance for them."

M N Buch, author of several books on development and once chief secretary of the state, sees it differently. "Western MP was a traditional BJP belt. But in Jhabua and Ratlam the Congress was strong. They have shared seats in Khargone and Khandwa. It has see-sawed. It is, however, the most developed area of MP."

Malwa has heavy tribal belts, as well as OBC pockets like the 48 per cent OBC Mahidpur in Ujjain. There are strong Muslim sections like the 51 per cent Muslim Burhanpur, which is fielding the BJP's only Muslim candidate, Moinuddin Ansari. Mandsaur and Jhabua which border each other are diametrically opposite. Parts of Jhabua possess 89 per cent ST population. Mandsaur, Patwa's home area, has four constituencies where the ST population is virtually nil and also the 50 per cent Muslim Jawra. Indore too has few tribals and a fairly large Muslim population. Indore, Khargone, Khandwa and Ujjain are considered wealthy areas of the state.

Bundelkhand and Chambal (the latter is often considered Madhya Bharat too) -- Sagar, Damoh Gwalior, Bhind, Morena -- bordering Uttar Pradesh has a countryside of lush ravines, where dacoits live, and farmlands well watered by the Chambal river projects. Money is not a problem in this rich region. Caste is. Bhind, Morena and Khajuraho reflect much of UP's casteism. The SCs and OBCs have strength around here. In Sumaoli in Morena the population of OBCs and SCs is 73 per cent. Scheduled Tribes, however, do not live in Bundelkhand in large numbers. A quirky fact about Bundelkhand is the high usage of bullock carts in Sagar. Some 288 polling parties travel by this oldest form of transportation.

"Bundelkhand was also one of our weak areas. And the Congress has no strong leader in Bundelkhand," says a spokesmen at the BJP office. According to the statistics of the last Vidhan Sabha election, the BJP won just about 13 seats among 48 in Chambal and Bundelkhand and they expect to make sizeable gains, going by their performance in the general election. However, of interest is the fact that in the Lok Sabha election the highest margin in Madhya Pradesh was in Bundelkhand in Sagar constituency. Patheria is of the opinion that the BJP will carry Bundelkhand, collecting 65 per cent of the votes and that Chambal too will come their way.

Says Buch, "Northern MP is like western Uttar Pradesh. Casteist politics go on here. But all parties use the same castes." The BSP has traditionally diluted votes in this area. Not likely this time. Says Sanjeev Srivastava, senior correspondent with a Hindi daily, "The BSP's position in this area is very poor. They will probably win just 2 seats."

Madhya Bharat -- Guna, Rajgarh, Vidisha, Hoshangabad, Betul, Bhopal -- went entirely to the BJP in the general election, with the exception of Rajgarh, constituency of Laxman Singh, the chief minister's brother. In previous Vidhan Sabha elections the BJP won a 60 per cent majority here. Says a senior Congress spokesperson, "We are weak in Madhya Bharat." Digvijay Singh is, of course, expected to retain his island of Rajgarh.

This large central region of the state, once the kingdom of the Raja of Bhoj, who founded Bhopal, is a prosperous belt of MP. Vidisha, Bhopal and Hoshangabad are comparatively wealthy areas of Madhya Pradesh. Wheat, soyabean and dal grows around here. Much of Madhya Bharat's soyabean is responsible for making MP the largest grower of the crop in the country. A number of industries flourish -- paper, electrical equipment and more.

Guna is one of the largest constituencies in Madhya Bharat. And about 44 per cent of Guna's population is OBC compared to the Madhya Bharat average of 30 to 35 per cent.

The BSP is not a factor in Madhya Bharat, though.

Bhopal is 17 per cent Muslim, but this has not affected vote patterns either. Though they vote en bloc for the Congress, the BJP has won in Bhopal constituency for a decade now, with the exception of Khategaon. The saying around here is that BJP needs to stand an ass as a candidate in Bhopal city and it would still win. There are SC strongholds in Madhya Bharat like Amala, an SC Vidhan Sabha constituency of Betul where their population is 35 per cent or Ashta, also an SC seat with 40 per cent SCs.

Vidisha -- Bhojpur is the Patwa capital -- is known for its BJP belts. A number of villages and whole areas vote for BJP en masse including Muslims, it is believed. Says Buch of the trend in MP in general, "If a village has a few Muslim families and the village is voting for the BJP then the Muslims will vote for the BJP too."

Madhya Bharat's tribal sections are in Betul in Bhainsdehi and Ghuradongeri where STs have 50 per cent sway. These areas capitulated to the BJP in the last two LS elections and are likely to swing with the BJP now in the Vidhan Sabha elections too.

The hottest area of election warfare in 1998 is Chhattisgarh. Interestingly, both parties vigorously claim that Chhattisgarh is their area or ilaka, without doubt. ''How can you expect otherwise?'' is the tone when one doubts either claim. Chhattisgarh is as good as won, declares the BJP. Says Ramesh Chennithala, Congress secretary, "We will take Chhattisgarh. Sonia Gandhi was in Chhattisgarh the other day. The tribal people showed so much enthusiasm. They still remember Indira Gandhi over there. A woman catches their fancy. They relate better to women."

Says Buch, "Chhattisgarh, Raipur, Bastar, these were once traditional Congress strongholds. I think the BJP will wipe the Congress out."

Says Patheria, "I think the BJP will sweep Chhattisgarh gaining 50 seats. And the remaining 40 will be divided between the Congress, BSP, CPI and others."

This south-eastern, sparsely populated area of the state, Chhattisgarh has been MP's poor stepdaughter for decades. Rich in natural resources and a major tribal belt, life is very hard in Chhattisgarh. Infrastructure is primitive. Twenty-seven polling parties have to travel by boat, a unique trend of Bastar. Bastar has a few more not so-happy characteristics -- the highest percentage, 6 per cent, of rejected votes has been from Bastar in the last two general elections. And polling parties in Abujhmad walk 15 to 20 km. In Mandirhasod, Raipur, the number of voters is just 59,000, a stark contrast to the 395,000 that go to poll in South Bhopal, the state's largest constituency.

So what have you at the end of the day? Predictions and past statistics show that BJP will gain Madhya Bharat and Malwa and the Congress will retain Mahakaushal and parts of Baghelkhand and their special pockets in Madhya Bharat and Malwa. Contest in Bundelkhand and especially Chhattisgarh will be testing ground for both parties.

Interestingly, although geographically caste-predominant areas of Madhya Pradesh can be delineated, caste does not seem to be much of an issue in the state.

Says Prabhat Jha at the BJP office, "We say that casteism is more harmful than communalism. The Congress says communalism is more harmful than casteism. There are areas where caste is important like Datia. And in 32 Vidhan Sabha constituencies there are caste influences."

Adds Raghavji, the BJP election coordinator, "Caste has no effect in Madhya Pradesh. Although sometimes it can tilt a trend."

Journalists Suresh Mehrotra, editor of the National Mail and L S Herdenia of the National Integration Committee hold the same view. Unlike Uttar Pradesh caste is not really a factor in Madhya Pradesh politics.

The matka or gambling centre of Indore is considered to be the most important of its kind, apart from being the most accurate barometer of political and other trends, with millions of rupees riding on election bets made here. Says Patheria, "They have predicted that it will be a hung assembly. The BJP will make 150 seats. The Congress will win 140."

Assembly Election '98

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