No Ram or Rafale, the Rozi Roti election in MP

In the age of T-20 style elections -- instant opinion, shoot and scoot polls and parachute reporting -- it is increasingly difficult to confidently predict an Indian election outcome. That Indian elections have become more competitive and are literally fought booth by booth makes predictions even more hazardous. Which is why I would rather not use a whistle-stop four day journey through Madhya Pradesh's crucial Malwa-Nimar belt to definitively suggest which way the 'hawa' is blowing across India's second largest state in terms of area. But there is one big picture conclusion I am tempted to focus upon: rarely before has the national discourse been so disconnected with ground realities.

In every election speech, Rahul Gandhi bangs on about Rafale and how the aircraft deal has exposed corruption at the top in the Narendra Modi government. In every town and village that I travelled, Rafale barely registered in the popular imagination: one person at a bus stand in the sleepy town of Khandwa -- legendary singer Kishore Kumar's place of birth but sadly missing his joyous effervescence now -- even asked me if Rafale was a jungle bird! This anecdotal evidence is backed by a recent My India Axis tracker poll which showed that more than eighty per cent of the electorate in MP had not even heard of Rafale.

The BJP leadership, by contrast, has typically raised potentially emotive and polarising issues like Ram Mandir and cow slaughter and yet on the ground these issues have little traction. I am sitting outside the revered Mahakaleshwar mandir in the temple town of Ujjain with a gathering of Shiv-Bhakts, many of them first time voters. "We don't need more mandirs, or statues or renaming of cities. Please ask the government to devote the same resources to re-open our mills and give us jobs. Mandir banna chahiye par pehle rozgaar zaroori hai!" they tell me in near unison. Ujjain's mills have been closed for over two decades now.

In television studios, the Hindu-Muslim debate and divisive issues linked to religious nationalism are a daily diet of the news cycle, sparking off a cacophony of well choreographed outraged voices but on the ground, no one seems to care as to who is the 'better' Hindu or which leader has visited how many temples. Instead it's a back to the basics 'municipalisation' of a Vidhan Sabha election where local issues appear to dominate the political narrative.

The urban-rural divide in a predominantly agrarian state is also stark: in Indore, there are large posters to remind you that Malwa's main city has been voted the cleanest city two years in a row in the Swach Bharat Abhiyan. 'Let's go for a hat trick!' is the rousing cry here. But 200 kilometres away, in rural Mandsaur, where five farmers were killed last June in police firing, we find ourselves in an uncomfortable situation when we raise the contentious issue of Minimum Support Price for their produce. 'Sab paise trader log kha gaye sir, kisaan ke liye kuch nahi rehta hai!' is the angry response from the farmers. A group of young BJP workers on their motorbikes try to counter the villagers with their own version, sparking off a mini-riot (unable to control the noisy conflict, its the one occasion where I feel I am back in a tv studio debate!)

The anger isn't directed so much against the chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan as it is against the local administration and legislators: this perhaps explains why the BJP has dropped as many as 53 MLAs and changed the seats of seven others. Chouhan is an interesting political phenomenon: he has been chief minister now for 13 years making him one of the longest serving leaders of a Hindi heartland state. His success formula perhaps lies in his genial, low key demeanour. In an age of the muscular strongmen netas, he is a link with a previous gentler, more accommodative era of a politician with friends on all sides: he is the 'kisan putra' who isn't 'MP ka sher' but a more avuncular, ever smiling 'Mamaji'!

The Congress's challenge is to capitalise on the creeping anti incumbency against the local legislators while also offering a viable alternative to a popular chieftain. It isn’t an easy task for a party which appears to drift from one election to another, its ubiquitous high command culture preventing the rise of a robust worker-driven organization that can compete with the well-entrenched RSS network in the region. 'Congress is a party without a dulha or sanghatan in MP,' a sweet shop owner pointedly remarks. It is not an unfamiliar situation for a party whose ancien regime in MP now seeks to co-exist with its younger faces in the guise of a 'collective' leadership concept. For nine time MP, Kamal Nath, this is probably a final shot at getting the top job in the state, while for Jyotiraditya Scindia, it’s a long awaited chance to carve his own identity as a gen-next aspirant. Also in the mix is the two time chief minister Digvijaya Singh who retains a strong personal equation with the party cadres. It's not been a comfortable situation, but it is also one where the potential scent of power after 15 long years has atleast ensured a temporary truce.

But this isn't a 'normal' BJP versus Congress battle in a traditional bipolar state. In almost every seat, there are an unusually high number of independents and rebels, including those who have sought refuge in smaller parties. In what local observers insist is a 'kaante ki takkar' election, the 'vote katuas', some of whom are reportedly 'sponsored' to divide the anti BJP vote, may yet have a role to play. 'Jo party apne voters ko chunaav ke din bahar layegi, woh jeetegi iss baar!' is a familiar refrain, an echo of what one heard a year ago in Gujarat where the BJP's superior organisational ability won out by a wafer-thin margin in the end. Will MP 2018 then be a repeat of Gujarat 2017, an election that goes down to the wire?

Post-script: In tv studios, we pitch every election as Modi vs Rahul, almost a presidential style battle but on the dusty tracks of Malwa, this leadership bout offers less attraction. An owner of an auto parts shop on the Indore Ujjain highway sums it up, 'When after note-bandi and then GST, my business suffered, no big leader came to support us. Yeh bas chunaav ke time vote maangne aate hai!" When hope turns to disillusionment, every party should be more cautious in their loud proclamations. And television anchors much less distant from ground zero.

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