Madhya Pradesh is at the cusp of a change. Will this assembly election finally trigger that change? Will a political change pave the way for a deeper and much delayed social change in the state? Or are we in for another phase of political manoeuvring that serves to protect the dominant social and economic interests that have ruled the state since its formation? That is the real question to ask of the ongoing electoral contest in Madhya Pradesh that appears closer than warranted.

The change has been stalled for a very long time, confined to a few glimmers once in a while. Its northern neighbour Uttar Pradesh underwent a dalit upsurge in the 1990s. This current entered the northern belt of MP in the late 1990s via the BSP, but subsided very soon. Its eastern neighbours — Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh — have witnessed dominance of adivasi politics. With 21 per cent adivasi population, one should expect the same in MP. But the rise of Gondwana Gantantra Parishad (GGP) was stymied and managed by bigger political forces. With over half the population belonging to the OBC, Madhya Pradesh has not witnessed Mandal politics. MP is presented as the story of agrarian transformation in the last couple of decades, but farmers organisations have not left much imprint on the state politics, despite the farmers’ agitation following the firing in Mandasaur in 2017.

The BJP’s continuous electoral success and political dominance for the last two decades has put a lid on this simmering pot of social churning. Ever since 2003, the first election after Chhattigarh was carved out of the state, the BJP has been in power, though its popularity has declined consistently in every assembly elections. In 2018 it lost the elections to Congress (109 seats to Congress’ 114) but Kamal Nath’s 15-month Congress government was ambushed via the infamous operation Kamal to bring the BJP back to power with support from defector Jyotiraditya Scindia.

Frankly the party does not have much to show for its long rule. Madhya Pradesh has performed poorly on several socio-economic indicators. There were close to 39 lakh registered unemployed in the state at the start of this year. Recruitment to government jobs is riddled with delays and scams. Despite an improvement in agricultural production, the state ranks fourth in the country when it comes to farmer suicides. Feudal caste oppression continued unabated, as the crime rate against Dalits in the state is two and a half times the national average.  On the health front, MP ranks a poor 17 out of 19 on the Niti Ayog’s Health Index. It has the worst infant mortality rate in the country and faces severe shortage of doctors. Despite such a poor track record, the BJP has continued to rule thanks to its deep organisational base that goes back to Jansangh days and to the organisational weaknesses of its main rival, the Congress.

This election promised to be different. The burden of 18 years of incumbency and non-performance was beginning to tell. There has been a visible fatigue with ‘Mamaji’ Shivraj Singh, the incumbent CM. The Congress, on the other hand, had everything going for it. In a state where the party has traditionally been severely faction-ridden, it has been more united than ever because of the undisputed leadership of Kamal Nath during the last five years. The Congress also enjoyed public sympathy for being cheated out from the backdoor after winning the election in 2018.

At a deeper plane, forces of social churning have been active below the radar. Madhya Pradesh had witnessed among the strongest dalit protests against the dilution in the SC/ST Atrocities Act, leading to another wave of dalit activism. A new generation of adivasi leadership has come up under the banner of JYAS (Jai Yuva Adivasi Shakti). Despite splintering, the various factions of JYAS represent the rising aspirations of the adivasi youth that seeks to overthrow the older leadership. And there has been a quiet OBC upsurge in Madhya Pradesh, not limited to upper OBCs, led by organisations like the OBC Mahasabha. The nation-wide farmers’ movement has had its echo in Madhya Pradesh too.  All these movements are anti-establishment in their instinct and against the RSS-BJP in their ideology. It was for the Congress to harness this new social energy and become a political vehicle for social change. Therefore, this election in Madhya Pradesh was the Congress’ to lose.

At a deeper plane, forces of social churning have been active below the radar. Madhya Pradesh had witnessed among the strongest dalit protests against the dilution in the SC/ST Atrocities Act, leading to another wave of dalit activism. A new generation of adivasi leadership has come up under the banner of JYAS (Jai Yuva Adivasi Shakti).

That is not what the polls show. We have tracked a total of 16 surveys in the state since July. Eight of them placed the Congress close to or just above the majority mark of 116 seats and seven showed the BJP to be ahead. Only one outlier survey by Cfore predicted a Karnataka-like majority for the Congress. Taking all the polls into account, irrespective of when they were done, the BJP’s average vote share comes to 44%, while the Congress’ settles at 43%. The average seats projected for the Congress are however more at 116 and for the BJP 111. It would be silly to use such a split survey verdict to make a confident forecast about the eventual outcome. These surveys cannot be taken as the gospel truth. They were somewhat off last time too. At any rate, the projected difference between the two parties is well within the normal margin of error that any survey carries. All we can say as of now is that the Congress appears to have an edge in a contest that is closer than it appeared a few months ago. But it does not look like a knockout of the incumbent, which appeared a real possibility till a couple of months ago.

So, it looks like one of the few elections where the outcome is decided during the election campaign. The Congress has run a vigorous campaign in the state since August, highlighting the failures of the Shivraj Singh Chouhan government especially on economic matters such as the state’s mounting debt, youth unemployment, paper leaks, rigging in the recruitment process (Vyapam/ESB) and the condition of farmers. The state Congress leadership has also borrowed from the Karnataka election playbook by accusing the BJP government of being a “50% commission government” and shedding light on various corrupt practices, such as the Patwari recruitment scam and the substandard construction of the Mahakal Lok Corridor. In fact, the party unveiled a document called the ‘Ghotala Sheet’ in August, listing as many as 254 scams that allegedly occurred during the 18-year-long BJP rule in the state.

But the Congress may not have done enough to tap into the deeper social churning that could have given the BJP a crushing defeat. While its share of OBC tickets has gone up to 65 this time (up from last time but about the same as the BJP), the upper caste dominance within the party continues. The Congress leadership has raised the issue of caste census and has promised 27% job reservation for the OBC, but this is not yet a major issue in this election.  The CSDS survey shows that a plurality (44%) of voters support the idea of a caste census and only about a quarter were in opposition (24%), a significant chunk (32%) did not offer any opinion on the issue. The CSDS survey finds that while the Congress is holding on to its Dalit vote base and improving its position among Adivasi and Muslim voters, it trails BJP by a big margin among the OBC voters.

The BJP appears to have come back in the contest by recognising anti-incumbency mood against the Shivraj government. It has remained ambivalent about its chief ministerial candidate. The PM does not even mention Shivraj Singh by name in his election rallies. The sitting CM, on his part, is heavily relying on women voters to secure his position. Since October, approximately 1.5 crore underprivileged women aged 21-60 years have been receiving 1,250 rupees in their bank accounts under the newly launched Ladli Behna scheme, an increase from the previous 1,000-rupee instalment announced in March this year. In fact, a fresh instalment was deposited into their accounts on November 7, just 10 days before the voting day. The Congress has pledged a Nari Samman Yojana, promising Rs 1,500 per month along with LPG cylinders at Rs 500. The polls suggest that the BJP enjoys a small lead among women voters, not the kind of decisive lead it may have hoped for. The BJP of course has its organisational strength in this state that it can always bank upon.

While the Congress appears to be ahead, one cannot rule out both the parties ending up with a similar vote share. In that eventuality, the outcome will depend upon how the votes translate into seats. Here the Congress has an advantage. In 2018 the Congress actually trailed the BJP by 0.1% but picked 5 more seats than the BJP. This time polls indicate a bigger urban-rural divide that might favour the Congress. According to CSDS poll, the Congress leads the BJP in rural areas by a margin of 5-percentage points, while the BJP is estimated to be way ahead in urban areas by a massive 20-percentage points. These estimates need not be accurate, but they indicate a possibility.  There are far more rural seats in the state (175-200, depending on how an ‘rural’ seat is defined) than urban ones (30-55 seats). Even if the BJP were to sweep the urban areas with big margins, the Congress would still be in a position to overtake the BJP on the back of smaller margins in a large number of rural seats. In 2018, the Congress had just 1 percentage point vote lead over the BJP in rural MP and yet it won 16 more rural seats than its rival.

While we cannot be sure of the nature and the margin of the verdict, we can be sure of one thing: the impact of the eventual outcome will be disproportionately bigger than its margin. Not only will it impact the mood and equation for Lok Sabha elections, it will also decide the trajectory of social change that is waiting to happen in Madhya Pradesh.

[Yogendra Yadav is National Convener of the Bharat Jodo Abhiyan and Shreyas Sardesai is a survey researcher associated with the Bharat Jodo Abhiyan.]