On 20 October, the Bharatiya Janata Party released a rather extraordinary appeal by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the voters of Madhya Pradesh. It asked them to ensure a BJP victory in the state, which goes to polls on 17 November, by giving direct support to Modi. The appeal carried a picture of Modi at the top. The four-term chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan got a one-line mention in the text for having spearheaded the work the party had done in the state. Another photo foregrounded Modi at the bottom of the page, consigning Chouhan to the rear, along with several BJP leaders, including many from the state.
So categorical has been Chouhan’s relegation to the background that even that one line was seen as a positive. A sympathetic columnist, terming this a lucky break for Chouhan, noted that till this point Modi had not mentioned “Chouhan’s name, much less his achievements, in election meetings in the state.” Even the ticket distribution by the BJP had kept Chouhan waiting, till his name figured on the fourth list.
Before the announcement, Chouhan had gone to his constituents in some desperation, “I want to ask you whether I am running a good government or a bad government. So, should this government move ahead or not? Should Mama”—maternal uncle, the term by which he is often referred to in Madhya Pradesh—become chief minister or not?” The party has chosen not to answer his last question, but voters seem to have framed their own answers to the others.
Even in his constituency of Budhni, where he has overwhelming support, most voters were willing to accept that there was dissatisfaction with the Chouhan government. At the Budhni ghat, I spoke to Pandit Ashish Dubey. He insisted on the “pandit” before his name. Through the state, caste identities are crucial to the vote, but Madhya Pradesh has not witnessed the churn of social movements from below that marks politics in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. The hierarchy of the varna system remains unchallenged here.
Dubey conceded there was mood for change across the state. But he went on to echo what voters across regions and constituencies had repeated: Modi was not the source of their dissatisfaction; he stood above and beyond this mood. “Which is why we have to support the BJP in the state,” Dubey said. “Modiji may remain unchallenged at the centre, but there is a difference in being shored up by the support of ten state governments as opposed to two. We have to ensure his international stature. And how is the work he is doing to come down to us if the state government is not a BJP government?”