The ‘Maharaja of Gwalior’ rallied his troops for war. “Mera senapati apne qila ka hifazat karega (My commanders will protect the fort),” Union minister Jyotiraditya Scindia, the 52-year-old scion of Gwalior’s erstwhile royal family, said as he addressed BJP workers at Piprai village in Madhya Pradesh’s Ashok Nagar district on October 29. Scindia spots a party worker in the crowd sipping water and addresses him directly, “My commander, you can drink water later; now is the time for war.”
Around 250 km away, atop a hill, lies the Raghogarh fort, where the traditional opponents of the Gwalior royal family have set in motion a plan to unseat Scindia and the ruling BJP from the Gwalior-Chambal region.
Clutching a walkie-talkie in his hand, Jaivardhan Singh, the 37-year-old son of former Madhya Pradesh chief minister Digvijay Singh and heir to the erstwhile Raghogarh princely state of the Gwalior Residency, is busy surveying the seats where rebel candidates of the Congress might damage the party’s prospects.
“There is an undercurrent in this election,” says Jaivardhan as he turns off his walkie-talkie to talk to The Indian Express. “Our main strategy is to take the message to every home in Gwalior-Chambal that Scindia backstabbed the people’s mandate, which is the biggest sin.”
Ahead of the November 17 elections in Madhya Pradesh, The Indian Express travelled over 790 km, starting from the Gwalior-Chambal region, where this battle of royals is playing out, and ending at Chhindwara, the home base of Kamal Nath, the ageing yet most effective combatant in the Congress’s ranks who is still smarting from Scindia’s ‘betrayal’ of 2020 and is patiently waiting to reclaim his seat.
In the last elections, in 2018, the Congress rode to power, bagging 114 of the 230 seats, while the BJP, after three terms in power under Shivraj Singh Chouhan, had ended up with 109. But the tables soon turned, with the Congress’s leaders in Gwalior-Chambal, led by Scindia, walking over to the BJP camp and bringing the party back to power. Now, three years later, the Congress’s former CMs, Kamal Nath and Digvijay Singh, who have portrayed themselves as ‘Jai’ and ‘Veeru’ from the 1975 classic Sholay, are out to exact ‘revenge’. The BJP under Union Home Minister Amit Shah has spared no effort and unleashed its heavyweights, including three Union ministers, four MPs and one national general secretary to defend its fort.
This election, it’s an all-out war in Madhya Pradesh — and in the style of the many princely battles this region has witnessed, there is the right dose of intrigue, betrayal and revenge.
34 seats, Scindia to be tested
On September 4, CM Chouhan rushed to Ujjain’s Mahakal temple, alarmed over a drought looming across the state. The CM made a desperate appeal to the public to conserve electricity and pray for good rains.
The Regional Meteorological Centre stated that around 20 of the state’s 52 districts had received deficit rainfall in August and that this had taken a toll on the crops.
Coming as it did in an election year, the drought is bad news for the ruling BJP, with the pain acute in the agrarian Gwalior-Chambal belt.
The BJP has traditionally performed well in the region — it won 16 of the 34 seats here in 2008 and 20 in 2013 — but faced a setback in the 2018 polls. That election, the Congress, riding on its promise of farm loan waivers and people’s expectation that Scindia would become CM, walked away with 26 seats. But as Scindia crossed over in 2020 with some of his supporters, including 22 MLAs, the BJP improved its tally to 16 seats, marking its return to power.
This election will see Scindia, who has had to fight for political space in the BJP, fend off a rejuvenated Congress, which fancies its chances and hopes to exact its ‘revenge’.
BJP leaders say they are confident of making a comeback in this region. “All the top leaders are now with the BJP and the Congress will have to rebuild its organisation,” said a senior BJP leader from the region.
But party leaders admit that beyond these calculations, there could be other factors — the drought, for instance.
At a buffalo market in Guna, picking up a new-born calf and bringing it closer to its mother, Phool Singh, 32, a cattle trader, says, “We have been voting for the BJP since we were young. But now we need change. Young blood should be given a chance, that is life.”
The drought has meant that several farmers from villages in the nearby districts of Picchore, Guna, Raghogarh and Shivpuri — all part of Scindia’s stronghold — have had to sell their buffaloes and use that money to set up their own tubewell connections.
They air their grievances against the sitting MLAs in the larger region — both BJP and Congress — over the “punishing power outages and lack of water” to irrigate their fields. Daulat Ram, 35, a farmer who has sold a buffalo and its calf for over Rs 30,000, says, “Water is the most precious resource here. You can’t depend on politicians and kings who have now come begging to our doorstep.”
In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, Jyotiraditya Scindia had lost from the Guna parliamentary constituency to his former loyalist K P Yadav by a huge margin of 1,25,549 votes.
State BJP secretary Rajneesh Aggarwal dismisses fears of the drought playing spoilsport for the party. “The farmers get a stipend of Rs 12,000 a month (Rs 6,000 stipends each from the CM and PM), and we have worked hard to expand the irrigation system. Farmer distress is a momentary issue.”
Over a hundred km away is Piparsama, bordering Shivpuri district. It’s part of the contiguous Scindia turf — with nephew Jyotiraditya’s Guna making way for aunt Yashodhara Raje Scindia’s constituency, where the broken mud roads, piled-up bricks and empty buildings have left the area’s farmers fuming. With Yashodhara, the sports minister in Chouhan’s Cabinet, recently announcing that she would not contest this year’s election, the BJP has given the ticket to Devendra Jain, who has been moved from Kolaras seat in the region.
Though some among the villagers acknowledge that Raje did her bit by building an anaaj mandi, there is still anger over the water and power crises. “Raje ji would have lost if she contested… so would Scindiaji if he stood for election here. The cow sheds are empty, the anaaj mandi is not fully operational, we still live in mud brick homes, there are 250 homes and not even 50 toilets,” says Suresh Dhakad, 30, a tomato farmer.
From Shivpuri, it’s 116 km away to Gwalior, the headquarters of the Scindia royalty. The BJP government has lavished much attention on Gwalior — from a new airport to an elevated road, a 1,000-bed hospital, schools and colleges. But the abandoned building of the NRI College of Engineering and Management is a bit of a sore thumb. The Congress has been targeting the BJP over corruption after the recruitment test for patwaris (revenue officers) conducted here was mired in controversy as seven of the 10 toppers emerged from this centre. The row forced the government to shelve the patwari recruitments, setting off protests across the state.
Rachna Tomar, a 25-year-old, is among those who are angry and upset. “This is how it is in this state. We spend years studying, give exams, there is some scam, the recruitments are put on hold and we grow old waiting for jobs,” she says.
26 seats: Caste in the mix
The dusty ravines of the Guna-Chambal belt give way to the rocky hills and highlands of Chanderi, a town in Ashoknagar district.
Here, the incumbent two-time Congress MLA, Gopal Singh Chouhan alias ‘Daggi Raja’, who traces his lineage to a feudal family of Bundelkhand, is facing an uphill battle.
Chouhan was recently seen in a video, spreading his kurta out as if to seek alms and pleading that “nothing should go wrong” with the elections. “My honour is at stake, I am begging you,” Chouhan said. Speaking to The Indian Express, the MLA put on a brave front. “I went to speak to the Rajput community and pleaded with them. I may be a jagir (feudal lord), but I am a servant. There is no anti-incumbency; I will win with a record margin.”
But Chouhan has reasons to worry. The larger farmer distress in the state has had its impact on Chanderi’s sari and bangle traders, who have reported dipping sales. “Sales are half this year. Most businessmen have sustained massive losses. Daggi Raja is inaccessible and has never shared our pain,” says Abhinav Pateria, 47, a Chanderi sari salesman.
The Bundelkhand region grapples with a punishing paradox. While it is rich in precious minerals and is home to a diamond mine (in Panna), it is one of the most impoverished and drought-prone regions of the state.
The region has 26 Assembly constituencies, including six reserved for Scheduled Castes. Considered a BJP stronghold, the party holds 18 seats compared to the Congress’s seven.
But this election, the Congress has stirred the pot with its promise of carrying out a caste census if voted to power. In his rallies across the state, senior Congress leader Rahul Gandhi too has been promising a caste census — seen by many as the party’s attempt to get the OBCs on its side as it counters the BJP’s aggressive Hindutva politics.
OBCs make up 50 per cent of the population in the state and are considered to be the BJP’s core strength. Three of its former CMs — Uma Bharti, Babu Lal Gaur and Shivraj Singh Chouhan — are OBCs, with Bharti hailing from Bundelkhand.
“We hope this doesn’t gain traction among voters. It might cause us serious damage if that happens,” admits a BJP worker in Sagar.
The BJP is banking on its development projects in this region, including the clearance granted to the Rs 44,605-crore Ken-Betwa Link Project (KBLP). On September 14, PM Modi inaugurated industrial projects worth Rs 50,700 crore in Bina city, including a Rs 49,000 crore petrochemical complex.
The BJP was on the mark much before the poll season kicked off, with Prime Minister Modi laying the foundation for the Rs 100-crore Sant Ravidas temple at Badtuma village in August.
At the site of the temple, friends Roshan Ahirwar and Ajay Ahirwar, both graduates in their early 20s and both unemployed, are happy with the “progress” they have seen under the local BJP MLA. At 11 pm, as they stand outside their homes under a street lamp, they agree “this would have been impossible” just two years ago.
“Our parents would have never had the courage to stand outside our homes at night. Upper-caste men would hurl abuses if we did that. The BJP MLA has done a lot of work here, including putting up this street light,” says Roshan, before adding, “But unemployment is a massive issue. There is a strong undercurrent here… every young man from my area will vote the BJP out.”
38 seats. Tribal votes are key
The arid backdrop of Bundelkhand gives way to the relative prosperity of the Mahakoshal region, marked by its fertile black soil and sugarcane fields.
It was in Jabalpur in the Mahakoshal region, which serves as the state’s cultural nerve centre, that the CM released the first instalment of the Ladli Behana Yojana, which provides a monthly stipend of Rs 1,250 to women voters between 21 and 60 years of age. The political calculation behind the move was not missed.
Jabalpur is the gateway to tribal seats in the Mahakoshal region, which has become a key battle ground this poll season. Tribals account for over 21 per cent of the state’s population, with 47 Assembly seats reserved for STs.
With 38 Assembly seats, including seven in Kamal Nath’s bastion of Chhindwara, the Mahakoshal region will witness a high-stakes fight given that it is prone to swing every election.
In 2018, the Congress’s performance in this region had proved crucial for the party as it won 24 seats here compared to the BJP’s 13. In 2013, the script was the reverse — the BJP had won 24 seats while the Congress was limited to 13.
The mood in the region’s Narsinghpur Assembly constituency, the base of Union minister Prahlad Patel, is upbeat. Patel has been brought in from Delhi to replace his brother and sitting MLA Jalam Patel.
The district has a surplus grain production and its farmers are comparatively richer than their counterparts in the Gwalior-Chambal and Bundelkhand regions.
At a sugarcane field in Bhaisa village, 32-year-old Pramod Yadav has few complaints. As harvest season approaches, he expects to earn over Rs 1 lakh around Diwali. “Farmers here are better off and more educated. We also have more economic support, so there is not much anger against politicians here,” he says.
As the BJP targets the tribal vote, it has a fight on its hands in Amarwara, where two-time Congress MLA Kamlesh Shah, from the Harrai tribal royal family, is up against the party’s Monika Batti, daughter of the late Manmohan Shah Batti, who was president of the Akhil Bhartiya Gondwana Party (ABGP).
Men hanging dangerously from speeding trucks filled with water pipes is a common sight in Amarwara. “There are no irrigation facilities. We have to arrange for water supply on our own. The government has done nothing,” said Dara Ram Kumbre, a 35-year-old tribal farmer, who spent Rs 11,000 to buy over a thousand water pipes to irrigate his wheat fields.
Over a 100 km from Narsinghpur is Chhindwara, Kamal Nath’s home turf, where a 101-foot-tall Hanuman statue dominates the landscape. The statue — and the symbolism surrounding it — are key weapons for Nath this poll season.
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Since losing power, Nath has portrayed himself as a Hanuman devotee, organised several religious events, held a Hanuman Chalisa paath (recitation) at his home in Bhopal, and overseen the merger of a Hindutva outfit called the Bajrang Sena with the Congress.
Nath’s image is imprinted across Chhindwara, with its mostly tribal population unflinchingly faithful to Nath, who has won every election from here since 1980. Located atop a plateau nestled among dense forests, this is among the most developed districts in the tribal belt with rail connectivity, smooth roads, a series of skill development institutes, and factories, including Raymond and Unilever.
At Lal Duan village, several tribal women wait for a pick-up truck to take them to a construction site where they work as labourers. Three of them are doing their BA courses, hoping to be the first women from their village to graduate. “The roads to our village are broken, we don’t have farms to work on so it’s difficult to survive. The monthly stipend by the Chief Minister helps our families, but under Kamal Nath, we never had power cuts or water shortages,” says 18-year-old Anjana Uike.