As the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Opposition Congress embark on separate yatras across the length and breadth of Madhya Pradesh, they're out to prove a point – 'Which party is more Hindu?'
The Congress on Wednesday, 19 September – which happened to be Ganesh Chaturthi – began its Jan Aakrosh Yatra, as the ruling BJP's 10,500-km five Jan Ashirwad Yatras approached their last stretch in the state. The Congress' yatra, which was flagged off from seven places, is set to travel over 11,000 km, covering all the 230 Assembly seats in 15 days.
The BJP, on the other hand, had flagged off its first Jan Ashirwad Yatra on Sunday, 3 September, from Chitrakoot in the Vindhya region.
As the two parties ramp up campaigning ahead of the 2023 state Assembly elections, analysts opine that both Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan and MP Congress chief Kamal Nath are falling back on the Hindutva rhetoric that comes from a place of "necessity" – backed by different reasons.
Hindutva – the Imperative Electoral Card for BJP & Congress
In Chouhan's case, it appears to be the last resort, considering that his government's direct cash transfer schemes like Ladli Behna Yojana have done only little for the party.
Launched on his 65th birthday on 5 March in Bhopal, the scheme promises Rs 1,000 per month (now increased to Rs 1,250 per month) to women aged between 23 years and 60 years, with certain riders – including that the beneficiaries are not income tax payees and their families' annual income is below Rs 2.5 lakh.
However, that doesn't solve the bigger household problems faced by many. For example, unemployment is a major concern for families in Madhya Pradesh. The state had 25.81 lakh registered unemployed youths as of 1 April 2022. During the decade from 2011-12 to 2021-22, only 1,647 jobs were actually offered out of the officially advertised vacancies, as per media reports.
Besides employment, common households are the prime victims of issues like crimes against women, the burden of farm loans, inflation, and the 'bulldozer justice system' – which has left hundreds of families stranded – among other things.
Experts also believe that the direct cash schemes would be hard to sustain as Madhya Pradesh is struggling financially. The per capita debt has risen significantly, reaching Rs 41,000 per citizen, a significant leap from Rs 13,853 in March 2016 and Rs 10,896 in FY 2013-14. The state's overall debt, as of June 2023, amounts to Rs 3,31,651.07 crore.
Another senior journalist, on the condition of anonymity, said that Chouhan initially played ball with the Hindutva narrative to feed the need of his political makeover due to the anti-incumbency factor – but it didn't help his all-loving persona.
"CM Chouhan tried to change his image into something of a fierce, hardline Hindutva leader but his attempts were rejected by the general public. Initial surveys showed a strong anti-incumbency factor against Chouhan. And months before the election, he was forced to go back to his all-loving, humble, decent mama (uncle) persona."
The journalist further said that Chouhan's efforts to go from being 'Pradesh ka Mama' to 'Bulldozer Mama', and then back to 'Ladli Bahno ka Mama', didn't help much – and that's why, once again, the party is focusing on polarising the electorate.
At the yatras, Chouhan is focused on the Sanatana Dharma controversy, sparked by the statements of Udhayanidhi Stalin, the son of Tamil Nadu CM MK Stalin and a leader of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam – which is also a member of the 'INDIA' bloc – instead of promoting development. While speaking to the media in Jabalpur district on Monday, 18 September, Chouhan said:
"...This INDIA alliance wants to end 'Sanatana'. Who will end Sanatana? Sanatana has neither a beginning nor an end. It is infinite. They are saying it is dengue and malaria, will you say, whatever comes to your mind? This will not be tolerated by India or Madhya Pradesh. The Congress needs to answer this..."
For the Congress, on the other hand, playing the Hindutva card is a necessary evil as it stems out of the fear of being painted as 'anti-Hindu' ahead of the Assembly elections.
Journalist-turned-political commentator Deshdeep Saxena told The Quint:
"The Congress has no place to go – its back is against the wall on the subject of Hindutva because the BJP has created that situation where anyone refusing to say it out loud is considered anti-Hindu. The people are simply rejecting such leaders because of the hardline sentiments that the BJP has been able to evoke. In fact, the Congress has very strategically outsmarted the BJP on several occasions when it came to portraying its chief, Kamal Nath, as a pro-Hindu leader."
Moreover, even as Congress leaders accused the BJP of polarising the election around religion, local party leaders were instructed to "identify prominent religious sites for public gatherings," as part of its Jan Akrosh Yatra campaign.
Speaking at a press conference organised to announce the yatra, general secretary Randeep Surjewala had said:
"Sanatana tradition and religion have been present for centuries, and they will continue to exist even if when we will not... through this journey, the Congress will elevate that very culture of Sanatana."
Concurring with Saxena, political commentator Rasheed Kidwai said that Kamal Nath, who seems to be enjoying his autonomy in fighting the MP Assembly elections, hasn't shied away from embracing his identity as a Hindu leader.
"Kamal Nath took his government being toppled in 2020 very seriously. This time around, he is emphasising the inclusiveness of the Hindu religion in his politics and is being very businessman-like in his approach to the elections. One can see him and Digvijaya Singh working in tandem, and that speaks volumes."Rasheed Kidwai
The comments by political experts find relevance in the instances of Kamal Nath hosting renowned babas, like Dhirendra Shastri in Chhindwara last month. He is also known for being a Hanuman bhakt as he built the Simaria temple, which has a 101-ft-tall Hanuman idol in Chhindwara.
Kamal Nath even recently remarked about India becoming a Hindu nation, saying "in a country where Hindus are in such a large percentage, this should not be a matter of debate, it is a fact."
BJP's Jan Ashirwad vs Congress' Jan Akrosh Yatra
Even amid its efforts to pander to Hindu sentiments, a senior Congress leader told The Quint that the party now wants to step up the fight against the BJP by aiming to mobilise people over issues such as corruption and unemployment, while countering the politics of religion employed by the BJP.
"Through this yatra, we will talk about the issues like corruption, unemployment, crimes against women, and also about how Kamal Nath ji waived farm loan, gave 100 units electricity for free, and how he was working on getting employment for our youth before his government was bought off."Senior Congress leader
"We also know that the BJP will try to bring in the Sanatana Dharma angle and try to polarise the voters. But our yatras will take care of this propaganda. We are as much Hindu as the common people, and we don't use it politically like the BJP does," the Congress leader claimed.
Political commentator Dinesh Gupta, however, opined that even as the Congress is raising issues of unemployment and corruption, it is not following up on them for long enough to make an impression on voters – like they did in Karnataka.
"Although the Congress has launched the yatra, it hasn't been able to identify the issues that it wants to talk about during the yatra. It started the discussion around corruption with the '50 percent commission' narrative but it wasn't able to drive it home, into the hearts and minds of the electorate. Other issues have also seen little follow-up from Congress. In MP, the Congress raises an issue, talks about it for a while, but not long enough and with concrete evidence and anecdotes to drive these issues home."Dinesh Gupta
On the other hand, the BJP is trying to revive its Jan Ashirwad Yatra, which has seen a lukewarm response in Madhya Pradesh. Despite launching it from religious hotspots like Chitrakoot's Kamtanath temple, Sheopur's Ramtalai Hanuman temple, and Khandwa's Dhuniwale Dadaji temple, media reports suggest that the yatras are facing challenges, evident in sparse crowds and empty chairs after two and a half weeks.
Even the presence of prominent BJP leaders, including Union Minister of Youth Affairs and Sports Anurag Thakur, Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sharma (who is known for his pro-Hindu, polarising comments), and Union Minister for Women and Child Development Smriti Irani, have not been able to help draw crowds.
"This time, there are many factions within the party, and that's why the party is not able to launch the yatra with full force. This yatra is mainly being attended by party workers and beneficiaries of schemes, and the enthusiasm for the yatra is lower compared to previous ones," a BJP source told The Quint.
With narratives driving this year's campaigns, the Madhya Pradesh election appears to be heading down to the wire, according to CVoter's election tracker for June 2023.
With a sample size of over 17,000 people across the state, CVoter has predicted a tally of 112 for the BJP and 114 for the Congress in the 230-member Madhya Pradesh Assembly.