Of the five states going to polls in November-December, Madhya Pradesh may well prove to be a bellwether of the BJP’s fortunes in the 2019 Lok Sabha election.Although assembly results are not always accurate indicators of the national mood, the MP campaign seems to have become a testing ground for the big battle ahead, making it the most keenly-watched of all the state contests.Why Madhya Pradesh is CrucialThere are four reasons as to why the verdict from central India is pivotal to Narendra Modi’s hopes for a second term as prime minister.The battle in MP will test the BJP’s ability to fight anti-incumbency under a leader whose personal popularity is still intact, despite allegations of corruption, shoddy delivery and a poor record of development.The MP election has become a pilot project of the battle for the Hindu mind. For the first time, the Congress is trying to challenge the BJP on its own turf by playing the Hindu card, blatantly and aggressively.Key issues agitating voters in MP have national resonance. One is the upper caste and OBC backlash against the recently amended SC/ST Act which overturned a Supreme Court ruling and restored the Act’s stringent provisions on summary arrest and non-bailable charges. The other is rural distress arising out of the deepening crisis in the farm sector.This is the Congress party’s last chance at bouncing back as a contender in national politics. Having conceded virtually every state it ruled to the BJP since 2014, the grand old party is perilously close to political extinction. A victory in MP at the cost of the BJP which has held the state for 15 years, will change the dynamics for 2019 by giving Rahul Gandhi a much-needed shot in the arm to prove that he is not the “pappu’’ he is made out to be.Five years ago, the BJP’s sweeping victories in MP, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh created the groundswell for Modi’s triumph in the general elections six months later. This time, the BJP has put all its eggs in the MP basket in the belief that even if it loses the other two states, a victory in MP will give momentum to its 2019 campaign.Will ‘Jai Siya Ram’ Help Congress Win Madhya Pradesh?Rajasthan & Chhattisgarh Take a BackseatIt is curious that BJP leaders have virtually given up on Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, almost as if winning these states are not important milestones on the road to 2019. Chhattisgarh, with just 11 seats in the Lok Sabha, seems to be too small to matter. In any case, the vote share difference between the BJP and the Congress here is less than 1 percent, making the latter a strong contender for power after 15 years of Raman Singh as chief minister.Too busy to read? Listen to it instead.Rajasthan is a strange case of the BJP itself wanting its chief minister to lose. It is difficult to say whether Vasundhara Raje is more unpopular with voters or with her own party leaders and workers. The anger among large sections of the BJP is matched only by the upsurge against her from within the local RSS network.As if to brace themselves for an impending defeat, BJP circles have pointed out that Rajasthan has a tradition of changing governments with every election. A Congress victory would not be surprising given this trend, shrugged a party insider. There is a strong belief within the BJP that losing these two states will not impact the national election. Defeats in Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh can be blamed on incumbent chief ministers, insulating Modi from negative impact.Race for Madhya Pradesh: Caste, Anti-Incumbency & LeadershipA Microcosm of ChallengesMP is quite a different ball game. Although it is an assembly election and therefore a verdict on chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s three-term rule, the state is emerging as a microcosm of the challenges that lie ahead for Modi as he gears up for 2019.Similarities abound; like Modi, Chouhan is still a popular figure among voters, way ahead of his Congress rivals, in popularity ratings. At the same time, he is battling voter fatigue and popular discontent over unmet expectations in the state, much like Modi on a national scale.BJP circles maintain that Chouhan is a master strategist and the upcoming polls will test his election management skills. If he pulls it off, party insiders believe that Amit Shah, organiser and manager par excellence, can do one better for Modi with the vast resources and machinery at his command.Yet, there are worries on ground in MP, worries that are spilling over to the bordering state of UP which is so crucial to the BJP’s fate in 2019. (Remember, the BJP won 71 out of UP’s 80 seats to sweep to a majority in the Lok Sabha.)MP has been the epicentre of anger against the amended SC/ST Act. BJP leaders, particularly the Brahmins, are bearing the brunt, with many finding it difficult to visit their constituencies.While the BJP is fighting off irate upper caste and OBC groups, the Congress is aggressively wooing them with its soft Hindu look and Rahul’s ‘Shiv bhakti’, reinforced by his recent trek to Kailash Mansarovar. Mayawati’s declaration that she will not have a pre-poll alliance in MP with the Congress should be seen against this backdrop. Her so-called “dumping’’ of the Congress may actually help the party in its outreach to upper caste and OBC groups who have been BJP voters for the past several elections.The anger among farmers has only compounded the BJP’s headaches. Again, MP has seen several farmer protests and Chouhan blotted his copybook with police firing at Mandsaur in which several farmers were killed. This is another fault-line which the Congress is trying to exploit.Madhya Pradesh Elections Will be Held on Time: OP RawatGame Changer for CongressMP is fertile ground for the Congress and a victory here will spread ripples through neighbouring UP where the BJP is on a slippery slope because of popular unrest on similar issues, and chief minister Yogi Adityanath’s poor governance.However, the Congress party’s election record over the past four years has been so pathetic that there are serious doubts about its last mile coverage. Recent opinion polls have however given the Congress the edge. If it performs as is being predicted, the MP verdict could be the game changer the Congress has been desperately seeking. If it falls, as it has in past elections, it will reaffirm the image of Rahul Gandhi as a loser. All his strategies – the Hindu card, the outreach to upper castes, wooing farmers – will have flopped. If this be the case, the BJP and Modi can breathe more easily in the run up to 2019.(The writer is a Delhi-based senior journalist. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.) We'll get through this! Meanwhile, here's all you need to know about the Coronavirus outbreak to keep yourself safe, informed, and updated. The Quint is now available on Telegram & WhatsApp too, Click here to join.