Madhya Pradesh Assembly polls: Of frogs, scales and why (upper) caste equations may not worry Shivraj Singh Chouhan

On my trip from Indore to Bhopal, I was given an eye-opening lesson in sociology and politics by Roop Singh, the driver of my hired Innova. What he told me was so nuanced and deep that it made me not only understand the current election in a new light, but also helped me figure out why touring journalists seldom read polls right.

The general wisdom among political pundits is that this time around, Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan is on a sticky wicket because of, among various other reasons, the fact that BJP's traditional upper caste support base is upset. Word is they are angry with Chouhan for his alleged bias towards Dalits and OBCs. So, I lobbed the question to Roop. Pat came his answer: “You see, sir, upper castes are like frogs on a taraju (weighing scale). They jump from one scale to the other habitually just to disturb the scale.”

File image of Shivraj Singh Chouhan. PTI

File image of Shivraj Singh Chouhan. PTI

He was using a modified muhavra (adage) which talks about the impossibility of weighing frogs on a scale and felt the need to explain it. “I do not know to which caste you belong,” he said.  “I am a Thakur and assuming that you are also a Thakur. But what is common between you and me?” What he left unsaid was: "Then why do you expect me to vote like you?"

He was right. Even if I were a Thakur, I'm not, there would be nothing even remotely common between the two of us. Using a simple adage, he was educating me on why urban India should not treat caste as a homogenous group: one that eats, lives, behaves and votes as one. In an urban, each-one-to-their-own milieu, class divisions obfuscate and even override caste similarities. In his view, a section of the rich upper castes, guided by the frog-in-the-balance-syndrome, was trying to disturb the political scale for their self-interests. “Contrast this with the behaviour of Muslims, and you will find them sitting tight on one of the scales,” he added.

Roop is a BJP supporter. But what was significant in his formulation was the underlying theme of communal division. Given the presence of the BJP’s robust organisational structure in the state, Hindutva seems to have permeated deeply into the state’s body politic. It is not without reason that even top Congress leaders are running from Datia Pitambara Peeth to the Mahakal temple in Ujjain to seek divine blessings. Congress chief Rahul Gandhi led this show to establish the party’s pro-Hindu credentials.

But that seems not only too little too late, but also an obsolete idea. In the past, the Congress was for long regarded as more pro-Hindu than the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (BJS). This was all the more true when Dwarka Prasad Mishra was chief minister from 1963 to 1967. Even during Indira Gandhi’s time, the party was never regarded with the slightest bit of suspicion by Hindus, though the RSS-BJS had a strong presence in the state. This situation reversed only during Digvijaya Singh’s second stint (1998 to 2003) when he embraced a brand of secularism which was projected as a tactic of minority appeasement. What compounded the Congress’ folly was its reliance on the premise that the socially-marginalised groups would not join the Hindutva fold, which was largely perceived as pro-upper castes.

Digvijaya successfully stalled the BJP’s march in 1998 on account of his pro-poor approach that roped in the socially-marginalised sections to the Congress’ fold. However, his over-reliance on this strategy proved counter-productive in 2003 when “bijli, sadak and paani (electricity, road and water)” became the reigning slogan for the people. Though the BJP projected Uma Bharti as its chief ministerial candidate, it did not harp on Hindutva. It promised basic amenities to lure in voters. Since then, the Congress has been unable to find its feet on the state's electoral ground.

And it is unlikely the Congress can do so this time either, despite a propitious political circumstance. The reason is not far to seek. The state government has been recklessly overindulgent on social spending to mitigate rural distress. Take, for example, the Rs 600 crore worth purchase of onions to assuage farmers’ plight. Or the introduction of Bhavantar scheme under which farmers are directly paid the difference between the minimum support price (MSP) and the actual market price, in case the latter is higher. In many of these schemes, there is a huge potential for irregularities. Yet, spending has invariably benefitted local traders and farmers and substantially mitigated the anger against the government.

At the same time, rapid urbanisation and expansion of the irrigation network has brought prosperity and lifted a substantial section of the poor above the distress level. This improvement in the economic profile has resulted in a sea change in the state's social complexion. Even the upper castes that migrated to urban areas in search of jobs are more aligned to class division than caste allegiance. That is what Roop explained so beautifully in his own way.

That does not mean that Chouhan will have a cake walk. He is certainly encumbered by indiscretions of his own government; in the Vyapam scam, and other scams in social welfare spending, giving free rein to mining mafias and others. Add to that the unbridled hubris of BJP’s local cadre and leaders. But what makes his task a bit easier is the clear distinction between the BJP and the Congress: while the former is firing on all cylinders to win, the latter is awaiting a windfall.

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Updated Date: Nov 29, 2018 05:54:39 IST

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