The state of Madhya Pradesh is heading towards an all-important Assembly poll scheduled to be held towards the end of this year. These polls along with those in the neighbouring states of Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan will be a prelude to the Parliamentary polls scheduled early next year.

Politically the state stands at the crossroads and a close contest between the traditional rivals – the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is on the cards. The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) too has started making a noise in the state although it remains to be seen how serious it is in terms of contesting the polls.

The picture that is emerging as of now is that the BJP has an uphill task on its hands but as witnessed in several other states on various occasions, its foot soldiers are already at work in all earnestness to beat the anti-incumbency of four terms under Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan. The Congress on the other hand is positioning itself on voter fatigue while raising real issues on which the BJP may face the heat.

It needs to be recalled that the state had witnessed an ‘engineered’ political crisis in 2020 when the Congress government under Kamal Nath that had assumed power in 2018 was replaced once again by a Shivraj led BJP regime. The crisis had precipitated on account of the resignation of 22 MLAs led by Congress’ Jyotiraditya Scindia in the 230-member house.

Starting with the BJP, Shivraj with four terms behind his back is battling heavy anti-incumbency. The party has been desperately trying to reclaim the ground that it lost the last time, particularly in the tribal seats. While 47 of the total seats are reserved for the Scheduled Tribes (STs), another 35 general category seats too have a substantial number of tribal voters who can play a decisive role.

Of the total 47 reserved ST seats the Congress had won 31 in the last elections. A tribal outfit Jay Adivasi Yuva Sangathan (JAYS) too has been making a noise about contesting the forthcoming polls on its own. It remains to be seen whether it enters into an alliance ahead of the elections or not.

The BJP has been trying to reach out to the tribals over the last three years. Of late the tribal events, fairs and festivals have witnessed Shivraj’s personal presence with a lot of promises being made.

The BJP’s spokesperson in Indore Nitin Dwivedi disclosed, “In the state Budget Rs 1000 crore have been earmarked for tribal skill development centres while another Rs 292 crore have been proposed for nomadic tribes. There is also emphasis being laid on Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act which is commonly known as PESA Act.”

Another card being played by the BJP in the state is that of women’s empowerment. Sources say that if successful, it is expected to be one of the core narratives in the run up the parliamentary polls as well. A major scheme being played up by the BJP in the state is the ‘Ladli Behna Yojana’ through which it aims to reach out to around one crore women.

The scheme envisages a dole of Rs 1,000 per month to the women whose annual family income is below Rs 2.5 lakh, have a land holding of less than five acres and are not employed in any government or semi government institution. Elaborate budgetary provisions have also been made for other women centric schemes.

With its well-oiled poll machinery in place, the BJP has launched the second phase of its booth expansion scheme wherein the booth level conveners, co-conveners and activists have been given proper identity cards to go all out for man to man coverage of voters. The party had also carried out a Vikas Yatra from February 5 to 25 under Shivraj addressing the beneficiaries of various schemes while also adding new ones on the spot.

The Congress is banking on the sympathy factor on the manner in which the Kamal Nath government was brought down to install Shivraj regime in 2020. It is also banking on the anger and unrest in the farmer community. The party has been spinning a narrative on having started a loan waiver when it was in power and the whole process being brought to an end when the Kamal Nath government was removed.

Kisan Sabha leader Badal Saroj told The Citizen, “There is a lot of anger among the farmers against the lands being acquired under the model that promotes corporatisation. There is discontent over the rising input costs and falling remunerations. The farmers here are small and have to often face drought-like situations.”

Observers say that the farmers in Madhya Pradesh are not as aggressive as their counterparts in Punjab, Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh but surely have an ability to stamp their mark on the political outcomes.

The Congress has also been playing up its promise of an old pension scheme that had proved to be a game changer in Himachal Pradesh polls held last year. “The people are having a tough time battling inflation, poor health facilities and unemployment. The Ayushman Cards on extending assistance in the health sector that have been made by the government are not serving any purpose. Alongside the state’s debt burden is constantly increasing even as the BJP is busy with its propaganda. All this will be the core of our poll campaign,” said Dwarka Prasad Chaube, a senior Congress functionary in Indore.

The party held a show of strength led by Kamal Nath on Monday in Bhopal where it questioned Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s silence on the Hindenburg Report on the Adani Group of industries. It was also a show of unity with former union minister Kantilal Bhuria and top leaders Suresh Pachauri, Ajay Singh, Jitu Patwari, Arun Yadav, leader of opposition in the state assembly Govind Singh and party’s state in-charge JP Aggarwal being present at the event.

Kamal Nath reportedly said at the protest, “"You all have been fighting against BJP's draconian power for the last several years, now time has come to be more united and strong to uproot the Shivraj Singh Chouhan led BJP government from Madhya Pradesh. Next six months will be a real test for party workers."

There are speculations doing the rounds of the possibility of Shivraj being dropped as the chief ministerial face ahead of the polls. The narrative around such a possibility had started when he was dropped from the BJP’s parliamentary board last year and has since been gathering steam. His critics describe him as a ‘Ghoshna Veer’ excelling in making big announcements without bothering to implement them.

Sources within the BJP do not rule out such a possibility pointing at the precedents set in Gujarat and later Uttarakhand ahead of the last Assembly polls in these states and the party going on to retain power with a comfortable majority. Speculations are rife about Shivraj being either replaced by a tribal or a woman face.

Meanwhile, the AAP too is testing the political waters in the state and has reportedly announced its decision to throw its hat in the ring. On Tuesday Punjab Chief Minister Bhagwant Mann launched a scathing attack at both the BJP and the Congress in a rally in Bhopal. during a rally in Madhya Pradesh. He alleged that the BJP government at the Centre is ‘selling the public properties of the country’, and that the Congress MLAs are ‘on sale’ in Madhya Pradesh.

He was accompanied by AAP’s national convener and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal.

While selling the Punjab and Delhi models of governance, Mann promised to throw corrupt leaders in jail if elected to power.

Mann attacked the BJP at the Centre while condemning the action of sending AAP leaders to jail after registering fake cases against them and said, “they thought Manish Sisodia is building schools and winning people's hearts with his extraordinary works. So they put Manish Sisodia in jail.” He questioned why no action has been initiated against industrialists who have looted the country.

Going by the prevailing scenario a lot of petty politicking around non issues is expected ahead of the Madhya Pradesh polls.