Early last month, after the BJP was left smarting from a decisive loss to the Congress-Janata Dal alliance in the Karnataka byelections, which the media projected as a precursor to the upcoming general elections next year, a few saffron party’s senior leaders were heard saying that it was the Madhya Pradesh assembly elections that should be considered the real bellwether of 2019.
One of them noted that the battle between the Bharatiya Janata Party and Congress for the 230 assembly seats in the central Indian state could be the true microcosm of a full-blown faceoff later and shall shape the prospects of a Congress-led anti-BJP front at the national level ahead of the Lok Sabha polls.
There is no telling yet whether that will indeed be the case, but the rallies in the runup to the MP elections gave a glimpse of the big and ugly electoral fight that may lie ahead.
Just how seriously the BJP was taking MP, a state where it has been in power since 2003, was amply clear when news came that Prime Minister Narendra Modi would hold 10 public meetings over five days during his nine-day tour of the state starting November 16. But so was the Congress, and it was probably the one to raise the stakes first.
Addressing an election rally in Deori of Sagar district, Congress President Rahul Gandhi flayed Prime Minister Narendra Modi for inflicting the "biggest scam" on the nation in the form of demonetisation. Then Gandhi assured the people of Madhya Pradesh that his party, if voted to power, would waive farm loans and turn the state into India’s agriculture hub.
Gandhi also targeted Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan over the Vyapam scam and accused his government of snatching away lands from tribals and farmers and giving them away to a handful of industrialists. He said during the note ban exercise of 2016, Modi made hundreds of thousands of labourers, women and small businessmen stand in serpentine queues outside banks.
"Did you see any black money hoarders like Nirav Modi or Mehul Choksi queuing up?" asked Gandhi. "Through the note ban, Modi snatched the hard earned money of the poor and put them in his cronies' pockets.
"In the last two years, unemployment has doubled and suicide rate among the youth has increased by 2,000 per cent. China creates 50,000 jobs per day, whereas despite 'Start Up India' and 'Make in India' schemes, the Indian government creates only 450 jobs in a day," the Congress leader said.
Continuing his attack on Modi over the Rafale "scam", Gandhi accused him of being a chowkidar [watchman] only to his industrialist cronies. Gandhi alleged that much like demonetisation, the deal to procure the 36 French fighter jets was only aimed at enriching his industrialist friends.
Launching a scathing attack on Chouhan, he said: "Entire Madhya Pradesh knows the role of Shivraj Chouhan and his family in the Vyapam scam." He added that over 1,00,000 government posts in the state were lying vacant while schools and hospitals were privatised and making them inaccessible to the poor.
Addressing another rally in Seoni, Gandhi accused the Chouhan-led BJP government of snatching away the land of tribals and farmers. "Three most important things for tribals and farmers are water, land and jungle. And this government has snatched them away for the sake of a handful of industrialists," he said and assured that if Congress came to power it would protect the land rights of tribals and farmers.
He alleged that by privatising schools, colleges and hospitals, the Chouhan government has made education and healthcare inaccessible for the poor. "Chouhan has destroyed the entire education system in the state. 50 people have died in the Vyapam scam and entire state knows which family benefited from the scam," Gandhi said.
He also ridiculed Modi over his 2014 Lok Sabha poll promises of providing two crore jobs annually and giving Rs 15 lakh to every Indian.
Taking on the BJP over farmer suicides, Gandhi said: "Modi opened doors of the banks for fraudsters like Vijay Mallya and Mehul Choksi. His government waived off corporate loans to the tune of Rs 3.50 lakh crore but could not do the same for the poor farmers. We don't want two countries -- one of the poor and exploited and other of a handful of rich. If we wanted two Indias, we would have hoisted two flags on Independence Day, one for 15-20 industrialists and one for common man. We want one country and we want justice.”
"We will open the doors of the banks for youth, farmers and tribals," said Gandhi promising that food processing units would be set up across the state and Madhya Pradesh would be turned into the country's agriculture hub.
Not one to take anything lying down, Prime Minister Modi stepped up his attack on the Congress and the Gandhi family on the first day of his MP campaign in Shahdol.
"These days people are discussing development. People are discussing how in 55 years the four generations of a family could not bring development and how a chaiwala [tea-seller] has so much of money for development. This is the reason for their pain," he said addressing an election meeting.
"And this is their [Congress] problem," the Prime Minister said, and questioned, "Is anyone in Madhya Pradesh crying due to demonetisation here?"
Attacking the Gandhi family, Modi said, "only the Congress is crying, only one [Gandhi] family is crying," he said.
"How much money they have lost due to demonetisation that even after two years they are unable to withstand its blow," he thundered.
Referring to the benefits of demonetisation, Modi said, "The money hidden by many people in their homes under their beds, in almirahs and sacks has been brought back to banks. It is your money and that is being used for development purposes."
The Prime Minister also accused the Congress of neglecting the development in the state despite ruling it for over 55 years.
"It is clear in front of you, 55 years versus 15 years. You people also do comparison of what the four generations of a family did and what the BJP government has done in last 15 years in the state," he said.
Modi also asked the people to compare the work of the Congress' four generation 55-year rule and the four and a half years of the BJP government at the Centre.
Highlighting the work of the BJP government, Modi said "we have built in four years as many toilets they [Congress governments] built in four generations".
Modi also accused the Congress of winning the elections by spreading lies. "Earlier they used to win by spreading lies as there was no strong opposition, there was no strong media and no social media. They are not able to win because the lies spread by them are exposed instantly."
The next day, the BJP said it would give a bonus of Rs 265 to farmers with up to 5 acres of land in Madhya Pradesh, and also pledged to announce a new salary framework for state government employees.
"The Madhya Pradesh government has tried to help farmers in every possible way. We have sought to ensure irrigation to every farmland, and subsidy to every farmer. Now, the BJP has decided to give a bonus of Rs 265 directly into the bank account of every farmer with up to 5 acres of land," Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan said, releasing the party's vision document in the presence of Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley.
The vision document, or manifesto, also promises to boost health and education services in the state, while promoting public transport.
If it was brought back to power, the BJP has assured the state, it will also take steps for the welfare of contractual staff in the state government.
The saffron party also released a dedicated manifesto aimed at empowering women. Under the "Naari Shakti Samkalp Patra", the BJP has promised to distribute free Scooties to girl students who score 75 per cent and above in the intermediate examination. The party has also committed to helping women access credit so that they could set up their own enterprises and become financially independent.
On November 18, Prime Minister Modi hit out at the Congress for their pledge to protect cows in MP, reminding the party that its workers in Kerala last year slaughtered a calf in the open.
Addressing an election rally in Chhindwara, the Prime Minister also attacked the Congress President with the "naamdaar" jibe for "repeatedly lying" to discredit the BJP-led central government.
"In the manifesto for Madhya Pradesh, the Congress party is hailing the cow as a mother, but on the streets of Kerala, the Congress people cut off the head of a calf and circulated photos of their eating beef, saying that it was their right to eat cow meat," Modi said.
He said that the Congress included the issue of cow in their election manifesto to confuse the people. "I am criticising it. It is their right but the question that arises is whether the Congress of Madhya Pradesh and Congress of Kerala are separate. Tell the truth to the people. You may like cow or not, it's your prerogative, but don't fool the people," he said.
The Congress in its election manifesto has promised to build gaushalas [cow sheds] in every gram panchayat, establish a new department for spirituality, open new Sanskrit schools, besides loan waiver for farmers.
The Prime Minister said the Congress had promised farm loan waiver in Karnataka but has not yet implemented it.
"They promise but do not deliver. Cheating is in their blood," he said.
Taking a jibe at Congress leaders for questioning the surgical strikes and allegedly using foul language against the army chief, the Prime Minister said that Rahul Gandhi is "confused", and the Congress under him is "fused".
Using his trademark jibe of "naamdaar" at Rahul Gandhi, the Prime Minister said he was continuously abusing him because Modi has put an end to corruption by using technology.
"Wherever the naamdaar goes, repeats the same cassette. If you have courage, give the account of your four generations. Modi is ready to give account of his four years," he said.
On November 20, Prime Minister Modi told people of the north-eastern MP town of Rewa that Congress means "nepotism" and "corruption", and that it kept people of the state in "darkness" during its 55-year rule.
"From wherever Congress is voted out of power, it doesn't come back... Please don't let it come back in Madhya Pradesh. Congress means nepotism, casteism, communalism, and corruption. Congress means people may die if they wish," Modi said in his address.
He accused the Congress of obstructing the work of successive BJP governments in the state for the last 15 years. “People gave us 15 years, but during 10 years of these, Delhi had a government governed through a remote control, run by madam [Sonia Gandhi], whose ears used to prick at the mention of BJP... 'we won't let him [Chouhan] accomplish anything'.
"For 10 years, Madhya Pradesh government had to fight everyday for their rights.... and they [Congress] put road blocks in our every work for 10 years... In true sense, the Madhya Pradesh government only got a chance to work in the last 4 years [coinciding with the BJP rule at the Centre]," he said.
The Prime Minister exhorted the people to vote in the election not to seal the fate of any political party but to write the fortune of their children. "This election is not about who wins or who loses. This election is for you to decide what kind of Madhya Pradesh you want to give to your children. This election is not to decide the fate of any political party, but your own," he said.
The next day, the generally reticent and former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh jumped into the fray. Citing the controversial Rafale fighter jets deal, Singh alleged that corruption has peaked under Prime Minister Narendra Modi and said the country was passing through "extremely challenging times" with farmers suffering distress, youth facing acute joblessness and the common man suffering from rising prices and tax terrorism.
Addressing a press conference in Indore, he attacked Modi over demonetisation, describing it as a "monumental failure of epic proportions" and said the junking of high currency notes in 2016 "was only a dubious scheme to convert black money to white".
Singh said people should fight against the "onslaught on institutions" by the Modi government or else history "will not forgive us”.
He said the Modi government came to power on the promise to usher in transparency and fight against corruption and only a few months are left for its term to end. "But we have only witnessed corruption peaking under PM Modi. The acts of omission and commission in Rafale deal need thorough investigation by a Joint Parliamentary Committee [JPC]," he said.
Seeking a change in the state in the November 28 Assembly polls, Singh also made several attacks on the Shivraj Singh Chouhan government saying that MP witnesses a farmer suicide every five hours and the state has seen the maximum number of suicides due to unemployment.
Attacking the Modi government, he said "national security is imperilled, women were unsafe and marginalised and weaker sections were facing persecution".
"Our nation is going through extremely challenging times since the last four and a half years. Farmers' distress is all pervading and the youth are suffering from acute joblessness. The common man is suffering from rising prices, notably prices of petrol, diesel and cooking gas," he said.
The Congress leader said "unwitting and ill-conceived decisions of demonetisation and a "flawed GST, coupled with tax terrorism, have dealt a body blow to both organised and unorganised sectors”.
He said small, medium and micro enterprises were reeling under the adverse and painful effects of the double whammy of demonetisation and the Goods and Services Tax.
He accused the Modi government of building "a false narrative a day to justify the demonetisation disaster".
"The plain truth and stark reality is that demonetisation is a monumental failure of epic proportions. None of the stated objectives of demonetisation has been achieved. Neither was the three lakh crore rupees of black money confiscated as claimed before the Supreme Court on November 10, 2016 nor was fake currency checked. Stated objectives of ending terrorism and Naxalism have totally floundered," he said.
Singh said demonetisation "was a deliberate and designed attack" on the savings of small and medium businesses, farmers and housewives even as over 120 poor people lost their lives in the bank queues and a parallel market to convert old notes into new notes flourished under the watch of the Modi Government.
He said Modi had failed to fulfil his promises on black money, depositing Rs 15 lakh in the account of every Indian and creating two crore jobs per annum. Singh noted that the Labour Bureau data shows that only a few thousand jobs were created or added every quarter and the promise of "achhe din" had proved hollow.
"Why has the Labour Bureau Survey for October-December 2017 not been released?" he asked.
He said that 2,81,000 youth with MBA/LLB/BE/PhD degrees applied for 738 peon posts in February this year in Madhya Pradesh and the state could create only about 17,600 jobs every year.
"Maximum number of people in India, who ended their life due to unemployment, belong to BJP-ruled Madhya Pradesh. Between 2005 and 2015, there has been a 2,000 per cent increase in suicide cases in Madhya Pradesh due to unemployment."
He also attacked the Chouhan government over the "Vyapam scam, e-tender scam, onion purchase scam, dal purchase scam, agriculture pump subsidy scam' and said proper investigation and accountability are the first casualties in Madhya Pradesh.
Singh said farmers were in great pain all over India, including Madhya Pradesh, "which has a very high incidence of farmer suicides."
"Between 2004 and 2016, Madhya Pradesh saw nearly 17,000 farmer suicides," he said adding that AK-47 was used against farmers in Raisen.
Two days later, Prime Minister Modi hit back at the Congress saying that since it was bereft of issues and confused in its political discourse, it was dragging his mother into the poll debate and "abusing" her.
"My mother who does not even know the 'R' of Rajniti is being dragged into the political arena and is being abused," he said at a public rally in Chattarpur while campaigning for the BJP candidates from the Bundelkhand region.
He was responding to Congress MP Raj Babbar's attack on him when he said the value of the Rupee had fallen and touched his mother's age in a riposte to Modi's attack before the 2014 elections when he had compared the value of the Rupee with Manmohan Singh's age.
Modi urged the "mothers" and "sisters" of Bundelkhand region to give a "befitting" reply to the Congress at the polling booth for dragging his mother into the election campaign. He said that he has been "challenging and defeating them for the last 17 years and now when they don't have the courage of confronting me they are dragging in my mother."
Claiming that the 15-year rule of Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan has dwarfed the 55-year rule of four generations of the Congress party in the state, Modi said that at the national level a tea seller has taken the country to greater heights.
The Prime Minister accused the Congress of dividing the people into different lines and asserted that the days of the Congress' ‘divide and rule' were over.
On the Congress attacking Shivraj Singh Chouhan, who is popularly known as 'mama', Modi said "before abusing Chouhan, think about your own Mama, Ottavio Quattrocchi, and Warren Anderson, the UCC Chief, who was sent to America by a special plane."
On the same day, Rahul Gandhi responded in kind. Addressing a gathering in Sagar, Gandhi said: "Tell me how there are Narendra Modi, Nirav Modi and Lalit Modi in the country? How are all Modi-Modi," Rahul said.
"Modi, who claims himself as chowkidar [watchman] refers to common people as mitron [friends] but he called Nirav Modi and other fugitives as 'bhai' [brother]."
Rahul Gandhi alleged that the Prime Minister is providing benefit to a few industrialists.
"The oil prices are dropping all over the world. During UPA's tenure, the price of petrol was 140 rupees per barrel [international market]. Now the petrol price has been dropped to half. Currently, it is 70 rupees per barrel," Rahul said.
Whenever youths of MP fill the tank of their vehicles, the money of the petrol went to the pockets of fugitives including Nirav Modi, the Congress chief said.
He faulted Modi for going back on his promise to provide LPG to each woman of the country. The value of LPG has reached double its price, he said.
Attacking MP Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan on filing a defamation case against him after he mistakenly named Chouhan's son in the Panama paper issue, the Congress President asked: "I have a question for Shivraj Singh Chouhan. When I spoke about Vyapam scam, e-tendering, dumper scam and illegal mining cases and named your wife and son's involvement in these matters, why didn't you file defamation cases against me?"
"It seems that there is something true in them."
Admitting his mistake, Rahul Gandhi said that instead of Raman Singh's son, he named Shivraj Singh Chouhan's son in the Panama paper matter.
He claimed that the government waived loans amounting to Rs 3 lakh crore of 15 industrialists but did not give any such relief to the farmers. The Congress president attacked BJP for ordering firing on farmers in Mandsaur and said that farmers are paying insurance money but all the benefit has goes to insurance companies.
As Prime Minister Modi’s tour of MP ended, Manmohan Singh, speaking during a book launch in the national capital, observed that political discourse in the country had hit a rock-bottom and at least the PM should exercise restraint during public speeches.
While political observers are divided on both Manmohan Singh’s opinion and Prime Minister Modi’s aggressive style of campaigning, all do seem to agree that these pre-elections fireworks in MP presage a bigger and uglier showdown ahead of the 2019 elections.