On May 29 this year, Prem Singh, the Congress Member of Legislative Assembly (MLA) from Chitrakoot died in Satna in Madhya Pradesh (MP). He had acute diabetes. The three-time MLA was mentored early on by Congress veteran leader from this region Arjun Singh. He was then associated with Ajay Singh, son of Arjun Singh, and the leader of the opposition in the state. Prem Singh had won the Chitrakoot seat thrice in 1998, 2003, and in 2013. He had narrowly lost the 2008 election to his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) rival Surendra Singh Gaharwar.
Chitrakoot seat has traditionally been more influenced by the Uttar Pradesh (UP) politics rather than the MP one. The seat is right at the border of UP, where the district of Chitrakoot lies. The Chitrakoot town in MP shares several Ramayan era pilgrimage sites with the eponymous district from across the border.
Since 1977, before which Congress dominated the MP and UP politics, Chitrakoot has seen 10 assembly elections. Congress has won 6 times while the Janta Party (1977), the Janata Dal (1990), the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) (1993), and the BJP (2008) have all won the seat once each.
Chitrakoot has been so influenced by UP politics, almost all regional parties and their post-Mandal variants – multiple factions of Janata Party, Samajwadi Party (SP), Apna Dal, Janata Dal United, and even some local parties have contested this seat regularly over the years. In fact, the Satna-Rewa-Panna belt in MP was long considered the natural expansion territory for both BSP and SP. The former has won Lok Sabha and Vidhan Sabha seats regularly in this region constituting the MP side of Bundelkhand. The SP also established a significant presence in this region in 1990s and 2000s, before regressing.
Prem Singh of Congress first won the seat in 1998. A new young face in Satna, he won easily against his nearest BJP rival taking a whopping 32% lead. In 2003, the BJP fell back precariously winning only 13.5% of the votes in an election where BJP actually upended power from Congress. Prem Singh won against his BSP rival with almost 8.5% vote share lead.
In 2008, the BJP crossed the 25% vote share mark for the first time in Chitrakoot, clocking 26.2% vote share. In a close election, Surendra Singh Gaharwar won by 722 votes against Prem Singh. The BSP still retained a significant vote share just under 20%.
In 2013, Prem Singh bounced back sharply, winning almost all incremental votes cast over 2008, gaining 12% vote share. The BJP had a small increase of vote share, while the BSP retained its base completely. In the state as a whole, BJP actually bettered its 2008 tally, but clearly that effect was lost in Chitrakoot. Instead the 2012 trend of UP BJP reaching its nadir was more evident in Chitrakoot in an election held about 18 months after the UP election.
Even in the 2014 general elections, when the historic Modi wave swept the country, the Satna Lok Sabha seat, of which the Chitrakoot assembly seat is a part, was won by the BJP by a narrow margin of 1% vote share. Of the 7 assembly seats in Satna, the BJP lost 4, but winning the other 3 with wider margin than the ones it lost. Amongst the lost seats were Chitrakoot, where Ajay Singh led his BJP rival Ganesh Singh by 4% vote. So by any yardstick, Chitrakoot was a very difficult seat for the BJP.
The 2017 by poll held on November 9, had the least number of candidates contesting the seat in over two decades. Only 12 candidates were in fray, very uncharacteristic of a seat which has been an experimenting site for small parties. Most of these were independents barring the Congress and the BJP candidates. Crucially, the BSP did not contest the election – it usually refrains from contesting by polls as a matter of party policy.
Congress fielded Nilanshu Chaturvedi, who is linked to the Chaubepur royal family in this region. He had been the president of Chitrakoot city council, a post currently held by his sister Prachi. The BJP also fielded a local Shankar Dayal Tripathi.
Both the parties had star campaigners visiting for election campaign. Congress saw Jyotiradiya Scindia (putative 2018 Congress Chief Minister Nominee), Ajay Singh (Leader of Opposition, local strongman), Arun Yadav (ex Chief, MP Congress), and Kamal Nath (senior leader) spend significant time in the constituency. The BJP campaign was led by the Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan and Nand Kishore Chauhan (MP BJP President). In an unusual turn of events for contemporary politics, the Congress campaign out-spent the BJP one by 20 times as per a Times of India report.
Chaturvedi retained the seat for Congress by a margin of 11%. He secured almost 52% votes, while Tripathi won about 41% votes. This was the highest ever respective vote share for both the parties in Chitrakoot. The 35% non-Congress, non-BJP and BSP vote from 2013 seems to have helped both the parties. Congress won 14% of this share and BJP 12%, the rest remaining with the other candidates.
The election data from 1977 onwards (fetched from www.indiavotes.com) can be seen here:
The Chitrakoot loss for the BJP is bad news, coming months after the UP election which it swept. However given the background of the seat and the fact that Prem Singh was a very popular local leader, it may not be right to conclude that this is a wider issue in the state for the party.
The BJP however has to look out for a few factors with the MP 2018 assembly elections just a year away. Firstly, a Congress and BSP tie up may spell trouble for the BJP in the Bundelkhand region. Secondly, the party needs to work on strong local candidates rather than the popularity of the Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan. Ultimately the hyper-local issues cannot be ignored in 2018 when Chouhan himself will be defending a 12-year incumbency and a 15-year BJP run.
The Chitrakoot loss is not a sign of impending doom, but a wake-up call for the BJP to iron out glitches in its MP election strategy.