The 2023 Madhya Pradesh election explained

Abhay Regi Illustrations by Paramjeet Singh
21 November, 2023

Madhya Pradesh went to polls on 17 November, pitting the Congress—and several smaller outfits—against the eighteen-year tenure of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s incumbent chief minister, Shivraj Singh Chouhan. Elections in Madhya Pradesh can be a complicated affair, with 230 constituencies in 55 districts, and a total of 2,533 candidates facing off for the approval of more than 5.6 crore voters this time. Here, The Caravan breaks down the key parties, regions, candidates and constituencies of the polls.

The Contenders

Madhya Pradesh was among the first states in the country where the Bharatiya Jana Sangh—the BJP’s predecessor—established a towering presence, winning the state in 1977, soon after Emergency, along with its other Janata Party partners. Since then, the state has seen long tenures of both the Congress and the BJP, untouched by severe anti-incumbency. After a decade of Congress rule, the BJP had returned to power in 1990, following which another decade passed under the Congress’s Digvijaya Singh, from 1993 to 2003.

The 2003 election proved key in dislodging the Congress from power. By then, the Congress’ influence among Dalit communities had waned, in favour of the rising Bahujan Samaj Party. Its support among the Other Backward Classes—nearly half the population of the state—was lost to the BJP. The saffron party had been able to groom several OBC leaders, who took up the chief ministerial reigns in rapid succession, from Uma Bharti to Babulal Gaur and Chouhan, a trend discussed in a recent piece in this publication.

In the 2008 election, Bharti had launched her own front, the Bharatiya Jana Shakti Party, which garnered only 5 seats but took away about the same figure in vote-share percentage. The BJP still won with a commanding lead of 143 seats, one more than double that of the Congress. The following three terms saw a few clear trends. The influence of the BSP, the Gondwana Gantantra Party—representing the Adivasi community, more than twenty-one percent of the state’s population—and the Samajwadi Party steadily declined, leading to an essentially bipolar contest in the state. Simultaneously, the Congress made visible gains in vote share, from 32.39 percent in 2008, to 36.38 percent in 2013, to 40.89 percent in 2018, but never surpassing the BJP. The BJP, rather than visibly losing vote share, has hovered around the forty-percent mark, seemingly unaffected by anti-incumbency, despite Chouhan now being among the longest-sitting chief ministers in the country.

For the BJP, the 2023 polls are crucial in proving that the electoral pull of Prime Minister Narendra Modi still remains in the Hindi belt, before Lok Sabha polls next year. The party sails a divided ship though, with a failure to announce Chouhan as the chief ministerial candidate, and Modi neglecting to even mention him in speech after speech. This sidelining, and its similarity to what Modi’s BJP has done to many of their senior-most OBC leaders, is explored in an article in The Caravan.

The party has cut no corners in its campaign, deputing seven parliamentarians, including three union ministers, as candidates in the fray. The Congress, for its part, is running a campaign with former chief minister Kamal Nath as its face for the top post and rhetoric that borrows heavily from the BJP’s own. While the Congress’s calls for a caste census are unlikely to swing much in a state that did not see post-Mandal awareness rise among the OBCs—and where the party seems to have actively undermined its OBC leadership—after 18 years of BJP rule, these are still Congress’s polls to lose. The election will also decide if the terminal decline of the BSP and GGP—who are now electoral allies—is final or if their social-justice platform might find a place in an overwhelmingly Hindu-nationalist electoral space. Meanwhile, the SP was forced to go into the polls alone. The party accused Nath of reneging on the understanding over seat sharing in the assembly polls within the Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance, the opposition block for the Lok Sabha elections, of which both parties are a member. Even within the alliance, the spat led to questions about the its robustness for the upcoming general elections—reported in another piece in this publication.

The Regions

Madhya Pradesh can broadly be divided into six socio-economic and electoral regions. The Chambal region—representing 34 of Madhya Pradesh’s 230 seats—lies to the state’s north, bordering Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan. This is a region where the Congress has historically performed well, banking on the leadership of Jyotiraditya Scindia and his father, Madhav Rao Scindia, before him. The Scindia princeling—whose defection to the BJP in 2020 brought down Nath’s government—is not contesting this time. The BJP’s senior most leader, then, is Narendra Singh Tomar, a union minister facing the polls in Dimani constituency. A ground report from his constituency showed how Scindia’s defection and caste feuds—between the Gujjar and Rajput communities that hold sway here—had left Tomar with his back to the wall.

Scindia’s exit also saw Govind Singh, the Congress’s leader of opposition, emerge as its tallest man in Chambal, facing the polls in Lahar constituency. Alongside him, Jaivardhan Singh, the son of former chief minister Digvijaya Singh, is contesting in his father’s traditional bastion, the Raghogarh constituency in Chambal’s Guna district. Nearly every one of these leaders is from the Rajput community, but others have fought for political space in Chambal, too. This is among the regions where the BSP saw the most success in Madhya Pradesh, consistently winning about five seats in the 1990s and clocking between 20 and 40 percent vote share in some seats.

Also bordering Uttar Pradesh is the Baghelkhand region—which is often divided into the sub-regions of Bundelkhand and Vindh—which accounts for 56 seats, by far the largest region in the state. It is a space that the BJP has dominated since the turn of the century, winning more than thirty-five seats in every election since 2008. Senior BJP leaders from the region include Narottam Mishra, the state’s home minister, and VD Sharma, president of the party’s Madhya Pradesh unit. In addition, the Congress has never been able to consolidate the remaining seats, with a handful going to the BSP, which has a strong presence here, as well as the SP. This region, with a large Scheduled Castes and OBC population, remains among the poorest parts of the state and has even seen demands for separate statehood. A constituency to watch out for here is the railway town of Bina, in Sagar district, where the weakening of the BSP led to increasingly close elections, with the BJP’s candidate Mahesh Rai winning by only six-hundred-odd votes in 2018.

The state’s second largest region, and another one in which the BJP consistently outperforms the Congress, is Mahakaushal. This region borders Maharashtra and Chhattisgarh and sends 42 legislators to the assembly. A significant portion of the state’s Adivasi community is from this region and it has been a traditional bastion of the GGP. Though their grip has been weakening in recent years, the pre-poll alliance with the BSP could reinvigorate their chances. Despite the plethora of reserved Scheduled Tribes constituencies here, the urban or non-tribal parts of Mahakaushal have sent up some of the state’s senior-most politicians: including Nath, who contests from the Chhindwara constituency; Prahlad Singh Patel, a union minister and one of the BJP’s senior-most OBC leaders in the state, who has been fielded from the Narsinghpur constituency; and Rakesh Singh, a former chief of the BJP’s state unit. The saffron party has tried to gather Adivasi support in the region by organising a yatra and building statues of Rani Durgavati, a queen regent of the Gondwana kingdom, who is said to have fought the Mughals. The constituency of Jabalpur North is worth watching because in 2018, the Congress won here with less than six hundred votes after an independent nearly swung the polls.

The other major Adivasi belt of Madhya Pradesh is Nimar, which sends 38 legislators to the assembly, 18 of whom would be from ST reserved constituencies. It plays host to Faggan Singh Kulaste, the BJP’s senior-most Adivasi leader in Madhya Pradesh, who was fielded for a legislative assembly seat despite having held ranks as senior as union minister of state, beginning in the 1990s. In this region, too, the GGP has a considerable presence, part of which has been eroded by Kulaste’s patronage of the Akhil Bharatiya Gond Sangh—an RSS-affiliated organisation for the Gond community—and other similar outfits. The Rajpur seat in Nimar also saw a neck-and-neck battle in the last election. The Nimar region is useful to watch because it tends to swing whichever way the state does. If the Congress makes gains statewide, they make gains here—as in 2008. If they win the state, they also win Nimar—as in 2018.

The Bhopal division, despite its small size of 25 constituencies, has remained an absolute stronghold of the BJP. In every election since 2003, the Congress has never been able to dent the BJP’s presence here, getting barely half the seats of the rivals in their luckiest years. Chouhan contests from the Budhni seat in this region, a rural constituency across the river from the city of Narmadapuram—the erstwhile Hoshangabad, renamed by his government. The Caravan’s ground report suggests that while anti-incumbency is a reality in the region, the Congress have put up a fig-leaf candidate against Chouhan. Even with anti-incumbency at its highest in two decades, this is a region in which the Congress is likely to struggle, with Modi’s heavy campaigning pushing attention away from Chouhan. The Biaora seat from Rajghar district saw an incredibly tight race here in the last assembly polls.

The Malwa region, another in which the BJP has a long and historic presence, is a key indicator of which way the winds blow in Madhya Pradesh. In the elections where the BJP has done well, Malwa’s 35 seats went to the Hindu nationalist party in near totality. When the Congress made gains in the state, the seats in Malwa were split almost equally between the two parties. Indore, the largest city in the region, has long been a centre of the most extreme strains of the Sangh Parivar’s politics. Kailash Vijayvargiya, the BJP’s national general secretary, contests from the Indore 1 constituency. Outside of its urban centres, Malwa’s large SC and OBC populations have been deeply affected by agrarian distress, typified by incidents such as the 2017 police shooting of six farmers during agitations for better crop prices in Mandsaur. The Suwasra seat in Mandsaur district was won by the Congress with just a 350-vote margin in 2018. Agrarian distress is bound to affect constituencies like Rau—Jitu Patwari, one of the Congress’s only senior OBC leaders in the state, is contesting from here.

Madhya Pradesh also has a plethora of bellwether seats—which always tend to vote the way of the state. Key bellwether seats, which have maintained this pattern for more than six elections include Khargone, Niwas, Betul, Manawar and Gwalior East.

Read our election coverage and explainers on the other states heading to the polls in 2023 here.