Bhopal (Madhya Pradesh): When the Congress grabbed the steering wheel of Madhya Pradesh at the Charles Correa-designed Indira Gandhi Vidhan Bhawan, the state assembly building, after the 2018 elections, it was riding high on an impressive show in the Malwa-Nimar region.
Spread across 15 districts, the Malwa-Nimar region in western MP with 66 seats holds the key to the 230-member assembly where Congress as well as BJP rebels can spring up surprises in the upcoming elections, according to political observers.
The Congress won 35 of the 66 seats in this region last time, increasing its tally from nine in 2013. BJP's score plunged to 28 in 2018 from 57 five years ago.
When Rahul Gandhi-led 'Bharat Jodo Yatra' was to pass through a 380-km stretch of MP, the Congress chose this region for the march, dubbed by many a well-thought-out strategy.
Observers believe that the Congress topped the last assembly elections with 114 seats due to its gain in the Malwa-Nimar region and formed a coalition government under Kamal Nath.
While the Congress and BJP have made inroads in the area over the years, anti-incumbency against local leaders was the main reason for the BJP's poor performance here in 2018, said senior journalist and president of Indore Press Club Arvind Tiwari.
Malwa-Nimar region comprises 15 districts, including Indore with 9 assembly seats, Ujjain (7), Ratlam (5), Mandsaur (4), Neemuch (3), Dhar (7), Jhabua (3), Alirajpur (2), Barwani (4), Khargone (6), Burhanpur (2), Khandwa (4), Dewas (5), Shajapur (3) and Agar Malwa (2).
Of the state's 47 reserved seats for STs, 22 are in this region. The Congress last time expanded its base among tribals by winning 15 seats, up from six in 2013. BJP's tally reduced to six from 15 in the same period.
"The Congress and BJP have worked hard during the past couple of years to strengthen their presence among the tribals of the Malwa-Nimar region. It is to be seen if the BJP will overcome the anger among its lower-rung party workers and anti-incumbency," Tiwari said.
Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan's public connect in rural areas and his government's recently launched 'Ladli Bahna Yojana' might play an important role, he pointed out.
"But, the rebels of both parties on more than a dozen seats can change the results. These rebels have winning potential, if they were given the party ticket," he said.
Besides Indore-1, where BJP general secretary Kailash Vijayvargiya is contesting, the focus will also be on seats like Dhar, Badnawar and Khategaon, said Tiwari.
In Dhar, MLA Neena Verma, the wife of state ex-BJP president and former Union minister Vikram Verma, has been renominated, while the party's former district chief Rajiv Yadav is contesting as an independent.
Congress rebel Kuldeep Singh Bundela and the party's official candidate Prabha Singh Gautam, wife of ex-MLA Balmukund Singh Gautam, have made Dhar a four-cornered contest.
Son of BJP stalwart late Kailash Joshi and former minister Deepak Joshi, who joined Congress recently, is contesting on a ticket of the grand old party from Khategaon in Dewas district. He has faced protests by local Congressmen.
From Badnagar seat of Ujjain, Congress rebel Rajendra Singh Solanki is in the fray after the party replaced him with another candidate.
Several rebel leaders, including Harshavardhan Singh Chouhan, son of former state BJP president Nand Kumar Singh Chouhan, have spiced up the contest in Burhanpur.
Former Congress MLA Antar Singh Darbar, who was denied a ticket, is contesting from Mhow (Indore district) as an independent.
Another Congress rebel, Shyamlal Jokchand is fighting as an independent from Malhargarh (Mandsaur district) against the state finance minister Jagdish Dewda.
Two-time former MLA and ex-MP of Congress Premchand Guddu is an independent candidate in Alot (Ratlam district), though the grand old party has fielded his daughter Reena Borasi from Sanwer in Indore district.
State Karni Sena chief Jiwan Singh Sherpur, who was vying for a Congress ticket, is contesting in Jaora (Ratlam), while expelled BJP leader Dhan Singh Baria has entered the electoral battle from Jhabua. BJP rebel Surendra Singh Thakral is in the fray from Alirajpur.
Former Janpad panchayat president and BJP rebel Puranmal Ahir is contesting as an independent from Jawad (Neemuch district).
Gautam Kothari, president of Pithampur Audyogik Sangathan, a body of industrialists, told PTI that there is a tough contest in Malwa-Nimar region. The reason behind BJP losing ground in the region between 2013-2018 was anti-incumbency, he said.
Also, voter expectations have gone up manifold as people consider 'revdi' (freebies) as their rights, Kothari said.
Kothari said issues tied to jobs are affecting young voters. "Youths have nothing to do with these freebies as their focus is on employment. So, it has become tough to predict as nobody knows what is going on in the minds of this group of voters. The fight seems to be tough and BJP is also sensing it," he said.
State BJP vice-president and former MLA Jitu Jirati said they will win 40-42 seats in the November 17 elections.
Jirati said the 47 ST seats play an important role in government formation.
"The people from Scheduled Tribes were misled in 2018. An outfit JAYS (Jay Adivasi Yuva Shakti) was formed and its chief Hiralal Alawa and other leaders merged the organisation with Congress before the elections," Jirati said.
Now, such people have been exposed, he said.
Jirati said that the BJP had lost most of the 37 seats of Indore division as his party had no seat in Khargone, one each in Barwani and Dhar districts.
The situation has changed in the Malwa-Nimar region now, Jirati said and added, "Ladli Bahna scheme is playing a vital role. People were deceived during the 15-month government. The reflection of the successful leadership of (Prime Minister) Narendra Modi and the insult to Sanatan Dharma by INDIA bloc constituents can be seen among the public." MP Congress media department chairman KK Mishra exuded confidence of further improving the party's performance in this area.
"It's true that Congress' performance was poor in 2013. In 2018, the party's tally improved as anti-incumbency against BJP and CM Shivraj Singh Chouhan has deepened," he said.
People wanted to elect Kamal Nath who is a trusted face, he said.
"Most of the seats in this region are tribal dominated and this community was cheated during BJP's 18-year rule. They will vote for Congress again," Mishra said.