The fact that opinion polls had mentally prepared the political class for the one-sided outcome does not lessen the impact of the rout suffered by the Congress in Madhya Pradesh. In his 10 years at the helm, Mr Digvijay Singh had successfully projected a model of development based on decentralization, panchayati raj and empowerment of the underprivileged. It was not exactly a replica of the course pursued by the Left Front in West Bengal but the Congress believed it would produce the same political dividends. Lauded by development agencies and a tribe of intellectuals, the chief minister’s single-minded pursuance of social objectives won him many admirers, many of whom also projected him as a future leader of the Congress nationally. It speaks volumes about the mismatch between projection and ground reality that Mr Singh was horribly undone in an election fought on the terms he set. Contrary to initial fears and occasional diversions, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Ms Uma Bharti did not make the assembly election a battleground for her strident Hindutva. She concentrated almost totally on Mr Singh’s failure to provide the state with even a semblance of physical infrastructure, the elementary precondition for economic development. It was a focused campaign that brought out the popular anger at being left behind in India’s march to modernity.
The Madhya Pradesh outcome has a tremendous bearing on the future course of politics in all the BIMARU states, but most notably in Bihar. The sheer scale of the Congress defeat makes it abundantly clear that unless promises of empowerment and decentralization are also accompanied by the benefits of modernity — in this case, power and motorable roads — popular aspirations cannot be fulfilled. For a political agenda of this type to endure, the surge in consciousness has got to be accompanied by economic growth. This is why the prime minister, Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee, should have reason to feel that his emphasis on creating the infrastructure and environment for development — and leaving the private sector to do the rest — may prove electorally beneficial to the BJP in 2004. The election in Madhya Pradesh demonstrates that it is not possible to use existing backwardness as a cap on popular aspirations. It should also serve as a warning to politicians that impressive rhetoric can never be a substitute for visible development. The realities of backwardness may be grim and medieval but popular demands are only too contemporary. The new chief minister can ignore this warning at her own peril. Having aroused expectations, she just has to perform fast.