BHOPAL, India (Reuters) – To grasp the obstacles the ruling Congress party faces in retaining power in India next year, look no further than M.M. Khan.
A Muslim from a slum in Madhya Pradesh state, he should be a stalwart of the left-of-center and secular-slanting government as it battles the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in state polls this month and a general election next year.
But Khan is unsure that was meant to be.
"The BJP's done a great job here," Khan said, referring to the BJP Madhya Pradesh government. "When Congress was here they did nothing. Now we see improvements in electricity, more wells."
The central state of Madhya Pradesh goes to polls on Thursday in one of six state elections testing the political waters for Congress and the BJP.
The battle in one of India's poorest states is a microcosm for many national issues, from party tactics to the growth of caste-based parties upsetting the traditional balance of power.
Stakes are high. For the BJP, Madhya Pradesh accounts for nearly a fifth of their total parliamentary seats. For Congress, it is a chance to reverse a string of state election defeats as inflation and perceived weak leadership alienated voters.
"Now it's time for Congress. Five years for BJP, now five years for Congress," said Ansar Khan, who works for a car rental company in the state capital Bhopal.
Khan's view reflects an anti-incumbent trend in India, and Congress has high hopes of regaining Madhya Pradesh, which had been in the party's hands for decades before a 2003 BJP victory.
The vote is hard to predict. Polls are unreliable and a myriad of castes add to the complexity. But observers say a host of problems have made a Congress victory more difficult.
Congress should have an edge. Five years of BJP rule may have seen some progress, like with roads, but needs remain high in one of India's poorest states.
A study by the International Food Policy Research Institute placed Madhya Pradesh as India's worst state in terms of hunger and malnutrition, ranked globally between Chad and Ethiopia.
Water in Bhopal is available only every two days. Electricity is intermittent. The state has seen three BJP chief ministers in five years amid party infighting.
But observers say Congress rallies have often seen sparse support. As usual, the party has not named a chief ministerial candidate, meaning there is no political figurehead.
To add to its problems, the Bahujan Samaj Party, a party based on Dalits led by Uttar Pradesh chief minister Mayawati, has drawn large crowds and may also rob votes from Congress.
Congress's message has been dispersed, often focusing on corruption allegations against BJP, an issue observers say does not resonate with all voters.
ONE PARTY, ONE SLOGAN
In contrast, the BJP has one clear slogan, "development."
It is a similar "can do" formula - highlighting road building, for example -- that helped it win Gujarat state this year despite being the incumbent state government.
At a meeting in Vidisha town, two hours drive from Bhopal, BJP national leader L.K Advani helicoptered in to address several thousand followers, one of four rallies that day.
His thundering speech made him appear less than his 82 years.
"Congress does not have any achievements," he told followers packed in the town center. "They cannot control prices and they cannot solve many of the common man's problems."
But Advani's confidence may hide BJP's own problems in the state, which bode ill for next year's general election.
Former chief minister Uma Bharti, a crowd puller who runs a breakaway Hindu party, could eat into BJP votes. She has drawn voters unhappy with BJP's moves to play down its Hindu nationalist card in favor of economic development slogans.
"It's very difficult to predict, but most likely it will be a hung parliament. Both the BJP and Congress are struggling," said N.D. Sharma, a political columnist in Madhya Pradesh. He predicts Mayawati or Bharti could win more seats than anyone expects.
That may mean Mayawati or Bharti could hold the balance of power. It is the kind of third force that some see emerging in the 2009 election, further weakening national parties.
In the smoke and mirrors of election campaigns, neither the BJP nor Congress can rest easy. At the slum in Bhopal, Khan may have praised the BJP but his vote still looks likely to slip the other way.
"My community votes for Congress, so I'll follow them."
In India, old voting habits may die hard.
6 months ago