Zafar Alam Khan | Bhopal The Election Commission of India (ECI) announced on Tuesday that polls to the 28 vacant seats across Madhya Pradesh will be held on 3, November 2020. While saving its government in the politically significant state will be the immediate electoral goal of the ruling BJP, the by-elections will be a litmus test regarding public mood during the pandemic. These elections will become crucial testaments to where the parties stand in central Indian state. This is especially so in the case of Madhya Pradesh that account for 28 seats up for by-elections and the Congressled government lost power after 26 of its legislators, including the political heavyweight Jyotiraditya Scindia, defected to the BJP and brought the latter to power. In the 230-member MP Assembly, the BJP is likely to retain power as the Congress would need to win all 28 seats to reach the majority mark of 116. A Congress win is nearly impossible, as most of the vacant seats lie in the Gwalior- Chambal belt, which is the stronghold of BJP’s Scindia.Given the recent trend of defections in Indian politics even though most of the recent ones have been to the BJP a thin margin will make the BJP uncomfortable. Moreover, a mandate in favour of the Congress will solidify the party’s prospects ahead of the 2023 Assembly polls.It is also important to remember the context in which the by-elections are being held. First, the August 5 inauguration of the construction of Ram temple in Ayodhya. Besides, this will also be the first major test of the BJP’s standing since the central government it leads pushed forward the hugely contentious amendments to the country’s citizenship law, sparking violent protests against the religion-based changes to the legislation. Second, these elections come amid widespread protests by farmers’ groups against the recently passed agriculturerelated laws, which broadly seek to loosen the rules regarding the sale, pricing and storage of farm produce. Farmers are worried that these new rules will effectively open them up to the free market, which could ultimately lead to the demise of wholesale controlled markets and assured price support from the government. Farmers are a major voting bloc for political parties, and the hurried, non-deliberative manner in which the laws were passed is likely to be drummed up by the opposition to target the BJP.Overall, the by-elections will be a contest between the BJP and the Congress. The BJP will talk up the work being done by the party both at the central and state levels during the COVID-19 pandemic, while the Congress will challenge it on the issues of unemployment, migrants, the recent “anti-farmer” legislation, changes to labour laws and the BJP’s sectarian agenda. Even though these national- level issues remain important, past trends have shown that locally-relevant matters take precedence in state-based polls. COVID-19 threw up plenty of issues that shook or solidified the electorate’s confidence in their respective state governments. The fact that Madhya Pradesh witnessed huge number of returning migrants, alongside increasing numbers of infections, brought to fore their respective state administrations’ capabilities. Therefore, while the by-elections do not have much potential implications for the stability of the government but they will give the BJP and Congress a chance to gauge the public’s mood before the big battles in the form of the State Assembly elections begin. It will also give the opposition parties in several states a chance to assess their ability to put up a joint front against the BJP.