Central BJP Leadership Takes Control of Madhya Pradesh Campaign – and Has a Bumpy Road Ahead

The state BJP has seen a slew of defections in the last few months, with many leaders unhappy with the course the party has taken in the state. The Congress, on the other hand, is looking more united than ever.

Bhopal: Even as a team of Union ministers led by Amit Shah has taken upon itself the arduous task of controlling election management and devising strategies for the Bharatiya Janata Party in poll-bound Madhya Pradesh, chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan appears weighed down by twin factors – strong anti-incumbency against his 18-year rule (minus 15 months of the Kamal Nath government) and the stigma of heading an immorally propped up government since March 2020 with the help of Congress turncoats led by Union civil aviation minister Jyotiraditya Scindia.

To add to Chouhan’s woes, the central leadership has refused to project the four-time chief minister as the party’s chief ministerial candidate. Not only that, a beleaguered Chouhan was denied the opportunity to helm a Jan Ashirvad Yatra to canvass for the party across the state, a privilege he enjoyed in the previous three assembly elections in 2008, 2013 and 2018. Instead, the central leadership chalked out five such chariot-mounted journeys from different regions. Flagged-off by Union ministers Amit Shah, Rajnath Singh and Nitish Gadkari between September 2 and 5 from five corners of the state, the yatras are evoking memories of the chief minister’s heydays, when he crisscrossed Madhya Pradesh as the ruling party’s super boss in the state.

So pitiable appears the plight of Chouhan that for issuing a report card on the chief minister’s performance over the last 18 years, Shah rushed down to Bhopal on August 21. The longest serving chief minister looked on as the Union home minister sang paeans of the state government’s “success” in removing the ‘Bimaru’ (laggard) tag from Madhya Pradesh.

However, along with fulsome praise for the chief minister’s performance came a shocker for him from Shah, when latter sidestepped questions on whether the incumbent chief minister, Chouhan, will continue in the post if the BJP is voted to power again. Shah said that the party will decide on the Madhya Pradesh chief minister’s post only after the elections.

The remarks came at a time when the party has begun campaigning for the polls, expected to be held in November, without naming a chief ministerial candidate.

To be sure, the BJP does not traditionally names its chief ministerial face before the elections in states where it’s in the opposition. The states where it’s in power, the incumbent chief minister is considered to be the front-runner for the post if the party retains power. However, senior party functionaries said that a final call on who will be the chief minister is taken by the party’s parliamentary board, BJP’s highest decision taking body, after the results.

Chouhan’s position has become akin to S.R. Bommai’s, after whose term as Karnataka chief minister the BJP suffered a crushing defeat in the assembly election in May this year. He too was not projected as chief minister. Like in Karnataka, the BJP high command is pinning its hope on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s leadership in MP and, accordingly, devising strategies to keep more focus on national rather than state issues. In their speeches in Madhya Pradesh in the last two months, Union cabinet ministers, particularly Shah, laid greater emphasis on how the country is poised to become a ‘Vishwaguru’ under the prime minister’s leadership. On state subjects, their target has been the alleged corruption during Kamal Nath’s 15-month government. The BJP state government’s performance scarcely found mention in their speeches.

That the central leadership is in no mood to project the incumbent chief minister in the election had become apparent when BJP president J.P. Nadda on July 8 appointed Union ministers Bhupendra Yadav as the state election in-charge and Ashwini Vaishnaw as the co-in-charge for the assembly elections in Madhya Pradesh. A week later, on July 15, the party appointed Union minister Narendra Singh Tomar as convener of its election management committee for the Madhya Pradesh assembly polls.

Tomar, who has been president of the Madhya Pradesh unit of the BJP, is considered a low-profile leader who enjoys cordial relations with various regional satraps. He is a lawmaker from Morena in the Gwalior-Chambal region, where the BJP has been trying to improve its performance.

Three Union ministers’ active supervision in various capacities and Shah’s close monitoring of the election preparations in Madhya Pradesh has rendered the state leadership’s power strikingly weakened. It became obvious when the party on August 23 released its list of 39 candidates for the seats it had lost in the 2018 assembly election.

Also read: Madhya Pradesh: In Quest for Power, Is Congress Ready to Compromise on Secularism?

The names were decided at the BJP’s Central Election Committee (CEC) meeting, chaired by Nadda and attended by Modi as well as Union ministers Rajnath Singh and Shah, among other senior leaders.

The candidate selection was said to be based on a survey conducted by the central leadership. Several surprising names figured in the list, triggering protests and demonstrations against at least a dozen of them. The chief minister, who is not a member of the CEC, had little, if any, say in the selection process.

Party insiders say several candidates of the chief minister’s liking missed the bus in the list. Jyotiraditya Scindia loyalist and former MLA Ranveer Jatav too has been denied a ticket from the Gohad assembly seat. Jatav was one of the Congress MLAs who switched to the BJP to support Scindia in March 2020.

With the central leadership being firm on not changing any names on the list, state leaders are waiting with trepidation the next list. They are unsure as to what winnability criteria were applied in candidate selection.

Congress is confident

In sharp contrast to the centrally-guided election management in the BJP, the Congress is holding wide consultations. All its state stalwarts have rallied behind the party’s chief ministerial candidate, Kamal Nath. In the candidate screening committee three important names – Suresh Pachouri, Arun Yadav and Ajay Singh – were missing in the first list. On Kamal Nath’s bidding, they were included two days ago.

Remarkably, none of the three publicly raised a voice against non-inclusion of their names earlier. Unlike in the past when the ticket selection process would trigger a howl of protests and relentless lobbying for tickets, the state Congress leaders this time around seem reconciled to bowing to the wishes of Kamal Nath.

AICC general secretary in charge of the MP assembly election Randeep Singh Surjewala is extending full cooperation to the PCC chief, who is much senior to him in the party. More significantly, Digvijaya Singh is wholeheartedly helping Kamal Nath in running the campaign like a tight ship. Both veterans have already finalised names of most of the 230 candidates to be fielded. Kamal Nath had tasked Digvijaya Singh with identifying suitable candidates for the 66 seats where the Congress has not won in the last 30 years. After completing a tour of those constituencies two months ago, Digvijaya submitted a list of probable candidates to Nath.

Nath had said he would announce candidates by August but decided against it on the high command’s directive. Meanwhile, the BJP came out with a list of 39 candidates and gloated over the Congress’s inability to do the same despite a public announcement. Congress sources say the list of all candidates is ready and awaiting a nod from party president Mallikarjun Kharge before release.

With Scindia out of the party, the Congress has never looked more united than it is today. Companionship between Nath and Digvijaya is proving to be a great boost for the party, despite ideological differences between them.

On Hindutva, both differ so much that Nath sounds more like a BJP leader than Congress one. Digvijaya, on the other hand , is fearless in articulating his secular views.

Congress leader Kamal Nath. Photo: Facebook/Kamal Nath

Nath is pragmatic and ideology neutral. He is essentially an industrialist and his corporate style of politics does not brook rigidity of any kind. He loves to be called a Hanuman Bhakt and takes pride in having consecrated a 100-foot tall idol of his favourite deity.

Last week, he played host to a controversial preacher Pradeep Mishra in his Chhindwara constituency with fanfare. Digvijaya had called the preacher a fraud in reaction to the latter’s call to Hindu women to arm themselves against “love jihad“ overtures from Muslim men.

While Nath is trying hard to poach the BJP’s vote base of devout Hindus, Digvijaya is seeking to disabuse liberals and Muslims of misgivings these strong anti-BJP sections might harbour over the PCC president’s dalliance with Hindutva.

Although his political career has had more lows than highs since he led Congress to a crushing defeat in the 2003 assembly election, Digvijaya has remained the most popular leader among liberals and Muslims owing to his unflinching commitment to secularism. Having regained the trust of Rahul Gandhi during the Bharat Jodo Yatra, Digvijaya has reemerged as the most powerful Congress leader in the state.

His current powerful stature is a far cry from the campaigning for the 2018 assembly election, when Digvijaya would not be allowed to take centrestage lest his presence reminded the people of the “dark period” when he was the chief minister.

The Scindia factor

In the campaign for the 2018 assembly election in Madhya Pradesh that the BJP lost by a slender margin, the party’s catchy slogan was ‘Maaf karo Maharaj, hamara neta Shivraj (Forgive us King, our leader is Shivraj)’, implying the party’s hope that the people in the state will continue to prefer the three-time chief minister over Jyotiraditya Scindia, who was widely speculated to be the Congress’s chief ministerial candidate.

After March 2020, when Scindia’s revolt against the Congress helped the BJP snatch power from the Kamal Nath-led Congress government, the fourth-time-lucky chief minister and the Congress turncoat emerged as two parallel power centres in the ruling party in the state.

Now, in the run up to the coming assembly election, neither Shivraj nor the Maharaj is in the reckoning for the chief minister’s post. They have been sidelined as the BJP’s central leadership (read Shah) appears to consider both too vulnerable to the Congress onslaught to spearhead the BJP’s campaign – Chouhan because of face-fatigue plaguing the longest serving BJP chief minister and Scindia because of the lurking fear of massive sabotage in the coming election.

The scion of the erstwhile Gwalior state may have extracted his pound of flesh in the form of ministerial jobs for his 11 supporters in the Chouhan cabinet, besides adjustment of his nominees in the party set-up and various sinecures in return for propping up the BJP government, but the sudden transfer of political clout to Scindia and company has upset inner dynamics in the BJP, causing deep resentment in core party supporters.

Barring a few outspoken ones, the disgruntled refrained from venting their ire against the growing political power of the Scindia acolytes at their expense for the last three years, lest their anger invite disciplinary action. They were acutely conscious of the fact that the party would not brook any action that might jeopardise the government running on the shoulders of the turncoats.

But with the assembly election approaching, they feel emboldened enough to voice their pent-up furore. While the ordinary workers and lower rung BJP office bearers are, by and large, grumpy but silent as they await candidate nominations to decide their future course of action, many ticket hopefuls have already quit the party, citing no future in the BJP on account of Scindia’s influence.

BJP leaders Jyotiraditya Scindia (L), J.P. Nadda (centre) and Shivraj Singh Chouhan. Photo: Facebook/Shivraj Singh Chouhan

The quitters are of two types: hardcore party leaders who see ticket denial coming, as their chosen seats are already held by Scindia supporters, and those who had followed the Union civil aviation minister to leave the Congress and join the BJP. All of them have joined the Congress.

Hailing mostly from Scindia’s pocket borough in the Gwalior-Chambal region, the defectors said that they had made a mistake in aligning with the Maharaj. They are seeing a future in the Congress which, they claim, is all set to come to power.

The latest to jump the BJP ship is Virendra Raghuvanshi, a two-time MLA from Kolaras in Shivpuri in the Gwalior-Chambal region. While announcing his resignation on August 31, he accused supporters of Scindia of corruption and “persecution of original BJP workers”.

He further alleged that when he tried to raise the matter with Chouhan, he was silenced. Two days later, Raguvanshi joined the Congress in the presence of the Nath. Along with Raghuvanshi, former BJP MLA Bhanwar Singh Shekhawat, who had been vocal against Scindia for quite some time, also joined the Congress.

The series of desertions from the BJP began in May this year, with senior party leader and former minister Deepak Joshi joining the Congress. Joshi, son of former chief minister late Kailash Joshi, joined the party in the presence of Nath at the Congress headquarters. Another former BJP legislator, Radhelal Baghel, also joined the Congress.

Since May, over a dozen BJP leaders including former MLAs have switched sides. Plus, BJP workers in thousands have left the party for the Congress across the state in phases and batches over the last two months.

Significantly, the political defection has been, mostly, one way so far – from the BJP to the Congress. Very few from the Congress have crossed over to the BJP. This is a reverse trend; in the run up to the previous assembly elections, defections used to happen from the Congress to the BJP. The Scindia factor seems to have acted as a major catalyst in the reversal of the trend.

The chief minister’s worries

The Scindia factor, however, is largely confined to the Gwalior-Chambal and, to an extent, Malwa regions. In other parts of the state such as Mahakoshal, Vindhya and Bundelkhand, the ruling party is facing the cadre’s ire due to perceived neglect of their respective regions.

Mahakoshal was without representation until last month when former minister Gauri Shankar Bisen was re-indicted in the cabinet. Likewise, the Vindhya region got its only minister with the induction of former minister Rajendra Shukla. From Bundelkhand, the chief minister picked senior BJP leader Uma Bharti’s nephew Rahul Lodhi.

All three ministers have got only two months to enjoy their privileges, and the people in these regions see the cabinet expansion as tokenism that came too late.

However, regional imbalance in the cabinet is a relatively minor reason for public anger. The overarching factor in the strong anti-incumbency against the chief minister is corruption.

Also read: Will the BJP’s Karnataka Loss Have an Impact on Elections in Madhya Pradesh?

On the pattern of its successful slogan of “40% commission government” in Karnataka, the Congress is relentlessly cornering the Chouhan government and dubbing it “50% commission ki sarkar”.

The slogan seems to be resonating with the electorate and it is showing in the chief minister’s desperation for diverting the people’s attention from the Congress narrative.

He has resorted to announcing freebies to all sections with no regard to the prime minister’s open and strong disapproval of what he called ‘revdi culture’. More strikingly, Chouhan has copied promises from the Congress’s ‘Vachan Patra’ or manifesto relating to women, electricity consumers and farmers. Chouhan seems to be aware that the Congress promises had unseated the BJP in Karnataka.

In the scheme of things devised by the BJP high command for electioneering in Madhya Pradesh that has played down the chief minister’s influence, his role appears to be confined to exploiting the resources at his command to the hilt. And he is sparing no efforts in this role.

Not a day has passed in the recent past, particularly in the last couple of months, when Chouhan has not announced one mega scheme or another, or bonanzas to woo different sections of voters. He seems to be banking most on the Ladli Behna Yojna which provides for Rs 1,000 per woman per month to nearly 1.5 crore potential beneficiaries, with the promise to hike it to Rs 3,000 if the BJP is voted to power.

Rakesh Dixit is a Bhopal-based journalist.