Madhya Pradesh: BJP’s Internal Rifts Give Congress the Edge in Perception Game

In the past few months, several BJP leaders, big and small, have quit the party and joined the Congress, some with plenty of fanfare.

New Delhi: “I joined the Congress with the desire to see that the BJP does not come back to power,” says veteran leader and former two-time BJP MLA Girija Shanker Sharma.

Considered among the old-guard leaders of the BJP in Madhya Pradesh, the Sharma family has had a long connection with the party and enjoyed reasonable electoral success over the years.

Girija Shanker’s brother Sitasharan Sharma, a five-time MLA and former speaker of the Madhya Pradesh assembly, is still a BJP legislator. Together, the brothers have won the Hoshangabad (earlier Itarsi) seat seven times. So, when Girija Shanker recently quit the BJP and hopped to the rival Congress along with hundreds of his supporters, the saffron party lost one of its core leaders. It was part of an alarming trend over the past six months for the saffron party in the poll-bound state.

Sharma, who was elected as an MLA in 2003 and 2008, says the Shivraj Singh Chouhan-led BJP government has “lost its way” in Madhya Pradesh and it was no longer in the best interests of the people to return it to power. “The janata is no longer going to support them,” Sharma told The Wire. “For whatever reason, be it self-interest or ticket, people are joining the Congress. The public cannot ignore that,” he said.

There is an element of truth in his statement. In the past few months, several BJP leaders, big and small, have quit the party and joined the Congress, some with plenty of fanfare.

Some estimates put the number at 40.

These include the sitting BJP MLA from Kolaras in Shivpuri, Virendra Raghuvanshi; former MLA Bhanwar Singh Shekhawat; former MP from Khargone Makhansingh Solanki; and three-time former MLA and former cabinet minister Deepak Joshi. Like Sharma, Joshi also ended a long-running, close-knit relationship with the saffron party. His father Kailash Chandra Joshi was a former chief minister of the state and an important Jan Sangh leader with an illustrious public life. The senior Joshi won the assembly election from Bagri seat eight times, apart from winning two Lok Sabha elections from Bhopal and being elected to the Rajya Sabha once.

While joining the Congress, Deepak Joshi accused the BJP of persecuting party workers who were following his father’s path. He also accused the party of diminishing his father’s legacy.

Deepak Joshi lost the 2018 assembly election from the Hatpipaliya seat in Dewas to the Congress’s Manoj Narayansingh Choudhari. In March 2020, 22 Congress MLAs – led by Jyotiraditya Scindia – defected to the BJP and toppled the Kamal Nath government.

Choudhari was among them.

In the by-poll necessitated by the defections, the BJP fielded Choudhari instead of Joshi. The former won the by-poll, putting a question mark on Joshi’s political future.

MLA Raghuvanshi from the Gwalior-Chambal region blamed the new entrants led by Scindia for his disenchantment with the BJP. While announcing his resignation from the BJP, Raghuvanshi said “original” BJP workers like him were being harassed and that he was not even being allowed to conduct the ground-breaking ceremony or inauguration of development projects sanctioned by him as legislator. He said former Congress MLA Mahendra Yadav was acting like his superior after joining the BJP along with Scindia. In 2018, Raghuvanshi had defeated Yadav.

“I informed the party leadership that it was a good thing to have formed the government [in 2020], but one should not raise the varchasva (domination) of one person [Scindia] to such heights that we find it difficult to carry out development and public service and to remain in politics,” said Raghuvanshi.

Others who have shifted loyalties include former MLA from Datia Radhelal Baghel; Rao Yadvendra Singh Yadav, former zilla panchayat chairman and son of a three-time MLA; Anubha Munjare, wife of former Balaghat MP Kankar Munjare; Malkhan Singh, a dacoit-turned-Narendra Modi campaigner; Ashish Agarwal, former state home minister Umashankar Gupta’s nephew; and Megha Parmar, ace mountaineer and the first woman from MP to climb Mt Everest.

After Parmar’s entry into the Congress, the Chouhan government dropped her as the state ambassador for the Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao programme. The list of BJP leaders who have joined the Congress also includes those who were considered to be close to Scindia. The latest among them was Samandar Patel, who led a convoy of 700-800 vehicles from his hometown in Neemuch to Bhopal, where he joined the Congress. In July, another Scindia loyalist who had followed him to the BJP, Baijnath Singh Yadav, former Congress Shivpuri president, returned to the grand old party in the presence of Kamal Nath.

What the defections say

Whether they were disgruntled due to roadblocks in their personal ambitions, insecure over getting a BJP ticket or have personal scores to settle, there is no denying that by quitting the BJP and joining the Congress these leaders have provided the latter with the edge in the perception battle as Madhya Pradesh heads towards an assembly election.

These rebellions have also brought to the fore the internal rifts and churning within the BJP and a new element of factionalism driven by the entry of Scindia and his loyalists.

Though Chouhan has been at the helm of the government for most of the last two decades, the state BJP also has other senior leaders like state president and MP V.D. Sharma, BJP national general secretary Kailash Vijayvargiya, state home minister Narottam Mishra – and more recently, Scindia – who command their own set of loyalists. If political observers are to be relied upon, all of these leaders also harbour greater ambition. The entry of Scindia and his loyalists in particular seems to have caused discontent among a section of BJP old-timers, workers and leaders alike. In public, however, the party puts up a united front.

Girija Shanker Sharma, who was with the BJP till recently, says there is dissatisfaction among these top BJP leaders over securing tickets for their loyalists. “This is not some meaningful discontent over policies or programmes but mutual conflict over tickets,” says Sharma.

Observers say it is not certain that Chouhan would be retained as the CM if the BJP does win. Therefore, the other aspirants are trying to build up their own support bases among probable legislators to stake a claim for the top job.

Madhya Pradesh chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan. Photo: Twitter/@ChouhanShivraj

The Congress has tried to project the defections from the BJP as panic setting in. The influx of leaders from the BJP to the Congress has produced two results, says Paras Saklecha, a former independent MLA who joined the Congress in 2018 and has been at the forefront of the anti-corruption crusade in the state.

First, since the Congress has been able to snatch some core BJP leaders, it has sent a message that the saffron party’s projection of itself as a disciplined organisation no longer holds. The party organisation is not as strong as it used to be or as it projects itself to be, and the fear of a “strict central leader” such as Amit Shah has dissipated, claims Saklecha.

Second, whether these leaders quit the BJP for the sake of election tickets or not, what is visible to the public is that these turncoats see their future secure in the Congress as they believe it has a greater chance of coming to power. “There is an atmosphere building up in favour of the Congress,” Saklecha told The Wire.

Last month, Saklecha was standing next to Kamal Nath when he released an aarop patra (chargesheet) of alleged corruption and scams under the Chouhan government – a document titled “Ghotala hi Ghotala—Ghotala seth, 50% commission rate.”

Referring to Chouhan as “Lootera Mama,” the document included details of alleged irregularities in financial and governance matters worth thousands of crores in over 225 “scams”. This included the infamous Vyapam scam, and irregularities in Poshan Ahar and mid-day meal schemes, Anganwadi department, tap-water, Patwari recruitment, nursing, para-medical scholarship, illegal mining, tribal land and Mahakal Lok scam.

Congress MLA from Dhar Hiralal Alawa says the defection of BJP leaders has strengthened the mood in favour of the Congress in rural areas. “People see leaders leaving the ruling party as a sign of change,” says Alawa, who is from a tribal community. The MLA also claims that there is growing disenchantment among the sizeable tribal communities, which constitute 21% of the population, towards the BJP – especially because of the ethnic conflict in Manipur, the cloud over the Uniform Civil Code and the recent incident in which a Brahmin man linked to the saffron party had urinated upon a man from a tribal community in Sidhi.

Questions about Chouhan’s leadership?

While it is true that timely opportunism during election season and shifting of loyalties are endemic in Indian politics, senior journalist and political analyst Girija Shanker says that there is a noticeable trend this time around. “Leaders shift from one party to another before every election. These are never about policies but about exploring new opportunities. But the difference this time is that it is the Congress and not the BJP that is doing this to build an atmosphere in its favour,” says Shanker.

The political analyst, however, also cautions that barring one sitting MLA and a handful of ex-legislators, none of those who have quit the BJP have a personal mass following or are influential on their own. He also says that given the strong central leadership of the BJP, the infighting and factionalism in MP would not become a big factor in the election and would be likely brought under control. Hidden discontent within the party ranks might prove more detrimental to the BJP, he says.

The continued defections have also raised a question about the leadership of Chouhan, who has never looked as vulnerable as he has in this election season. Saklecha, who had made life difficult for Chouhan’s previous governments by raising the Vyapam scam inside and outside the state assembly, says the CM is showing signs of nervousness.

“This is doubt [from] his body language [that he is under pressure]. He is being over-active. In one of his speeches, while referring to the newly launched Ladli-Behna scheme, he repeatedly asked the crowd if they liked the scheme. He was almost persuading them to say yes. He was not confident that the public was taking it positively,” said Saklecha.

Pankaj Chaturvedi, a Scindia-loyalist who joined the BJP in 2020 and is today a party spokesperson, however, says the defections are but “temporary joy” for the Congress. He downplays the trend of Scindia loyalists returning to the Congress, saying it does not impact the leader’s image or popularity.

Chaturvedi also dismissed the trend of BJP leaders joining the Congress, saying that only those who had realised that they would not get a ticket were leaving. “The public is not bothered,” he says. Asked specifically if Scindia had chief ministerial aspirations and if factionalism in the BJP would hurt its interests, Chaturvedi said that from day one, Scindia had “made it clear that his motive was not to achieve political chair or CM post but to serve the public through a nationalist vision.”

Factionalism was actually rampant in the Congress, Chaturvedi claimed. “The Congress is a divided house,” he says, claiming that senior leaders Digvijaya Singh, Kamal Nath, Ajay Singh, Arun Yadav, Govind Singh and Jitu Patwari all had some quota of seats to be allotted to their loyalists.

Last week, when the same questions were put forward to Scindia by an Aaj Tak anchor at the channel’s election conclave in Bhopal, the leader downplayed the issue.

“I am not a CM candidate and was not one even then [in 2018],” Scindia said. On his loyalists returning to the Congress, he chose to be diplomatic and interpreted it as people’s display of personal aspirations. He even wished them all the best.

“When elections are near, say two or three months left, this avagaman ki neeti (practice of movement of leaders into and away from parties) is common. If one feels they will not get a ticket here but there, then that sets off [a practice of] aya ram, gaya ram,” he said.

Jyotiraditya Scindia. Photo: Twitter/@JM_Scindia

The margins in MP are thin. In 2018, the Congress won more seats than the BJP and managed to form the government after a hung assembly with the help of legislators from the Bahujan Samaj Party, Samajwadi Party and four independent MLAs. This ended the long rule of the BJP and Chouhan in the state. However, in 2020, the BJP toppled the Kamal Nath government after almost two dozen Congress MLAs resigned and shifted to the saffron party.

The Chouhan government not only faces the fatigue of ruling for almost two decades but also has a lot to set right in its house, as the defections show.

Aashish Joshi, director (admission) at the Makhanlal Chaturvedi National University of Journalism and Communication, says that there is no doubt that the Congress has been able to race ahead in the perception game by poaching some old and rooted BJP leaders. However, Chouhan has regained lost turf by announcing and implementing new schemes such as the Ladli Behna programme, says Joshi. This has made it a tight contest as things stand today, he contends.

There are several other factors yet to kick in, such as ticket distribution of the Congress and how it handles possible discontent. Then, there is the Modi factor and his role in the campaigning. The Congress has made it clear that it was contesting the election with Kamal Nath as CM candidate, irrespective of whether he will contest the assembly election or choose the by-poll route like he did in 2018. His route to the CM chair, if his party wins, would be decided by the central leadership.

There is also a question mark on whether Chouhan would be the official CM candidate of the BJP. While these questions will be answered in the coming weeks, the Congress has pushed the BJP onto the backfoot in the perception game. And in elections, perception usually – if not always – dictates results.