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Politics

With a Split House for the BJP in MP, Shivraj Singh Chouhan Is Fighting for Himself

In Madhya Pradesh, it is said there are three BJPs: Shivraj, Maharaj and naraz (upset).

On October 21, Scindia watchers listened to Prime Minister Narendra Modi with bemusement as he showered effusive praise on his new found damadji. After all, praise from the prime minister never augured well, they said. Nevertheless, Union aviation minister Jyotiraditya Scindia glowed in the limelight, even as fellow Union minister Narendra Singh Tomar sat sulking. The occasion was the 125th anniversary celebration of The Scindia School in Gwalior with Modi in attendance.

The picture became clearer soon after the prime minister exited Gwalior in the evening, as the fifth Bharatiya Janata Party list of candidates was announced. At least six of Scindia loyalists, who had joined the BJP along with him in 2020 after breaking away from the Congress and bringing down the Kamal Nath government, were denied tickets. Munnalal Goel was one of those who lost out from Gwalior East. The ticket went to ex Rajya Sabha MP Maya Singh, a distant aunt of Scindia’s.

On October 22, loyalist-turned-rebel Goel gheraoed the Jai Vilas Palace of the Scindias along with his supporters. He even lay down on the road in front of Scindia’s car. As visuals went viral, Scindia had to step out of his car and bodily pick up Goel. In placatory tones he said, “Every time decisions are not taken depending on what we want. But I have got a ticket for Munna thrice which we won sometime, lost sometime. All I want to say is I am with you and with Munna.” No one looked convinced.

As the Scindia camp watch their boss’s clout wane, Scindia himself would have thanked his stars that he had not been named in the fifth list. Had he been asked to contest from Shivpuri, vacated by his aunt Yashodhara, he would have had to face K.P. Singh, MLA for 30 years from the Picchore seat who was announced by the Congress in its first list. While Singh faces some anti-incumbency and narrowly won his seat in 2018, he is nevertheless a force to reckon with. Losing to Singh would have left Scindia’s already shaky reputation in tatters. Earlier, there were reports that Scindia could be fielded from Gwalior, a family bastion which has returned three generations of the Scindias, including in the 2014 Modi wave.

As of now, where the Union government’s rubber stamps go, he is the tallest, far ahead of a Manohar Lal Khattar or a Pushkar Dhami. The BJP hasn’t really done anything for his reputation. In the Gwalior Chambal belt, his once stronghold, he is seen as the gaddar who faces greater anti-incumbency than even chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan. From Maharaj, he’s now become a bhaisahab, losing the 2019 election from Guna to a party worker. His legacy and aura completely shredded, he is now seen to be  bowing and scraping before the BJP top leadership. He’s pushing his son into cricket now, hoping to draw closer to home minister Amit Shah through his son, BCCI president Jay Shah.

In Madhya Pradesh, it is said there are three BJPs: Shivraj, Maharaj and naraz (upset).

Also read: MP: Why Congress’s Three Promises to Tribals Could Be a Game Changer in 47 ST Reserved Seats

If the Maharaj camp is seeing its political graph fall and fall, it is the naraz camp that the BJP top leadership is watching with growing unease.

Desh ke gaddaron ko, goli maaro saa*#& ko” is not a slogan the leadership in Delhi thought they would ever hear being directed at them. Add to that October 21’s visuals going viral of party workers heckling Union minister Bhupendra Yadav, and the message that has gone out is that party workers have lost their awe and fear of the twosome, Modi and Shah.

“Never has this kind of rebellion been witnessed in the BJP, which prides itself for being a disciplined, cadre-based organisation. This is a sure shot indication that the Central leadership has lost its grip on the states. There are too many rebels and the situation is akin to Himachal Pradesh where, despite the prime minister’s intervention, the rebels refused to budge. Another reason for the rebellion is the cadre is telling their bosses that they cannot impose their will on the organisation. Modi, as of now, has placed rubber stamps across the party while in the past the local leadership decided who would be projected. The rebellion is to send the message that Modi can’t impose a Congress culture in the BJP,” political commentator Ashok Wankhede says. The BJP’s tagline, ‘party with a difference’, doesn’t seem have takers any more.

Jyotiraditya Scindia with Union home minister Amit Shah. Photo: X/@JM_Scindia

Actually, the knives were out much before, right after the mayoral polls in July last year when the BJP retained only nine out of 16 seats in its worst performance in two decades. It lost, amongst others, its stronghold of Morena, which is the parliamentary constituency of Union minister Narendra Tomar and home district of state BJP president V.D. Sharma, in a stunning defeat. Though the party won a majority of the corporation elections, Madhya Pradesh had the central leadership worried.

Which is why when a non-committal Amit Shah said the party will decide who will be chief minister, and that the election would be fought in the name of Modi, Shivraj Singh Chouhan realised it is time to do his own branding. And show the Centre who is boss, at least in Madhya Pradesh.

The BJP even fielded seven MPs, including three Union ministers, most of whom were projecting themselves as a CM candidate. Kailash Vijayvargia openly said he doesn’t want to contest.

“The Union ministers and MPs were fielded in the hope that rebellion would be stemmed. Modi is no longer confident that his face alone is good enough to get votes. In the past, it was said Modi could even get a lamp post elected. Now Modi is asking for votes in name kamal as well like in Rajasthan. This indicates he has reached saturation,” says political watcher Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay.

With the fourth list it became clear that Chouhan loyalists would have to be accommodated if rebellion was to be stemmed. For the first time perhaps, the Centre blinked and bent before Chouhan. Out of 57 names, a majority were those that Shivraj had recommended. The top leadership nevertheless tried to send the message that they had the upper hand. The income tax surveys on the Trident group, with its offices in Budhni, the constituency of Shivraj Chouhan, is being seen by political watchers as an indirect hit against the chief minister. The yarn and textile major is said to be close to Chouhan, with the Congress often alleging that Chouhan is a co-promoter. Ex Madhya Pradesh chief secretary Anthony D’ Sa, said to be close to Chouhan, is on the Trident board. The simultaneous surveys were in Barnala, Dhaula, Ludhiana in Punjab and elsewhere.

While there are plenty of ticket seekers, how many are winnable candidates and to what extent ideology can be compromised was apparent in the third list, which had just one name, from Chhindwara. Monika Batti, the candidate from the tribal-dominated constituency of Amarwara in Chindwara district, is the daughter of the founder of the Gondwana Gantantra Party and ex MLA, the late Manmohan Shah Batti. She joined the BJP a week before her name was announced.

Also read: ‘Maharaj Doesn’t Have Power in the BJP’: Scindia’s Clout Wanes as Loyalists Return to Congress

Batti is an unlikely choice for the BJP. Her late father’s politics were viewed always as anti-sanatan. He has an FIR registered against him for burning the Ramayana and distributing ‘anti-Hindu’ literature. Batti senior has constructed a temple for Ravana in his village, Devri. On Dusshera, Devri is one village where Ravana’s effigy is never burnt. The GGP, seen more as a vote cutter, wears its anti-Hinduism and anti-Hindutva politics on its sleeve and advocates the cause of Adivasis. While Monika now tries to put the Ramayana burning episode behind her, she does admit that tribals pray to Ravana.

As the Centre scouted for winnable candidates, it is the third factor in Madhya Pradesh, Shivraj, who is watching from the sidelines, smug in the knowledge that if he goes down, so will his opponents, the dozen-odd chief ministerial candidates who had been baying for him till the Central leadership asked them to contest. It is alleged that with the blessings of the RSS, Shivraj not long ago met Modi and gave a suggestion. Either he should be asked to go or if he stays, he should get full control of the state and the rest of the top leaders of the state should prove their worth by contesting elections. It was an idea that clicked with Modi, as it would give him an idea of who stood where ahead of 2024.

Now stalwarts like Kailash Vijayvargiya, Union ministers Narendra Tomar, Faggan Singh Kulaste and Prahlad Patel are instead of baiting Chouhan, busy fighting to protect their turf. Vijayvarghia had in fact said openly he had no wish to contest.

The Congress too is playing along. TV actor Vikram Mastal, who is seen in the role of Hanuman, has been fielded from Budhni. “The Congress’s calculation is Shivraj should win by a huge margin but the party should lose so the message goes out that the Central leadership of the BJP is responsible for this mess,” says Wankhede.

Senior to Modi in politics, Shivraj is one of the tallest OBC faces in the party, credited with turning around a BIMARU state. His politics is the politics of Kushabhau Thakre, of social engineering, and not the easy Hindutva of the Modi-Shah duo although he did try the bulldozer and love jihad variety of politics in Madhya Pradesh in his last term. After 20 years in the business, he knows the stakes are against him.

Says journalist Sanjeev Acharya, “Shivraj is doing what Digvijay did to the state leadership after a two-year term when he lost out to Uma Bharati. Digvijay then finished off the state Congress leadership as he waited for his 10 year self-imposed to exile to get over.” (Congress leader Digvijay Singh had announced in the assembly that if did not win, he would not contest any election for the next 10 years.)

Now Shivraj is preparing for a very long haul, and hoping he’s the only one in the race when he breasts the tape.