Madhya Pradesh: Small Shivraj Cabinet Spells Big Trouble for Scindia

Forty days after his dramatic defection, Scindia is not yet a Union minister and the fates of his supporters look uncertain.

Among the myriad satirical comments and memes that flooded social media after Jyotiraditya Scindia helped the BJP topple the Kamal Nath government in Madhya Pradesh, one particularly stands out for stark aptness. The comment likens BJP’s dilemma vis-a-vis the ‘Maharaj’ to that of Mohalla urchins who have to deferentially address as ‘bhabhi’ the girl they had ‘eve-teased’ for years before she entered their home.

The joke has assumed added piquancy after chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan expanded his cabinet on April 21 with five ministers, including two Scindia confidantes. Scindia had been pushing for a large enough cabinet to accommodate all six aides of his who were ministers in the Kamal Nath government. To this end, he called on Union home minister Amit Shah who, in turn, asked the turncoat to meet BJP president J.P. Nadda. However, Chouhan prevailed over Nadda to keep the cabinet small. Scindia willy-nilly yielded to the BJP’s scheme and forwarded the names of Tulsi Ram Silawat and Govind Singh Rajput for induction in the cabinet.

This is Chouhan’s second open snub to the scion of the Gwalior state. Earlier, the chief minister had created quite a flutter on March 12 in Bhopal by equating Scindia’s defection to that of Vibhishan to Lord Rama’s camp to “destroy Ravana’s Lanka”.

Also Read: Madhya Pradesh: A Month After He Took Oath, Shivraj Singh Chouhan Forms 5-Member Cabinet

The reference to Vibhishan – someone who turned against his own family – is not the most flattering. But the tag of a betrayer has stuck to Scindia in popular perception.

Since the fall of the Kamal Nath government on March 18, speculations were rife in Madhya Pradesh as to how the BJP will reward Jyotiraditya Scindia and his 19 MLAs whose resignations from the state assembly paved the way for Chouhan’s return as chief minister a record fourth time. At least two conditions of the quid pro quo between the chief defector and the BJP leadership were pretty clear: one, Scindia will enter parliament through Rajya Sabha and become a minister in the Narendra Modi government; two, all six ministers who quit the Congress with him will find a berth in the next cabinet.

Over 40 days on, neither is Scindia a Union minister nor are his supporters, barring two, ministers in the MP government. Scindia has not even entered parliament, as Rajya Sabha polling, which was slated for March 26, has been indefinitely deferred due to COVID-19 crisis.

The pandemic was also cited as the reason for Chouhan deferring the expansion of his cabinet.

He may have persisted with the one-man government longer had the Congress-led by Rajya Sabha members Vivek Tankha and Kapil Sibal not pointed out the unconstitutionality of such an arrangement to President Ram Nath Kovind.

Chouhan also ignored Scindia in the 12-member task force that he had formed on April 13 to assist him in combating the COVID-19 crisis. Only one Scindia-loyalist – Tulsi Silawat – was included in the committee. Rest are all senior BJP leaders, with state president V.D. Sharma as convenor.

BJP leader Jyotiraditya Scindia being welcomed by his supporters on his arrival at Bhopal Airport, Thursday, March 12, 2020. Photo: PTI

Placating ministerial aspirants

Given the challenges before the government owing to the coronavirus pandemic, a second expansion of the cabinet is highly unlikely any time soon. Till that happens, both Chouhan and Scindia will have a tough time placating ministerial aspirants in their respective camps. Scindia’s task is more daunting as it is incumbent upon him to ensure the victory of all the disqualified MLAs who defected to the BJP in the forthcoming by-elections. Significantly, none of his supporters from the Gwalior-Chambal region has been inducted in the cabinet and a majority of the by-polls are due in this region, his supposed political citadel. Of the two ministers, Silawat is from Indore and Govind Rajput from the Bundelkhand region.

Scindia’s political clout in the BJP will largely depend on the extent of his success in getting his supporters re-elected. Ground realities are not very encouraging for him because grassroots BJP workers are still unable to reconcile with the political reality of having to embrace the very same candidates they had opposed so bitterly in the 2018 assembly election.

Having wrested power from the Congress, the BJP leadership also doesn’t seem inclined to mollycoddle Scindia at the expense of grassroots workers.

Many BJP leaders privately admit that an illusory aura continues to surround some ‘majestic’ politicians, quite disproportionate to their real strength. Jyotiraditya Scindia is one such.

His dramatic defection from the Congress to the BJP caused a massive flutter in politics. Political pundits across the spectrum analysed his move and their analyses betrayed a rare convergence of view that wronged by the Congress, the Gwalior ‘Maharaj’ had little choice but to jump onto the Modi bandwagon “to serve the country”.

Liberals blamed Rahul Gandhi’s indifference,  Kamal Nath’s neglect and Digvijaya Singh’s machinations for the Congress’s bright star quitting the grand old party.

Modi supporters were ecstatic that late Vijaya Raje Scindia’s grandson finally landed in the party to which he “ideologically belonged to”, and, thus, he has atoned for the sins of his “wayward father”, late Madhavrao Scindia who defied his mother.

Also Read: Has the Scindia Scion Overplayed His Hand?

The truth is that the scion of the erstwhile Gwalior state is the most overrated politician in India. A simple fact-check would testify that.

Can anyone name another politician—Manmohan Singh is an exception because the economist was an accidental prime minister—who got more than Scindia in a span of 17 years? He inherited Madhavrao’s legacy and won handsomely from the seat his father represented till his tragic death in a plane crash in 2001. At only 49, Jyotiraditya was a four-term MP, a two-time Union minister, a CWC member, in-charge of Western UP and a power centre in Madhya Pradesh. He could have chosen to be the deputy chief minister like Sachin Pilot, if he so wished, when the Congress rode back to power after 15 long years in Madhya Pradesh.

Political trajectories of Kamal Nath, Digvijaya Singh

Compare his phenomenal political trajectory with that of Kamal Nath and Digvijaya Singh, the two politicians being blamed for Scindia leaving the Congress. Kamal Nath was first elected from Chhindwara in 1980. The then-prime minister Indira Gandhi had introduced him to the electorate as her third son. He was so close to the Gandhi family. Yet, it took over a decade before Nath was made a Union minister. He found a berth in the P.V. Narsimha Rao government as a junior minister.

Digvijaya Singh was elected to the state assembly in 1977 and made a junior minister in the Arjun Singh government after winning his Raghogarh seat a second time in 1980. When he became chief minister, Digvijaya Singh had already had 16 years of parliamentary career behind him. Kamal Nath had to spend 38 years in parliament when he was finally asked to head the Congress government in 2018. Yet, Scindia nurtured a grouse that he was not given his due.

Scindia had premised his claim to the chief minister’s post, which was denied to him, on the assumption that he had emerged as the most acceptable leader among the masses in the run up to the Madhya Pradesh assembly election in 2018. It was a tendentious reading of people’s mood. The fact is that it was the ability of the Congress leaders, including Scindia, to remain united that impressed the voters enough to lean towards the party in the election. Scindia was only one of the faces in the top trinity, the other two being Kamal Nath and Digvijaya Singh.

File photo of Congress leader Jyotiraditya Scindia and Madhya Pradesh chief minister Kamal Nath. Photo: PTI

Of course, Scindia’s rigorous campaigning yielded good results for the Congress in his Gwalior-Chambal bastion, where the party won 26 of the 34 seats. But Madhya Pradesh has 230 seats and the Scindia political citadel comprises only 15% of the total number. Moreover, Scindia’s influence in the region is primarily due to his father’s legacy, which he was able to sustain in the election. Like his father, Jyotiraditya picked up loyalists among the ‘subject’ on the basis of their devotion to the palace. The Congress didn’t matter, its ideology less so.

As the political tidings favoured the Congress, Scindia’s handpicked loyalists won in good number and credit was apportioned to him. However, when the anti-Congress mood was strong, as was the case in the past 15 years of the BJP rule, the blame was put on the party’s doorstep and not on Scindia. He had headed the Congress campaign committee in the 2013 election too, when the party bit the dust but Scindia’s aura remained unscathed.

While other leaders, particularly Digvijaya Singh, were severely accused of sinking the party owing to their omissions and commissions, Scindia got away with a mild rap on the knuckles.

Despite being a leader of a small region which swum and sunk with the rest of Madhya Pradesh in electoral waters in successive elections, Scindia managed to create an impression that he was cut above the rest of the Congress leaders, with greater influence in the state such as Digvijaya Singh and Kamal Nath. He achieved this remarkable feat because of a combination of factors. His strikingly telegenic looks, networking in high places and proximity with the Gandhi family stood in good stead. He has friends across the political spectrum in politics, media and corporate world.

The softer option

However, when the chips were down, he opted for the softer option of joining the BJP instead of standing majestically tall and alone, with all those great attributes the media had endowed him with.

Jyotiraditya Scindia too could possibly have launched his own regional outfit, if he was feeling marginalised within the Congress, like Mamata Banerjee and Sharad Pawar had done. But it is apparent that he did not have much support in Madhya Pradesh to take the risk of launching a party of his own.

For all the projected mass appeal, Jyotiraditya decided to join the BJP than launch a party like his father.

An overwhelming majority of the elected MLAs had opted for Kamal Nath as the chief minister and Scindia did not have the support of more than two dozen MLAs. Even when he chose to join the BJP, the number of Congress MLAs that he managed to wean away is less than a quarter of the Congress MLAs in the state.

His switch, therefore, smacked of self-serving opportunism. The ‘Maharaja’s’ lack of ideological conviction had been manifest in his approval of BJP’s dilution of Article 370 and in his silence on all contentious legislations and decisions brought out by the Modi regime, such as the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) and the related issues of NPR and NRC.

Also Read: Did Madhya Pradesh’s Political Crisis Lead to the Subsequent Health Crisis?

Scindia’s switch to the BJP was the result of his inability to imagine a politics outside of power. Given his model of politics, this was personally a canny move on his part. For the foreseeable future, the BJP will be a dominant force in national politics. He will once again be elevated to the position where he can be a patron and secure his other interests within a predictable matrix of power in Delhi and Madhya Pradesh.

In Madhya Pradesh, he had reasons to feel acutely vulnerable after a shocking defeat in Guna, as Kamal Nath and Digvijaya Singh joined forces against him.

Kamal Nath had succeeded in getting his son Nakul elected from Chhindwara, while Digvijay Singh managed to get his son Jaivardhan Singh a berth in the Congress ministry. Scindia felt that his future was bleak in the MP Congress as Nakul Nath and Jaivardhan have ascended in the state’s firmament as two rising stars.

While Nakul has not exhibited his political ambitions to reach beyond the pocket burrow of Chhindwara, Jaivardhan is being meticulously groomed by his father Digvijaya Singh, who is popular across Madhya Pradesh.

Scindia could not be unaware of the history of the protracted political battle between his father and Arjun Singh, the political mentor of Digvijaya Singh. Arjun Singh overcame Madhavrao’s political challenges to anoint Digvijaya Singh as chief minister in 1993. His national appeal notwithstanding, Madhavrao could never expand his base in Madhya Pradesh outside Chambal-Gwalior. First Arjun Singh and then Digvijaya Singh saw to it that the Gwalior Maharaj’s influence remained confined to his erstwhile princely state. Madhavrao too didn’t try hard to spread his charm outside the Gwalior region.

Rakesh Dixit is a Bhopal-based journalist.