Has Shivraj’s Position Become Like Bommai, Under Whom BJP Suffered a Crushing Defeat in Karnataka?

In an unprecedented move, the BJP announced seven MPs, including three union ministers – Narendra Singh Tomar, Prahlad Singh Patel and Faggan Singh Kulaste – and a national general secretary as candidates in the assembly election.

Bhopal: Speculations have been rife in poll-bound Madhya Pradesh for a long time that the coming assembly election could bethe four-time chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s swan song. The increasingly tightening control of the central BJP leadership on poll preparations in the state and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s marked avoidance of mentioning either the name or achievements of the chief minister during his Madhya Pradesh tours further lend credence to the speculation.

The second list of 39 BJP candidates issued by the party on Monday, September 25, will only raise more doubts about Chouhan’s fate after the assembly elections.

In an unprecedented move, the BJP will field seven MPs – including three union ministers, Narendra Singh Tomar, Prahlad Singh Patel and Faggan Singh Kulaste – in the assembly election. Another surprising candidate for the election is BJP national general secretary Kailash Vijayvargiya.

The top guns are seen as having blown the field wide open for the race to be chief minister should the BJP win, with Tomar, Patel and Vijayvargiya now strong contenders. All three are contemporaries of Chouhan, whose political shenanigans over the past 18 years ensured the gradual weakening of their clout in the state. Now they are back in the reckoning, possibly at the expense of Shivraj Singh Chouhan.

The high-profile names in the second candidates’ list caught the chief minister by surprise, according to sources close to him.

Interestingly, the MPs whose names were announced on Monday were informed in advance about the party’s decision but Chouhan was kept in the dark.

Recently, Tomar, Patel, Kulaste and Vijayvargiya played an active role in organising the BJP’s Jan Ashirwad Yatra, which covered 230 assembly constituencies and over 10,000 km. With the central leadership completely taking over the reins of the Yatra, Chouhan was eclipsed.

Agriculture minister Narendra Singh Tomar. Photo: PTI

His apparent fall from grace has triggered speculation about whether the longest-serving BJP chief minister will be denied a ticket to contest the assembly poll.

State Congress media cell chief K.K. Mishra said, “While names of party big leaders have been announced, chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s name is missing. This proves that Chouhan has weakened and is no longer a heavyweight in the party.”

The BJP’s big gamble on the MPs is being viewed as part of the central leadership’s desperate strategy to “invisibilise” the chief minister from the campaign. The strategy seems to be aimed at downplaying, if not erasing altogether, the name and works of Shivraj Singh Chouhan from public memory in the run-up to the assembly poll.

CM as liability?

In its actions since the campaigning gathered momentum, the central team led by Amit Shah has betrayed the impression that Chouhan’s face is a big liability for the party. None from the central team assigned to supervise the poll campaign in Madhya Pradesh is talking about Chouhan’s time at the helm for nearly two decades.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who addressed an election rally on September 25 in Bhopal to mark the culmination of the Jan Ashirwad Yatra, did not deign to mention the chief minister’s name nor the state government’s performance. All through his speech, he attacked the Congress.

Curiously enough, even the chief minister himself, who is otherwise known to brag about his achievements, is remarkably subdued on this count. Instead, his sole focus is on announcing pre-poll bonanzas to different sections. He seems to be banking on freebies, particularly the ones for women like the flagship Ladli Behna Yojana. He has intriguingly refrained from responding to the Congress’s posers on issues such as mounting debt of the state exchequer, “50% commission ki sarkar “, poor social indices, unemployment and cuts in allocations to health and education.

He instead seems intent on outdoing the Congress’s social welfare promises for youth, women, farmers and government employees. Of the 11 schemes that the Congress Vachan Patra promises to implement if voted to power, the chief minister has sought to offer more lucrative deals in six aspects.

BJP leadership’s counter-strategy

Sure enough, the BJP central leadership seems well aware of the harsh reality that the beleaguered chief minister finds himself in. The opposition’s allegations about “50% commission ki sarkar” had begun to resonate with the state’s voters soon after the Congress routed the BJP’s ‘40% sarkara” in Karnataka in May this year. All the chief minister’s promises on social welfare have provoked angry remarks: “Why did you not bother about us all these years? Why all this now, when the election is round the corner?”

Realising that Madhya Pradesh too might go the Karnataka way if Chouhan is not reined in, Union home minister Amit Shah took command of electioneering.

The strategy unfolded with a subtle hint to the BJP cadres and the electorate alike that Chouhan will not be the party’s chief ministerial candidate. Not only that, Chouhan was denied the opportunity to helm the Jan Ashirwad Yatra, a privilege he enjoyed while canvassing for the previous three assembly elections.

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 culminated on September 25 in Bhopal where Prime Minister Modi addressed the party workers assembled from all over the state. All through the yatra, the chief minister was kept away.

Narendra Modi and Shivraj Singh Chouhan in Bhopal. Photo: @narendramodi/ X (Twitter)

So pitiable appears to be 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 BJP’s 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, the “achievements” have found space only in advertisements in electronic, digital and print media that the state government has been liberally releasing.

However, the same achievements adorned with allegedly dubious statistics are missing in the election speeches of the BJP leaders. Instead, the BJP campaigners seem to prefer speaking on the Congress’s “sins’ in aligning with the forces that have “insulted Sanatana Dharma”.

While releasing the state government’s report card, Amit Shah sidestepped questions on whether Chouhan will continue in the post if the BJP is voted to power again. Shah said that the party would decide on the chief minister’s post only after the election.

Chouhan’s position has become akin to Basavaraj Bommai, under whose watch the BJP suffered a crushing defeat in the Karnataka assembly election in May this year. He too was not projected as chief minister. Like in Karnataka, the BJP high command is once again pinning its hope on Modi’s leadership and, accordingly, devising strategies to keep a sharper focus on national issues, apart from religious polarisation.

The central leadership’s mood was also evident from BJP president J.P. Nadda in July appointed Union minister 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.

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.

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

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. The chief minister, who is not a member of the CEC, had little, if any, say in the selection process.

The release of the first list evoked an angry response in at least a dozen constituencies, triggering protests and accelerating the process of desertion from the BJP that was already underway since May. So far, 45 BJP leaders are believed to have joined the Congress.

Disappointing feedback

Although the central leadership decided not to buckle under the pressure from disgruntled leaders, the wave of protests led the high command to conclude that merely sidelining the chief minister would not mollify the angry cadre.

The feedback from the Jan Ashirwad Yatras, which evoked a lacklustre response, further confirmed their apprehension that anti-incumbency against Chouhan is deeper than they imagined. The leadership, therefore, contemplated a more drastic step.

The decision to field the seven MPs – including the three Union ministers – appears to be the outcome of stock-taking of the election scenario.

An MP from Morena, Narendra Singh Tomar will be contesting the Dimani; Satna MP Ganesh Singh will contest the Satna assembly seat; Faggan Singh Kulaste, the Mandla MP, has been fielded from Niwas; Rakesh Singh (Jabalpur MP) from Jabalpur Paschim; Prahlad Patel (Damoh MP) from Narsingpur; Riti Pathak (Sidhi) from Sidhi; and Uday Pratap Singh (Hoshangabad) from Gadarwara. Vijayvargiya will contest the Indore-one seat.

Kailash Vijayvargiya has been included in the list a decade after he won the Mhow seat in his native Indore district for the second time in 2013. His inclusion has ended any possibility of his son Akash getting a ticket. According to sources, the central leadership is upset with Akash over his 2019 attack on a civic body official in Indore with a cricket bat.

Kailash Vijayvargiya. Photo: PTI

While Kulaste is a six-term MP, Rakesh Singh and Ganesh Singh have won for four terms, Tomar is into his third term, and Riti Pathak into her second.

A senior BJP leader said that the party was hopeful that fielding several experienced leaders on the electoral battlefield will assuage the fatigue factor against Chouhan.

The BJP has been grappling with factionalism in the state, leading to the direct involvement of Amit Shah in the party’s campaign. Vijayvargiya, who could have caused the BJP trouble, is now kept happy, while Prahlad Patel cancels out fellow Lodhi Uma Bharti’s OBC assertions. The Sadhvi is sulking over her neglect in the BJP as she is neither part of any committee nor invited to any party meeting.

Following Monday’s decision, the Congress was quick to call it the BJP’s desperate gambit. “It’s a sign that the BJP has accepted defeat,” PCC chief Kamal Nath wrote on X (formerly Twitter).