Model code of conduct has kicked in in Madhya Pradesh with the announcement of the election schedule for the state along with that of Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Telangana, and Mizoram on October 9. This means an immediate stop on a barrage of Madhya Pradesh government’s advertisements across print, electronic, and digital media platforms, invariably showing a big photograph of chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan and a bigger one of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The two ubiquitous faces will, of course, continue in advertisements till the polling, slated on November 17 in Madhya Pradesh, but in the ones released by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and not by the state government.
How will Shivraj Singh Chouhan feature in the party’s advertisements? Will he continue to be exclusively clubbed with the Prime Minister? Or, will his face be relegated to share equal space with those of other state BJP leaders below Narendra Modi’s dominating photo? Answers to these questions lie in the near future. They will provide a clear clue as to whether the speculations about Chouhan’s exclusion from the chief minister’s race are true, should the BJP return to power.
For now, however, indications in the party are that the chief minister’s goose is as good as cooked. And he has betrayed an awareness of his possible fate. In the last one week, the chief minister has given conflicting signals about his future plan. On one hand, in an election speech at his traditional Budni constituency on Sunday, he sought to whip up nostalgia in his audience as though this tenure is his swansong by saying, “You will miss me when I am gone.” On the other, he posed a question rhetorically to the audience in an election meeting in Dindori last Friday, “Should Mama (as he is popularly called) become chief minister or not?”
In yet another public interaction, he cryptically remarked, “I may look thin physically but I am a strong fighter.”
When asked by a reporter about the implication of his apparently conflicting articulations in public in the backdrop of the reports of the denial of another opportunity to him to become the chief minister face, Chouhan parried a direct reply, saying, “They have a deep meaning.”
High command alarmed
The BJP high command is alarmed by the chief minister blowing hot and cold on the issue of his future plan. The fact that his rumoured defiance of the high command followed the Congress’s decision to up the ante on the caste census in Madhya Pradesh is reported to have added to the high command’s uneasiness.
Shivraj Singh Chouhan is the most powerful Other Backward Caste (OBC) leader in the BJP in Madhya Pradesh, having pushed his predecessor Uma Bharti to the political wilderness. Union minister Prahlad Patel, who is contesting the assembly election on the Narsinghpur assembly seat, is another prominent OBC leader in the BJP in MP, but in terms of mass appeal across the state, he is no match to Chouhan.
Tallest OBC leader
As BJP’s mascot in the three assembly elections in 2008, 2013, and 2018, his OBC credential came in handy for Shivraj Singh Chouhan to emerge as the undisputed leader of the ruling party. Even when the BJP toppled the Kamal Nath government following the revolt by Jyotiraditya Scindia and company in March 2020, the party high command had to willy-nilly anoint Shivraj Singh as chief minister for a fourth time, primarily because of his strong sway on the OBCs. Home minister Narottam Mishra, who played a key role in the toppling of the Congress government under the guidance of his mentor Union home minister Amit Shah, was earnestly jockeying for the chief minister post but his being Brahman came in the way.
OBCs, the most formidable vote bloc, are the BJP’s core strength in Madhya Pradesh. The BJP owed – to a great extent – its victories in successive assembly elections in Madhya Pradesh since 2003 to the steadfast support it got from the Other Backward Classes (OBCs), which comprise over 50% of the state’s population.
Even in the 2018 assembly election, a substantial majority of the OBCs stayed loyal to the BJP, though the party lost power to the Congress by a slender margin despite garnering more votes.
But in the coming assembly election, the ruling party appears to be facing its stiffest-ever challenge in the past two decades to its electoral upper hand from the Congress. It stems from the Congress’s determined effort to loosen the confederation of intermediate castes in the state that have stuck with the BJP through thick and thin.
Factors hurting BJP’s OBC connect
A combination of at least four factors has made the Congress look confident and the BJP jittery in the run-up to the assembly elections about their respective poll prospects.
One, it was the short-lived Kamal Nath-led Congress government which hiked reservation for the OBCs in 2019 to 27% through an ordinance even though the Mandal Commission’s recommendations on this score had come into force way back in 1993 at the central level.
Two, the Congress has promised to undertake a caste-based census in Madhya Pradesh, too. Three, the Congress has upped the ante on the recently-passed Women Reservation Bill by demanding its immediate implementation and a provision for sub-quota within it for OBC women.
Four, Uma Bharti, who in the 2003 assembly election embodied a rare combination of the first woman chief ministerial face of the BJP in Madhya Pradesh, its most prominent OBC leader and one of the most visible Hindutva icons, is sulking over her neglect in the party.
The BJP leadership may have dismissed the once-firebrand Sadhvi as a spent force but she still holds considerable sway over her Lodhi caste, which is a powerful voting bloc in the Bundelkhand region. She is restless and waiting to reassert her political clout – within the BJP if the party manages to mollify her or outside it, if not.
Either way, the BJP’s challenge of maintaining a hold over its OBC vote-bank is unlikely to become easier. The party can no longer afford to take its support base for granted in the face of the Congress demands for caste-based census and quota within quota for OBCs in the women reservation bill.
Further, the BJP has no satisfactory answer to the Congress poser as to why the saffron party kept sitting on the Mandal commission recommendation of 27% quota for the OBCs all these years while ruling the state.
Why MP remains unaffected by identity politics
Unlike Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, Madhya Pradesh has been largely unaffected by “Mandal versus Kamandal” politics. The state’s bipolar polity has been dominated by mostly upper caste leaders in both Congress and BJP since its inception in 1956, without letting identity-based regional outfits strike roots.
Potential Lalu Prasad Yadavs, Mulayam Singh Yadavs, or Nitish Kumars have had to play second fiddle to the upper caste leaders in the Congress as well as the BJP. That was why the demand to implement a 27% quota for the OBCs remained weak enough to be ignored by successive chief ministers.
BJP subsumed OBCs in the Hindutva fold
When Uma Bharti was chosen to spearhead the BJP campaign in 2003, her aggressive campaign ensured that the OBC aspirations were subsumed within the overarching umbrella of the Hindutva. The gamble paid off.
Like Uma Bharti, who was chief minister for only eight months, her successors in the BJP – late Babulal Gaur (Yadav) and Shivraj Singh Chouhan (Kirar) – also belonged to the OBC castes.
Hindutva remained the leitmotif of the BJP governments while OBCs were apparently happy to have a chief minister from their own category. The Congress failed to offer a potent challenger from the OBCs to Shivraj Singh Chouhan.
However, political dynamics have changed after Kamal Nath posed a serious challenge to BJP’s OBC citadel by implementing 27% reservation in 2019. Since then, the Congress has raised the pitch for greater empowerment to the OBCs, though the party still lacks strong leaders from the backward castes.
Against this political backdrop, the BJP’s gambit to rid itself of Shivraj Singh Chouhan appears fraught with grave risk. Perhaps the chief minister has also assessed the party high command’s predicament and, therefore, decided against acquiescing in its wish to fade away from the election scene.
As the polling in Madhya Pradesh is 38 days away and the candidate lists in the BJP and Congress are awaiting the end of the presumed inauspicious period of Pitr Paksh, the visible schism between the chief minister and the party high command is under close watch of political observers.
In the first list of 39 candidates, the high command gave a jolt to the chief minister by keeping him in the dark. The second list of 39 candidates that followed brought an existential crisis to the beleaguered chief minister’s political career as it contained the names of seven Members of Parliament including three Union ministers besides a national general secretary of the party.
Open field for CM aspirants
Four of them – Union ministers Narendra Singh Tomar, Prahlad Patel and Faggan Singh Kulaste and general secretary Kailash Vijayvargiya – have been harbouring the ambition to become chief minister for a long time.
Although Tomar is reticent about his ambition, his supporters are openly canvassing for him in the Dimni seat in Bhind district as potential next chief minister. Kailash Vijajvargiya, who is contesting from Indore, is not so discreet. He has openly said that the high command has not fielded him to become merely an MLA; there is a plan at a high level for his elevation.
Prahlad Patel, the BJP candidate in Narsinghpur, also considers himself in the reckoning for the top job, assuming that he is the most powerful OBC face in the party in MP in case Shivraj Sinh Chouhan is eased out. Faggan Singh Kulaste, too, is eyeing the post in the fond hope that his seniority and tribal credentials will be positively valued by the high command in the state where 47 out of 230 seats are reserved for the Scheduled Tribes. Moreover, tribals have a significant presence in at least 50 general seats as well.
Sensing the field open for the chief ministerial race, other contenders such as senior ministers Gopal Bhargava and Narottam Mishra are also said to be aspiring to throw their hats in the ring.
That is why people in the state are eager to see the format of the coming BJP’s advertisements to ascertain where Shivraj Singh stands in them vis-a-vis other contenders.