Chouhan mini-cabinet shows power shift in MP

BHOPAL: The composition of the five-member cabinet appointed by chief minister Shivraj S. Chouhan on April 21 more than a month after taking charge shows he may not be given the free hand in running the state as during his previous three terms.

The cabinet expansion came after mounting criticism on the untenability of a state being run by a lone ranger, especially during a global health emergency caused by the unstoppable spread of the Chinese #coronavirus. Chouhan’s argument that since his mind was focused on fighting the disease, cabinet formation would have to wait till the lockdown was lifted found no takers. Eighty people have so far died of the infection in Madhya Pradesh, two policemen included. A sizeable number infected are government officials.

Cynics promptly labelled Chouhan’s team as the COVID-cabinet, the pun being on the “infected” nature of the selection. Two of the five ministers are loyalists of Jyotiraditya Scindia – hardened Congressmen, who like their political master, are alien to the BJP’s ideological grounding. A minimum of 6-8 more men from the Scindia camp will have to be made ministers in the second round of cabinet expansion. This, of course, depends on how many of the 22 defecting legislators who stood shoulder to shoulder with the ‘maharaj’ to oust the shaky Kamal Nath regime end up being reelected in the by-polls. The prospect of all 22 being winning their seats again is unlikely given the discontent among the BJP’s own chieftains in the Gwalior region at the manner in which a band of defectors have muscled their way through at their expense. The situation is fraught with consequences — enough to spring a few rude surprises.

This, in fact, is the first BJP government in MP which will have to be run on factional considerations like the Congress. Both Chouhan and Scindia will have to ensure that at least 15-16 of the 22 Congress rebels get reelected. The BJP needs a minimum of nine more seats to ratchet up a majority of 116 in a House of 230. However, a comfortable innings will require a few more. Four-five more will be the fine line between stability and volatility.

A few things were evident from the nature of ministerial appointments. One, the names were dictated by Delhi; two, the man Chouhan loves to taunt as an outdated royal will be breathing down his neck till the next assembly poll in the winter of 2023; and three, that the CM now has a virtual deputy with a hotline to the party high command, both JP Nadda, the party boss, as well as the supra-boss, Amit Shah, the Union home minister.

Clearly, the ace in Chouhan’s cabinet is 60-year-old Narottam Mishra who has been given both the home and health portfolio. Mishra is a five-time MLA from Datia in the Gwalior region. He has been a minister in every cabinet since the BJP stormed to power in MP in 2003 barring a brief spell when he came under a cloud, and was kept out of reckoning. Chouhan and he are not enemies, but not chums either.

Mishra, in fact, would have been CM were it not for lack of loyalists in the current crop of BJP legislators. Most are Chouhan’s men since ticket distribution in the 2018 assembly poll was in his hands. This is the single biggest factor which compelled Shah and Nadda to bring Chouhan back. Foisting Mishra, their clear choice, would have sown the seeds of dissension, and endangered the BJP’s by-poll prospects. Winning them tops the party’s agenda since the government’s survival depends on it.

Which, of course, does not mean that Mishra will reconcile himself to being Chouhan’s factotum as in earlier tenures. He is competent, shrewd, and calculating. Chouhan’s weakness is his strength. Indications are that he will be unrelenting in his power play to keep the CM under pressure, and report his failings to Delhi.

The two other ministers picked at the behest of Delhi too have no love lost for Chouhan. One, Kamal Patel, is a Jat with an old grouse against the people’s mama ji.  Patel is a five-time MLA from Harda as well as a former minister who owes his loyalty to the BJP’s overlord in the Malwa region, Kailash Vijaywargiya, currently national general secretary. Vijaywargiya would ordinarily have liked one of his loyalists from Indore made minister. But since Scindia’s blue-eyed boy, Tulsi Silawat, had to be accommodated, he settled for Patel whose constituency is part of the Narmadapuram belt. Silawat, on his part, is a four-time MLA from Sanwer near Indore. He was health minister in the Kamal Nath regime, and the main architect of his downfall. He has been given charge of water resources this once.

The other minister is Meena Singh Mandve, a tribal from Manpur in Shahdol district. An athlete and student leader, she has been repeatedly elected since 1996. She was minister of state for tribal affairs during the short-lived Uma Bharti regime in 2003-04, but consigned to cold storage by Chouhan. She too is no ally of the CM.

Chouhan’s efforts to get his man friday, ex-home minister Bhupendra Singh, representing the Sagar region also had to sacrificed at the altar of Scindia’s interests. Here a political lightweight, Govind Singh Rajput, had to be conciliated solely due to his proximity to Scindia. Rajput is a three-time MLA from the Surkhi seat.

The limited freedom Chouhan was allowed was in the portfolio distribution. Scindia would ordinarily have sought more important portfolios for his two-time servers, Silawat and Rajput. Water resources and food and civil supplies were come downs from their previous assignments. Chouhan, however, had his way in the apportionment of responsibilities. Which is just as well. The current thinking in the BJP is to give Scindia as long a rope as necessary, but not entirely surrender to his demands. Only time will tell how the equation works.

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About the Author

Sudhir Kumar Singh
Sudhir Kumar Singh is an independent journalist who has worked in senior editorial positions in the Times Of India, Asian Age, Pioneer, and the Statesman. Also a sometime stage and film actor who has worked with iconic directors like Satyajit Ray and Tapan Sinha. He writes regularly for the HinduPost as consulting editor.