Politics in Madhya Pradesh has seldom been more interesting since the BJP stormed to power at the fag end of 2003. It lost by a whisker in 2018, but managed to return 15 months later clinging to the coat-tails of Jyotiraditya Scindia. His defection along with 22 Congress MLAs, 19 of whom are hardcore loyalists, helped the party topple the tottering Kamal Nath regime this March.
Tiger abhi zinda hai, said the Corona conquering Scindia, after the long overdue cabinet expansion on July 2nd in which 28 new ministers were added to the existing six. Fourteen of the 34 now owe fealty to him. Quite apart from rubbing some more salt to the wounds of his old rivals in the dynastic Congress, the remark also sought to remind chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan that the mantle of ‘tiger’ had now passed on to him. Deference to the interests of the maharaja whom he had pitted himself against in the 2018 campaign thus held the key to the ministry’s survival. It was Chouhan, after all, who had first mouthed the dialogue from a Salman Khan starrer to caution the Congress last year that he was still around despite being out of power.
Chouhan was well aware of his plight from the very first day of reassuming command. So much so that he tweeted his pain a day before the cabinet expansion: “Aaye thhe aap humdard bann kar, rah gaye kewal rahjan ban kar” (You joined us to help, but morphed into a pillager). Rahjan in Hindi means a musafir or traveler, but if a traveler divests fellow travelers off their belongings, he is guilty of raahjani or plunder. What Chouhan obviously meant was that Scindia, the rahjan, was guilty of raahjani.
The self-pitying tweet evoked sardonic smiles within the rank and file of the BJP given the manner in which Chouhan had cold shouldered his rivals during his 13-year rule, surrounding himself with self-serving incompetents. Adding to his mortification was the failure to procure ministerial berths for any of his loyalists save one. Both the new state BJP president, VD Sharma, as well as the general secretary (organization), Suhas Bhagat, who reports to the RSS put their foot down on the need to replace tired and old faces with newer ones. Chouhan made light of the situation by saying that it was Shiv’s destiny to swallow the poison emerging from the ocean churn while letting others savor the amrit (ambrosia).
The starkest irony, however, is that 41 per cent of Chouhan’s cabinet comprises former Congress MLAs who have become ministers without being elected. It is difficult to recall if defectors ever held such overwhelming sway in any other BJP ruled state. Even among his own party’s ministers, Chouhan is no longer supreme. One of them, Narottam Mishra, was hoping to be deputy CM. Proximity to party bosses in Delhi coupled with his enhanced clout will enable him to breathe down Chouhan’s neck, and act as Delhi’s informer.
With 12 ministers belonging to the Gwalior-Chambal belt, even the regional distribution of ministerial berths is visibly slanted in Scindia’s favor. The desire to humor the maharaja compelled the BJP to lower the representation from Bhopal-Indore to just nine. Other areas like Vindhya, Bundelkhand, Mahakaushal, and Madhya Bharat had to make do with 3-4 each.
Attention now shifts to the by-elections in which Scindia will have to ensure that most, if not all, his 19 loyalists get re-elected. Sixteen of them belong to the Gwalior region. Old rivals Kamal Nath and Digvijay Singh will do their best to upset his applecart. Trotted out will be the familiar argument that none of the deserters deserve to win given their role in pulling down the Nath regime, howsoever shaky and decrepit. Bypolls will actually be held in 24 constituencies. Three of the 22 Congress MLAs who joined the BJP along with Scindia’s 19 were disaffected for their own reasons. The royal rebellion proved a godsend.
The BJP has 107 seats in a House of 230. Basically, the party needs just 8-10 seats to stay in power with a comfortable majority for the rest of the term. State polls are not due before November 2023. Chouhan’s own survival, however, will depend on his ability to ensure the party’s victory in most of the 24 seats. To that extent the mini state poll will be as much his test as Scindia’s. Disinterest in getting the former Congress legislators to win could cost him his chair. Working in the maharaja’s interest is a bitter bill Chouhan will just have to swallow. On him also devolves the task of checking the dissidence within. Predictably enough, the Gwalior unit of the BJP is distinctly unhappy at the manner in which a bunch of Congress renegades have muscled their way in and snapped up ministerial berths making mincemeat of their own ambitions.
Chouhan’s antecedents as an Advani faithful have never endeared him to the Modi-Shah brigade. There was stiff opposition to his reappointment as CM. The absence of any other leader with a mass connect and the desperate need to win a few more extra seats to stay in power compelled the party to give him the job a fourth time.
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