At the centre of this Madhya Pradesh election, and yet not at its centre, is the figure of Shivraj Singh Chouhan. Chief Minister for four terms, the longest serving BJP CM, but no longer its chief ministerial candidate. In a large and sprawling state segmented by well-defined regions, Chouhan remains the state BJP’s only pan-MP leader. But this time in the poll fray, there are abundant signs of Chouhan shrinking.
These signs tell a larger story about the BJP’s multi-layered challenge this time in MP – it must ensure that voter resentment and restlessness born of a long incumbency is contained, that it doesn’t spill over to the Lok Sabha contest in 2024, while keeping ahead of the Congress that has been closing the gap and managing the toll that long years in power have taken on the party organisation. These are inter-related imperatives – for the BJP, facing the people is inextricably linked to addressing the wear and tear within.
This is especially so for a party that treats every election also as a test of “prabandhan” (management), and revels in myth-making about its formidable election-fighting machine. In this project of repairing and rallying, Chouhan the champion has become the also-ran.
With the high command pulling strings, the BJP poster in this election has 12 faces, Chouhan one among them, as Narendra Modi looms over the rest. For the first time, five pre-poll “jan ashirwad yatras” were led by different party leaders in the state, as opposed to one CM-led yatra ahead of earlier elections. As many as seven MPs, including three Union Ministers, and one party general secretary have been fielded this time in the state arena, and party workers and leaders brought in from other states have fanned out across MP’s districts and constituencies on a never-before scale.
In Bhopal, a senior leader of the central BJP terms it “collective leadership”. In Indore, MP’s showpiece city, justifiably proud of its distinctive successes in urban governance, especially sanitation, BJP Mayor Pushyamitra Bhargav’s poll-eve press conference is sprinkled with “national” issues starring Modi.
At the BJP media centre, posters advertising government schemes claim “MP ke mann mein Modi”, and Mayor Bhargav says: “JNU se pro-Hamas rally nikalti hai… Congress CWC resolution condemns attack on Israel…” Later, he talks about India’s journey to the Moon and the war in Russia-Ukraine. Lok Sabha MP Shankar Lalwani does not mention CM Chouhan either and says: “Indore has benefited from the double engine sarkar… Our leader is Modi.”
And in Chhindwara, former Bihar deputy CM Sushil Modi, deputed by the party to the MP district, says: “We have come here not to ask for votes, but for effective coordination, to gear up the working at the booths and to placate party workers who are unhappy.”
Behind the veneer provided by the central takeover, and propelling it arguably, is a BJP in search of a new equilibrium in MP – what senior Congress leader and former MP CM Digvijaya Singh has colourfully labelled as a contest between the “Shivraj BJP”, “Maharaj BJP” and “Naraaz BJP” (the “Maharaj” a reference to Jyotiraditya Scindia and his defecting band of MLAs who brought down the Congress government and installed the BJP in power in 2020).
There is some truth to what he says. Their impact on the final electoral tally may or may not be decisive, but on the MP road in this election, there are several illustrations of the BJP vs BJP.
To some extent, it is unsurprising, even inevitable, for a party that has been in power for as long as the BJP has in MP to have to douse fires within. Those denied tickets in this election, and their supporters, need to be rallied and enthused, and clashes of factions and ambitions defused within.
But the BJP in MP is also roiled by stronger currents.
In Bhopal, a state party veteran, who does not want to be named, uses a term that one hears again and again in conversations with and about the state BJP – the basic problem, he says, is the relegation of the “dari bichchane wale aur jhanda uthane wale (those who have worked and sacrificed for the party).”
A party that boasted of being primarily worker-based, he says, especially in a stronghold like MP, is being made dependent on its leaders or netas, many of whom are from outside the ideological fold. “The jod-tod (machinations) of the Scindia episode did not go down well with the committed workers”, and the government that came to power after his defection was seen to be dependent on a “mercy mandate”, not the “public mandate”, he says.
While at one end the BJP’s aam worker is said to feel neglected and ignored, at the other end, a section is seen to have arrogated too much power to itself – a middle level of power brokers may be alienating other supporters of the party.
You can hear anger against the BJP’s “chhutbhaiyye” (small-time leaders) on the MP street. In Rehti tehsil in the CM’s home district of Sehore, Santosh Chauhan says, “We have always supported the BJP. But we don’t like the local leaders, nor those who are coming in from outside. We are not angry with Shivraj or Modi, but with the local BJP”. Says Rohit Maheshwari, “Mama toh mahaan hain, chamchon se pareshan hain (Shivraj is fine, but not his stooges)”.
In a lonely dhaba off the road that winds into Betul district from Khandwa, flanked by forests on both sides, Anup Pardhe, who both cooks and serves and describes himself as a BJP supporter “shuru se” (from the beginning), expresses a similar sentiment. “We cannot reach the leaders, our access stops at the chamchas and vidhayak ke kareebi (lackeys of the MLA), who do manmaani and dadagiri (act wilfully).” His co-worker Rajesh Jaiswal shrugs off the criticism and says that he will continue to vote BJP because “chhoti moti galtiyan toh hoti hain (small mistakes will be made) … rashtra hit (national interest) … sena (army)… Ram mandir ke liye Modi… (for Ram Mandir, Modi)”.
But Anup cannot forgive or forget that in a nearby village, the BJP MLA’s henchmen forcefully disrupted a marriage ceremony. “The boy belonged to an SC caste, the girl was ST. They are adults, it was their choice. You (BJP) have the power, you should have listened to both sides…” This time, he says, he will vote for a third party that has put up a candidate in his constituency.
The road from Bhopal to Chhindwara, passing through Indore, Khargone and Khandwa, is also strewn with BJP leaders’ rags-to-riches stories. The BJP worker who travelled by cycle and was burdened by debt became an MLA and then a wealthy hotelier – it’s one among many stories that stoke resentment and envy.
The saga of BJP vs BJP rests on the uneasy shoulders of Chouhan in another crucial way.
Over his four terms in power, and especially in the last term, a fundamental discontent festered within the BJP: Chouhan is seen to have privileged the prashasan (administration) over the party.
In Bhopal, a former chief secretary talks about the different phases of CM Chouhan: “In his first term, he was the ‘paanv paanv wale bhaiyya’ (from a humble background), learning the ropes, he knew poverty and suffering… By the time he became CM on the back of Congress defections, he had changed, become more dependent on a bunch of bureaucrats. The current chief secretary has already got two extensions, and is up for a third. It’s unprecedented.”
In Khargone, former BJP MLA Babulal Mahajan explains what Chouhan’s growing dependence on a set of chosen bureaucrats has meant: “Karyakartaon ke kaam nahin hue (workers’ demands were not attended to)… Earlier, BJP workers assembled the crowds for the CM’s programmes, and in the process they went to the people, personal contact was established… Now, Collectors were asked to arrange audiences, they filled the stands with gram sevaks and ASHA workers… The worker feels sidelined, used only in the election.”
And in the BJP office in Chhindwara, Sheshrao Yadav, member of the state working committee, says with a bitterness barely concealed: “Itna bas kiya ki Collector se bhashan nahin dilwa diya (at least the Collector was not asked to also make the speeches)”.
Basically, the story goes, the gap between the sangathan and prashasan, party and administration, has grown in MP, the latter being privileged at the cost of the former. Perhaps sensing his own weakening, CM Chouhan, the genial Mamaji, made attempts at an image makeover – last year in Khargone, for instance, by borrowing from the playbook of a BJP CM from a neighbouring state.
In April 2022, after incidents of arson and stone-pelting on a Ramnavami procession, Chouhan, a la Yogi Adityanath in UP, presided over the short-circuiting of due process and rule of law in the perpetrating of an irreversible and collective form of punishment by the state – several homes were demolished, using the fig leaf of illegal constructions, in Muslim localities.
Chouhan’s stratagem may come to his rescue in this election. Or not. It could even contribute, instead, to his by-passing: “Yahan sampradayik maahaul hai (the atmosphere is communally-charged),” says ex-MLA Mahajan in Khargone. “Hamne maange hain Yogi (We have asked for Yogi to campaign here).”
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