Has the BJP high command reduced Shivraj Singh Chouhan to a pariah among Chief Ministers of the BJP-ruled States after the Gujarat election? The question is being debated hotly after Chouhan returned swiftly from Gandhi Nagar on December 26 and was conspicuously absent in Shimla on December 27. All the 18 BJP Chief Ministers shared dais with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP president Amit Shah in the oath-taking ceremony of Vijay Rupani as Chief Minister on December 26. Chouhan too went there but quickly returned after presenting a bouquet to Rupani. Later, Chouhan ascribed his abrupt departure from Gandhi Nagar to his preoccupation back in Madhya Pradesh. “I returned with due permission from party president Amit Shahji as I had several pressing engagements to attend to,” Singh clarified.
However, there was hardly any important function in the State which could not have been sacrificed for him to stay on in Gandhi Nagar just a couple of hours longer.
Two days later, BJP-ruled States’ Chief Ministers gathered again at Simla to be part of Jairam Thakur’s swearing-in ceremony as Chief Minister of Himachal Pradesh. Chouhan did not turn up there. No explanation was forthcoming from his side for the absence.
Bhopal is agog with speculation whether the Chief Minister has run afoul of the BJP high command. Is the party toying with the idea of changing the horse in the midst of race to the assembly election in Madhya Pradesh due in November this year?
BJP insiders say that the Prime Minister and Amit Shah are said to be upset with the performance of the Shivraj government and want the Chief Minister to drop a few tainted ministers to atleast partially salvage the sagging reputation of the government. The Chief Minister is in a Catch-22 situation. If he obeys the high command’s bidding, the targeted ministers will create troubles for him. If he doesn’t obey, Chouhan runs the risk of being replaced. Political observers say the Chief Minister himself is solely responsible for the troubles he has landed in.
It doesn’t require great political punditry to assess how the surprising verdict in the just-concluded assembly election in Gujarat spells doom for the ruling BJP in the neighbouring State of Madhya Pradesh. From the day the Gujarat election results were out, speculation is rife that if the BJP barely managed to scrape through in the teeth of stiff Congress challenge in the land of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and party president Amit Shah, what chance does the Shivraj government stand of retaining power when it will face far more intense people’s fury in the assembly election due in November?
Amid arguments and counter-arguments about possible fate of the Shivraj government in the forthcoming assembly election, ten factors stand out, and all of them point to heavy odds staked against the BJP retaining power for a fourth time in a row in Madhya Pradesh.
Prime Minister Modi campaigned in Gujarat as though he were still its Chief Minister. He staked his prestige in the election. To retain his home State for the BJP, Modi showed no qualms in ensuring that money flowed like water and language like a gutter during the campaign. Nonetheless, it was Modi’s magic which immensely helped his party retain power, beating the 27 years of anti-incumbency.
BJP national president Amit Shah too acted like a provincial satrap, personally supervising booth management in each of the Gujarat’s 182 assembly constituencies. His fabulous poll strategy worked wonder for the party, especially in urban centres such as Surat, Ahmedabad, Vadodara and Rajkot. Rural Gujarat spurned Shah’s tactics with disdain as is evident in the poll outcome.
And yet, for all their unusual toil in the election, the Modi-Shah duo could not take the BJP tally to three digits, the lowest since the party assumed power.
Neither Modi nor Amit Shah is expected to work as hard for Shivraj in Madhya Pradesh, which will go to polls simultaneously with Rajasthan, Mizoram and Chhattisgarh. Modi, who addressed 35 rallies in Gujarat, might not be inclined to address even half-a-dozen rallies in each of these States. Likewise, Amit Shah’s resource mobilization—financial and manpower—will spread too thin in the four States to create a Gujarat magic.
In the event, Shivraj Singh will be left to his own devices to retain power in Madhya Pradesh. Does he have it in him to pull off victory on his own? That is a billion dollar question. And that brings another factor into play.
Vijay Rupani versus Chouhan
Gujarat chief minister Vijay Rupani had not completed even a year in the office when he went to people to seek mandate. Neither did he face any corruption charges. He sought votes for his government essentially on the legacy left behind by his more illustrious predecessor. It was Modi and not Rupani, who is associated with the so-called Gujarat model. Rupani was just a proxy for the Prime Minister.
In contrast, Shivraj has been chief minister for 12 out of 14 years of the BJP rule in Madhya Pradesh. Unlike, Rupani, his MP counterpart is em-broiled in innumerable scams, most notable of them being the Vyapam. He bears anti-incumbency squarely on his shoulders. In people’s perception Shivraj government is viewed as one of the most corrupt and scam-ridden State governments in India.
Urban versus rural
While more urbanised Gujarat has fewer than 70 out of 182 assembly seats in big cities, Madhya Pradesh is predominantly rural. Here out of 230 assembly seats, 170 are rural.
In Gujarat, the Congress outscored its rival BJP in rural areas, winning 56 out of 70 seats. Congress’s spectacular success is attributable to agrarian crisis. And the epicenter of the farmers’ stir was western Madhya Pradesh, adjoining Gujarat. In Mandsaur, five farmers were killed in police firing in June last year. Subsequently, violence spiraled out of the State government’s control for next 48 hours. Farmers are still angry with the BJP regime for denial of remunerative price for their produce and impatient to teach it a lesson in the coming election.
The Patidar factor
Patidars, led by their young leader Hardik Patel, turned against the BJP in Gujarat. Like in Gujarat, Patidars in Madhya Pradesh too have been BJP’s committed voters for over two decades. But they are dead set against the party after the Mandsaur firing in which four of the five persons killed in the police firing belonged to the community. Hardik has frequently visited Patidar-dominated areas in western Madhya Pradesh to mobilise his community and is likely to do so more during the campaigning for the assembly polls too.
A large swathe of western Madhya Pradesh is adversely affected by poor rehabilitation of the Sardar Sarovar Dam oustees. Over 40,000 families in 200 villages have been rendered homeless following increase of the height of the dam from 121 to 138 metres last year. The Prime Minister, on his birthday on September 17, dedicated the dam to the people, leaving the oustees high and dry. Across the Narmada valley people feel that the Chief Minister surrendered State’s interests at the altar of Gujarat’s welfare under Modi’s pressure. While all the benefits of the dam have gone to Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh has been forced to pay a heavy price in terms of its people, predominantly tribal, being displaced without proper rehabilitation.
The 27-year uninterrupted BJP rule in Gujarat had rendered the main opposition party, the Congress, rudderless. It is evident in the fact that all three top leaders of the party—Shakti Singh Gohil, Arjun Modvadia and Siddharth Patel—lost the assembly election.
In Madhya Pradesh, the Congress, though somewhat dormant, is still a force to reckon with. The Congress has presence at the grassroots level. It boasts of leaders of national level such as Kamal Nath, Digvijay Singh and Jyotiraditya Scindia. Each of these leaders has support base across the State. If the Congress puts up a united face, it can pose a formidable challenge to the BJP. Of late, the Congress has been exhibiting unity, inspiring its cadres to take on the ruling party with renewed vigour.
Chief ministerial face
The moribund Congress in Gujarat miserable failed to project a chief ministerial face. Rahul Gandhi himself had to take charge of the campaigning. Absence of credible State leadership cost the Congress dearly. In 20 seats the party lost to its rival by less than 3,000 votes. In contrast, Congress is all set to project a youthful Jyotiraditya Scindia as its chief ministerial face. This is sure to make the fight between the Congress and the BJP direct and intense.
Gujarat is one of the most industrialised States in India whereas Madhya Pradesh ranks among the lowest on this count. It is no secret that a sizeable chunk of big industrialists wanted the BJP to remain in power in Gujarat to protect their business interests. A strong corporate lobby not only generously bankrolled the BJP campaign, but also actively canvassed for the party.
Madhya Pradesh, with poor infrastructure and lack of entrepreneurial potential, holds no such promise. The last 14 years of BJP rule has witnessed precious little in terms of infrastructure and creating an atmosphere for potential industrialists to invest in the State. Unlike the famous ‘Vibrant Gujarat’, the investors’ meets organised by the Madhya Pradesh government proved infamous for tall promises and little work on the ground.
Although Hindutva has played a dominant role in keeping the BJP in power in Madhya Pradesh, people in the State are more tolerant towards minorities, particularly Muslims, than their Gujarat counterparts. Sporadic communal violence apart, people in Madhya Pradesh, by and large, tend to shun communal forces. Polarising Hindus to an extent that they forget all their other miseries caused by prolong mis-governance is harder to achieve by the BJP in Madhya Pradesh than what was possible in Gujarat.
Even after he moved to the Centre as Prime Minister three-and-a-half years ago, Modi held a strong sway on bureaucracy in Gujarat. Gujarat’s bureaucrats are known to be result-oriented under Modi’s direction. Political leadership has never allowed babus in Gujarat to dominate over governance, whether it is in policy implementation or facilitating access to the common man to welfare schemes.
MADHYA Pradesh provides an altogether different picture. Here bureaucrats rule the roost and peoples’ representatives are beholden to babus from top to bottom for getting any work done. Despite articulating their resentment over bureaucracy’s couldn’t-care-less attitude in various party fora from time to time, BJP MP and MLAs have been unsuccessful in changing the dismal scenario. The Chief Minister, for some inexplicable reasons, is seen captive of a coterie consisting of a handful of bureaucrats. The all-powerful coterie runs the show from the Chief Minister’s Office.
In all government decisions stamp of the coterie is unmistakable.
The ten factors, cited above, provide a perspective of the Shivraj government’s vulnerabilities in the context of the Gujarat verdict. However, downward slide of the government has many more reasons unrelated to the election in the neighbouring state. For, even if the BJP had done better in the Gujarat polls than it did, Shivraj’s prospects of retaining power would not have been any brighter. However, the Gujarat verdict has given much-needed impetus to a resurgent Congress to go for Chouhan’s jugular in Madhya Pradesh with greater enthusiasm.
Two by-elections for Kolaras and Mungawali assembly seats in coming days are crucial for both the BJP and the Congress. Both the seats fell vacant due to the death of Congress MLAs who were staunch supporters of Jyotiraditya Scindia. The seats fall under Scindia’s Guna parliamentary constituency. In the two recent assembly by-elections—in Ater in Bhind district and Chitrakoot in Satna district—the Congress defeated the BJP despite the Chief Minister’s vigorous campaigning and amid allegations of gross misuse of official machinery.
For the coming by-polls too, the BJP is leaving no stone unturned to ensure its victory even though notification for polling is yet to be issued.