Welcoming Jyotiraditya Scindia into the BJP in March at a function in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan had called his new party colleague ‘Vibhishan’. The appellation, straight out of the Ramayana in which Vibhishan betrays his brother Ravan to side with Lord Ram, led many to wonder if Chouhan meant it as a compliment or a taunt. The political din over Chouhan’s remark soon died down as focus shifted to his poor handling of the coronavirus pandemic, which gripped the state soon after he assumed office for a record fourth term.
Over 100 days later, as he finally managed to expand his cabinet—the first five-member cabinet was formed on April 21—Chouhan signalled that he had moved on from the lessons of Ramayana to the battlefield of the Mahabharata. Curiously though, Chouhan’s rival in the political battle in M.P seems to be his newly acquired colleague, Scindia, and not the Congress party. If machinations in Bhopal are anything to go by, Chouhan seems to be mired in a more intricate chakravyuh than the one his predecessor, Kamal Nath, had been trapped into by Scindia.
That Scindia, who helped the BJP topple Nath’s Congress-led government in March, would demand his pound of flesh soon enough was expected. What has, however, surprised many is the tough bargain that Scindia, now a BJP Rajya Sabha MP, has been striking with his party and the high political price Chouhan is being made to pay for the power-sharing deal. The signs of strain have already begun to show on Chouhan.
On July 1, a day before his cabinet’s expansion, when he returned to Bhopal after spending three harrowing days in Delhi, unsuccessfully trying to get his party’s central leadership and Scindia to endorse his ministerial nominees, the CM made no secret of his exasperation. “Samundra manthan se amrit nikalta hai aur Shiv vish pi jaate hain”, (the churning of the ocean throws up elixir while Lord Shiv drinks the poison) Chouhan said, hinting at the widening fault-lines.
The next day, as 20 cabinet ministers and eight ministers of state were administered oath of office at Raj Bhawan by Governor Anandiben Patel, the full import of Chouhan’s statement became clear. Factoring in the five cabinet ministers inducted in April, the induction of 28 new ministers had exhausted the 34-berth-limit for the state’s council of ministers, leaving Chouhan with no room to accommodate possible dissenters within the BJP in the near future. Complicating matters further for Chouhan, 14 of his cabinet colleagues owe their allegiance to Scindia, while several BJP veterans inducted as ministers are known intra-party rivals of the CM.
“Chouhan may still be the captain but he has had to compromise in a big way on selecting his team,” a close confidante of the CM tells Outlook, adding that “the present cabinet gives the impression of Scindia being the super CM and that the central leadership wants to destabilise its own CM through his rivals within the party.”
For Chouhan, the tough balancing act of appeasing BJP veterans, while keeping Scindia in good humour by inducting a large chunk of his loyalists as ministers did not end with the cabinet expansion. At the time of going to press—a full week since the expansion—Chouhan had failed to allocate portfolios to the ministers despite spending another long weekend in Delhi, trying to get the central leadership and Scindia to vet his choices. Sources say that after cornering a lion’s share of ministerial berths for his loyalists, Scindia is now haggling for major portfolios to be assigned to his coterie. “Scindia wants key ministries like rural development, power, irrigation, revenue and PWD. If Chouhan is forced to accept this demand, what will he be left with to offer senior BJP ministers like Narottam Mishra, Gopal Bhargava, Vijay Shah, Yashodhara Raje and others? By accepting Scindia’s every demand, the BJP leadership is making Chouhan—a fourth term CM—look weak and helpless,” a senior BJP MLA who was left out of the cabinet tells Outlook.
The BJP’s rationale for being extremely accommodating towards Scindia is that it needs his support to wrest the 24 assembly seats up for by-elections in the state in September. Of these 24, 22 are seats that fell vacant after Scindia’s loyalists resigned from the assembly and the Congress.
There is also a clear message for Chouhan—he can’t rely on the unstinted support of the leadership as he did when L.K. Advani still held sway over the party. BJP sources say the present leadership of Narendra Modi and Amit Shah “tolerated Chouhan because he was seen as a leader who could keep MP in the BJP’s kitty, but the 2019 assembly poll defeat broke that impression, making him dispensable”. A section of the state BJP leadership also believes that a larger plot has now been put in motion by the central leadership to “clip Chouhan’s wings and prop up an alternative leadership in the state”. Curiously though, no one in the party believes that Scindia would replace Chouhan “any time in the future” and that “agreeing to whatever Scindia wants is certainly a present necessity but not one that will always be relevant”.
Since the cabinet expansion, Scindia has been holding virtual meetings with supporters and party workers in the seats bound for bypolls. In his speeches he is already putting himself at par with Chouhan, telling supporters that they have to choose between Chouhan and him on one side and Congress leaders Kamal Nath and Digvijaya Singh on the other. Soon after the cabinet expansion, Scindia had also addressed BJP workers in Bhopal, launching a scathing attack against Nath and Singh. “Tiger abhi zinda hai”, Scindia had said, mocking Congress leaders who have been taunting him for his betrayal. Singh was quick to retort—“Madhavrao Scindia (Jyotiraditya Scindia’s father) and I used to hunt tigers”. Nath too shot back, asking whether Scindia was a “paper tiger or a circus tiger”.
Chouhan, meanwhile, has been busy staving off rebellion from his own partymen who are upset at being denied ministerial berths because of ‘Scindia ke mantri’. Ajay Vishnoi, senior BJP MLA from Jabalpur’s Patan constituency and a former minister, has shot off a letter to Chouhan, complaining that the new cabinet doesn’t adequately represent the Mahakaushal region. Other BJP warhorses like Gauri Shanker Bisen and Rajendra Shukla, too, are upset at being left out of the cabinet.
The Congress, predictably, is making no secret of its jubilation at the discontent brewing within the BJP old guard because of Scindia and his herd of followers. Congress general secretary Mukul Wasnik met Nath, Digvijaya Singh and other leaders in Bhopal over the weekend to discuss possible candidates and the strategy for the upcoming bypolls.
The 14 For Scindia
Tulsi Silawat, Govind Singh Rajput (the two Scindia loyalists were inducted in the mini-cabinet formed in April)
Mahendra Singh Sisodia, Imarti Devi, Prabhuram Chaudhary, Pradyuman Singh Tomar (like Silawat and Rajput, they were ministers in the Kamal Nath regime too), Rajvardhan Dattigaon, Brijendra Singh Yadav, Giriraj Dandotiya, Suresh Dhakad and
Bisahulal Singh, Endal Singh Kansana and Hardeep Dang (the three former MLAs weren’t Scindia loyalists but had quit the Congress because Kamal Nath didn’t make them ministers).