After a 15-month interlude, the BJP maneouvered its way back to power in Madhya Pradesh on March 23 with Shivraj Singh Chouhan sworn in for the fourth time as chief minister. That the BJP’s return to power in the state it ruled for 15 years from 2003 to 2018 was not on the back of a popular mandate but one aided by rebellion within the Congress is public knowledge. Earlier this month, erstwhile Gwalior royal Jyotiraditya Scindia ditched the Congress to join the BJP and triggered a rebellion by loyal MLAs against Chouhan’s predecessor, Kamal Nath.
For nearly a fortnight, Nath and Congress veteran Digvijaya Singh made desperate efforts to win back the rebels. Singh, along with a dozen party leaders and ministers in the Nath government, went to Bangalore to “rescue the legislators held captive by the BJP” at a resort but was detained by the Karnataka police. Governor Lalji Tandon demanded that Nath prove his majority through a floor test in the Vidhan Sabha but the CM dithered, arguing that the 22 MLAs must first return to Bhopal. The now familiar Supreme Court intervention for destabilising an incumbent government on the ground that it had lost confidence was sought. Nath’s time ran out.
There is no denying that for the crisis-hit Congress, the loss of its government in MP—and frontline leader Jyotiraditya—is a twin blow. Yet, within the party’s state leadership, the heartburn over losing hard-earned power aside, there are also muffled whispers about the “possible long-term benefits” of the loss. Likewise, within the BJP, under the loud cheers of victory, there is disquiet over the “many compromises” that Chouhan and the party may be forced to make and how difficult it may be for the leadership to “strike a balance between old loyalists and new entrants.” The common factor between these myriad feelings is Jyotiraditya.
“For Chouhan, the real test begins now. During nearly 13 years that he was chief minister before 2018, he had managed to rein in dissenters within the state BJP who saw his popularity eclipsing their own political mobility. Now, he will have to tread more cautiously because his party heavyweights from the Gwalior-Chambal region—some of whom are his rivals—will not want to play second fiddle to Jyotiraditya,” says Bhopal-based political commentator Rakesh Dixit.
The chief minister’s immediate challenge will be in forming his council of ministers. Six of the 22 Congress rebels who helped topple the Congress government and are now in the BJP were cabinet ministers under Nath. Can Chouhan accommodate all of them with cabinet berths? Of these former ministers, at least four are from the Gwalior-Chambal region. If Chouhan brings them into the cabinet, can he ignore ministerial berths to the BJP veterans including Jyotiraditya’s aunt, Yashodhara Raje Scindia, who held important portfolios in the earlier Chouhan government and represent the Gwalior-Chambal division? Even when machinations were still on to topple Nath’s government, BJP veteran Narottam Mishra, sources say, was lobbying for the post of deputy chief minister if Chouhan returns as the CM.
“I have been an MLA for 40 years and have never lost an election. Even when the BJP had only two seats in Parliament, I had won my assembly seat. I am not in politics for power but I hope the party will keep my record in mind to decide what responsibility I should get,” Bhargava tells Outlook. Chouhan may be able to hold off Jyotiraditya’s pressure for ministerial berths for his loyalists on the ground that they must spend the next few months in their constituencies to explain to their voters the reasons for quitting the Congress. The 22 legislators have resigned from the state assembly and bypolls will be held for their constituencies over the next six months. Besides these 22 seats, there were also vacancies in the Vidhan Sabha on account of the death of two elected BJP members.
In the Vidhan Sabha, the BJP currently has 107 MLAs while the Congress, which had won 114 seats in 2018, is left with 92 members after the resignation of the 22 rebels. The current half-way mark of 103 seats gives the BJP a slender but comfortable majority for now, along with the possible support of seven legislators who won independently or on BSP and SP tickets. However, results of the bypolls to 24 constituencies could significantly impact the stability of the Chouhan government if the BJP doesn’t win a bulk of the seats.
“The MLAs who resigned had sought votes against the BJP in 2018 and were elected because of the promises the Congress made. With what face will they now go to the people and explain the betrayal?” asks Laxman Singh, Congress legislator from Chachoura and younger brother of Digvijaya Singh. The Chachoura MLA also expressed confidence of the Congress’s return to power within six months.
BJP leaders concede that the party will have to walk a tightrope. “Even assuming that we give tickets to all rebels, will they all win? Some of them defeated our senior leaders in 2018. Will these veterans work for the newcomers? There is bound to be some sabotage. If we field the veterans again, the rebels may get disillusioned and start working against the BJP,” says a senior BJP leader.
In the 2018 polls, BJP veterans Rustam Singh, Lal Singh Arya, Jaibhan Singh Pawaiya, Ramlal Rautel and Rakesh Shukla were defeated by Jyotiraditya loyalists. Of these, Pawaiya has been the fiercest critic of not just Jyotiraditya and his father, the late Madhavrao Scindia, but of the entire Gwalior royal family. A former Bajrang Dal leader with strong bonds in the Sangh Parivar, Pawaiya tells Outlook that “Jyotiraditya is welcome in the BJP but must work like an ordinary karyakarta now… we will not treat him like a maharaj, he has to earn his place”. The BJP will also need to pacify Guna parliamentarian K.P. Singh Yadav who defeated Jyotiraditya in the Lok Sabha polls. A former confidante of Jyotiraditya, Yadav had switched to the BJP in 2017.
There is yet another challenge that the BJP may find difficult to navigate. Over the past 15 months, Chouhan and his colleagues had vociferously alleged that the Nath regime was corrupt and a lot of the allegations centered on portfolios that were held by the six Jyotiraditya loyalists. Now that these loyalists are in the BJP, can Chouhan afford to have the alleged scams—particularly in Nath’s scheme of combating food adulteration which was piloted by Tulsi Silavat’s ministry—investigated?
Nath has, for now, said he would stick to state politics and ensure that the “welfare schemes started by our government are continued by the BJP” and that steps taken by the new government out of political vendetta will be resisted. Congress sources say the party also plans to launch a campaign soon to inform the electorate of “the good work that the Nath government did in 15 months and how the BJP used money and muscle to topple the government”. Much of the responsibility of reviving the Congress now, say sources, will lie on Digvijaya Singh, whose area of political influence includes the Gwalior region.
Irrespective of what may become of the Congress’s plans, Chouhan’s second coming is not expected to be as smooth as his earlier chief ministerial stint which continued uninterrupted for nearly 13 years despite personal allegations of his alleged involvement in the Vyapam scam and the state’s thriving sand mining mafia.