Nearly a month after he was sworn-in as chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, Shivraj Singh Chouhan is likely to form his council of ministers by April 20, sources have told Outlook. Chouhan has already begun deliberating a preliminary blue print of his cabinet with his BJP colleagues in the state and is likely to hold discussions with the central leadership over the next few day.
Chouhan's move comes amid mounting criticism of his shoddy handling of the coronavirus pandemic in the state over the past fortnight. The state has recorded over 500 confirmed Covid-19 cases and lost 43 lives to the deadly virus. Despite the health pandemic, the state has no health minister or ministers for other key portfolios like finance, home or food and public distribution - all key departments to manage the immediate fallout of the health crisis. Earlier this week, Congress MP Vivek Tankha had written to President Ram Nath Kovind, stating that the administrative situation in the state is untenable and President's Rule should be imposed if the chief minister is incapable of forming a cabinet. Former chief minister Kamal Nath, too, had launched a tirade against Chouhan, asserting that the state had no health minister despite a catastrophic health emergency.
Chouhan had taken oath as chief minister on March 23, three days after Nath was forced to resign when 22 Congress legislators switched to the BJP. Ever since, Chouhan has been running the government without a council of ministers; entirely at the mercy of his bureaucracy. Practically, the entire staff of the state's public health department is presently indisposed as several of its officials have tested Covid-19 positive, forcing them to either be admitted to hospitals or be placed under self-quarantine.
The key reason behind Chouhan's inability to form his cabinet has been the circumstances which manoeuvred him back to the chief minister's chair for a fourth term following a 15-month hiatus. Considering that the BJP managed to topple Nath's Congress-led government because of the defection of 22 legislators from the Grand Old Party, Chouhan must now keep these new entrants within the saffron ranks happy. Doing so has proven to be a tough balancing act for Chouhan.
A majority of these 22 former legislators are loyalists of Jyotiraditya Scindia, who had orchestrated their rebellion against Nath. Scindia quit the Congress on March 9, joined the BJP two days later, and was instantly rewarded with a Rajya Sabha nomination by the party. Though the coronavirus outbreak led to the Rajya Sabha polls being postponed indefinitely, Scindia has an assurance of his personal political interests being taken care of by the BJP. However, he also wants his loyalists to be suitably rewarded for betraying the Congress and this is where things have become tricky for Chouhan.
Of the 22 former legislators, six Scindia loyalists - Tulsi Silavat, Govind Singh Rajput, Prabhuram Chaudhary, Imarti Devi, Pradyuman Singh and Mahendra Singh Sisodia - were ministers in the Nath government. Chouhan, say sources, has agreed to accommodate all six into his new cabinet. Aside from these Scindia loyalists, the BJP has also assured ministerial berths to former Congress legislators Bisahulal Singh, Aidal Singh Kansana and Hardeep Dang. Of the two BSP and one SP legislator who have extended support to Chouhan's government, sources say one MLA will have to be accommodated in the council of ministers. As per this formula, it appears Chouhan has already committed 10 ministerial berths to the new entrants.
The council of ministers in M.P cannot exceed a strength of 34. According to sources, Chouhan may not exhaust all ministerial berths while forming his cabinet later this month, and will keep at least 10 slots empty, in a bid to offer them to other legislators who may play truant at a later stage. Having committed 10 berths to new entrants, a majority of them Congress imports, Chouhan will need to tread cautiously while including old BJP warhorses in his cabinet.
"The toughest challenge for him will be to strike a reasonable balance in managing regional representation and keeping the egos and aspirations of the legislators in check. His government doesn't have a clear majority and any wrong move can trigger a rebellion," a state BJP leader told Outlook.
Striking a perfect balance, while ensuring regional representation in his cabinet, will be a task easier said than done for the chief minister. A majority of the legislators, who defected from the Congress to the BJP last month, come from regions where the BJP already has leaders who are in line for ministerial positions. These legislators also have to be re-elected to the Assembly in bypolls later this year as they had resigned from the Vidhan Sabha when they defected to the BJP.
Silavat hails from the Malwa region where the BJP has ministerial hopefuls in Mahendra Hardia and Usha Thakur. Similarly, from the Sagar division, while Scindia's demand for including Rajput in the cabinet has been accepted by Chouhan, the chief minister will have to also accomodate his former ministerial colleagues Gopal Bhargava and Bhupendra Singh, the latter had also played a key role in toppling Nath's government while Bhargava was the leader of Opposition in the M.P Assembly.
From the Gwalior-Chambal division, Scindia loyalists Pradyuman Singh, Mahendra Singh Sisodia and Imarti Devi's induction into the cabinet will also disproportionately increase the region's representation, as Chouhan will also have to induct BJP veteran Narottam Mishra, who is hoping to be named the deputy chief minister. Jyotiraditya's aunt and senior BJP MLA Yashodhara Raje also comes from the Gwalior region; she was a minister in the earlier Chouhan cabinets and is in no mood to sacrifice her ministerial berth for the new entrants.
Sources say Chouhan may try to keep some Congress defectors out of the cabinet by promising them chairmanship of different boards and corporations. Whether these former legislators agree to such a formula remains to be seen. Here too, the task may not be easy for Chouhan to execute as BJP legislators left out of the cabinet would lobby for these positions.
A section within the state BJP believes that Chouhan should accommodate in his council only the six Scindia loyalists who were ministers in the Nath cabinet and tell the other new entrants that their induction would be incumbent on their successful re-election to the Assembly in the forthcoming by-polls. However, this would only complicate matters for Chouhan, since Bisahulal Singh, Hardeep Dang and Aidal Singh Kansana had all agreed to switch to the BJP because they were reportedly unhappy at being excluded from Nath's cabinet.
Another formula that Chouhan seems to be working on is to have a very tiny cabinet inducted for now to fill ministerial positions in the portfolios of finance, home, health, food and public distribution. In such a scenario, two to three representatives each of the Scindia camp and the BJP veterans may be accommodated for now and the rest once the coronavirus crisis begins to abate, say sources. For the intervening period, Chouhan may set up a task force comprising both BJP veterans and the new entrants to tackle the pandemic - and also negotiate the tricky political maze he has landed himself in because of the BJP's desperation to form a government in MP.