While welcoming Jyotiraditya Scindia into the BJP in March at a function in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan had famously described his new party colleague as 'Vibhishan'. The appellation, straight out of the Ramayana in which Vibhishan betrays his brother Ravan and sides with Lord Ram, was a backhanded compliment to Scindia.
Over 100 days after Scindia paved the way for Chouhan's return as Chief Minister for a record fourth term in MP, the Gwalior royal is proving to be no less a 'Vibhishan' within the BJP ranks too. Chouhan, however, isn't keen on drawing the Ramayana analogy this time round.
On Wednesday, amid reports that the Chief Minister will finally expand his current five-member cabinet on Thursday, Chouhan drew another parallel from Hindu mythology to explain the choppy political waters he has had to navigate while selecting his ministerial colleagues.
"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 told reporters. The comment is being viewed in Bhopal's political circles as a definite indicator of Chouhan's unease over the cabinet expansion exercise which has now been in the making since April 21 when he had belatedly formed a five-member mini cabinet in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.
The reasons for the long delay in finalising the cabinet blueprint, sources say, was Scindia's demand for ministerial berths for at least nine of his loyalist MLAs who had quit the Congress in March to join the BJP, thereby toppling the Kamal Nath government just 15 months after it came to power. The former Congress leader who was elected to the Rajya Sabha as a BJP MP earlier this month is also learnt to be demanding the rank of deputy chief minister for his loyalist, Tulsi Silawat, presently the state's water resources minister.
Silawat, who resigned as the Congress MLA from Sanwer constituency when he joined the BJP in March is a staunch Scindia supporter. He was among the five chosen ministers inducted into the Chouhan cabinet in April. The other Scindia loyalist who had made the cut back then was former Congress MLA from Surkhi, Govind Singh Rajput.
BJP sources told Outlook that Chouhan spent the past few days in Delhi trying to get the party leadership and Scindia on board for the cabinet expansion blueprint that he had prepared. The task proved tricky, says a senior BJP leader from the state, as the central leadership and Scindia rejected most names put forward by the CM for ministerial berths.
"Chouhan had gone to Delhi with a tentative list on Saturday but the names he proposed, including 5-6 senior MLAs close to him who have previously served as ministers, were rejected. Through Saturday and Sunday, he held several discussions with JP Nadda (BJP president) and even called on Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah hoping they would endorse his list but this didn't happen. He also met Scindia at his residence but couldn't get him on board," a Chouhan confidante tells Outlook.
The BJP leadership is also learnt to be unhappy with Chouhan over the recent Rajya Sabha elections in MP in which though both candidates fielded by the party—Scindia and Sumer Solanki—won, a BJP MLA also cross-voted for the Congress. The central leadership is also believed to be unhappy over an audio clip that had recently gone viral in the state in which Chouhan was purportedly telling party workers that the decision to topple the Nath government was taken by the BJP high command in Delhi. Sources say the BJP leadership rejected several names put forward by Chouhan for the cabinet, including his loyalists and former ministers Bhupendra Singh, Rajendra Shukla, Vishwas Sarang and Rampal Singh among others, and told him to give new faces a chance while also accommodating Scindia's demands.
Scindia, say sources, pressed for nine ministerial berths for his loyalists and also made it clear that he wants these former MLAs to be given important portfolios, including rural development, health, PWD and power. On his part, Chouhan is learnt to have implored Scindia to scale down his demands to ministerial berths for six loyalists. The CM is learnt to have explained to Scindia that the state can have a maximum of 34 ministers and he wants to presently expand his cabinet to have 25-29 members so that some vacancies can be kept to accommodate other party leaders in the future. While Scindia reportedly had no issues with Chouhan keeping some vacancies to adjust possible BJP dissidents in the future, he made it clear that he wants his loyalists to be inducted immediately. Scindia, say sources, believes that the exclusion of his loyalists from the cabinet would make it difficult for them to win the bypolls necessitated by their resignation as Congress MLAs and will impact the stability of the Chouhan government.
It may be recalled that the resignation of 22 Congress MLAs, a majority of them Scindia loyalists, in March had helped the BJP return to power. For the BJP, which presently has 104 MLAs in the 230-member Assembly against the Congress party's 92 MLAs, it is imperative to win at least 10 of the vacant seats to continue in power.
With the stalemate showing no sign of untangling, the BJP leadership also summoned Chouhan's intra-party rival and MP home minister Narottam Mishra to Delhi for talks. Mishra had played a key role in toppling the Nath government and was even seen as a claimant for the CM's chair before the party leadership decided to once again nominate Chouhan for the role.
Sources say Mishra is now vying for the deputy CM's role too. No past BJP government in MP has had a deputy chief minister. Mishra has also apprised the BJP leadership of party MLAs he wants included in the cabinet.
The cabinet expansion has now been scheduled for Thursday morning. Sources say Chouhan, who returned to Bhopal from Delhi on Tuesday, has also held discussions with state party president V.D. Sharma and those BJP leaders who will be inducted into the cabinet will be informed by Wednesday evening. Meanwhile, UP Governor Anandiben Patel was sworn-in as the MP Governor. Patel took over additional charge of the state from Governor Lalji Tandon who is currently under treatment at a Lucknow hospital.