Will Shivraj Singh Chouhan survive the MP bypolls?

Will Shivraj Singh Chouhan survive the MP bypolls?

Arguably, no one seems to be more acutely conscious of his sense of vulnerability than Chouhan himself

 Madhya Pradesh chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan. Credit: PTI File Photo

The outcome of the four by-elections, voting for which is on October 30, is being widely seen as crucial for the continuance of Shivraj Singh Chouhan in office. 

Barring 15 months of the Congress’ Kamal Nath government-- between December 2018 and March 2020 – Chouhan has been ruling the state since November 30, 2005, and is the longest-serving BJP Chief Minister in the country. 

Currently the lone BJP CM from the party’s Vajpayee-Advani era, Chouhan has managed to pull on even as the party high command summarily removed his counterparts in Karnataka, Gujarat and Uttarakhand in recent months. But ever since their ouster in quick succession, the buzz has been growing that Chouhan is next in the firing line.

Also Read | War of words between Congress, BJP over farmers' welfare ahead of Madhya Pradesh bypolls

The growing political clout of his rival and state Home Minister Narottam Mishra is evident. Mishra, a close confidante of Union Home Minister Amit Shah, was recently inducted in the BJP’s 80-member national executive. He had played a crucial role as Amit Shah’s pointsman in toppling the Kamal Nath government.

Another member nominated from MP in the national executive is Civil Aviation Minister Jyotiraditya Scindia, who has endeared himself to the BJP high command and RSS. After lying low for a while, Scindia has emerged as a parallel power centre vis-a-vis Chouhan.

Arguably, no one seems to be more acutely conscious of his sense of vulnerability than Chouhan himself. The crushing defeat of the BJP in the Damoh by-election by the Congress in May this year is still haunting him.

Now, he has pulled out all stops to make sure that the BJP wins all four seats in the coming by-elections. Reputed to be an untiring election campaigner, he has gone the extra mile this time around to woo the voters in the poll-bound seats.

The by-polls were necessitated by the death of three MLAs and an MP due to Covid-19. The Khandwa Lok Sabha seat fell vacant with the death of Nand Kumar Singh Chouhan. The Jobat, Prithvipur and Raigaon Assembly seats fell vacant with the death of Congress MLA Kalawati Bhuria, BJP MLA Jugal Kishore Bagri and Congress MLA Brijendra Singh Rathore, respectively.

Flush with funds and assured of full support from the government machinery, the ruling party was far ahead of the Congress in terms of resources — both financial and human — as campaigning ended on October 27.

Chouhan announced a plethora of development projects for the poll-bound seats in the last two months. Even after the polling date was announced, he did not stop promising bonanzas. His announcements of Rs 20,000-crore subsidies on electricity for farmers and door-to-door free food grains distribution in tribal blocks came after the model code of conduct had kicked in. The Congress lodged several complaints of alleged violation of the code with the Election Commission, but to no avail. Former CM Kamal Nath has accused the Election Commission of dancing to the BJP’s tune.

Like the previous two rounds of by-elections — for 24 seats in November last year and for Damoh Assembly seat in May this year — the electioneering  this time turned into a personal slugfest between Chouhan and Kamal Nath.

In election meetings, the CM justified toppling the Congress government in March last year, alleging that Kamal Nath had reduced the state secretariat into a den of corruption. The former CM played the victim card, repeatedly reminding the electorate that the BJP conspired with “purchasable” Congress MLAs to topple his government.

The BJP had an obvious advantage of organisational strength and government machinery fully backing the party. It deployed half of the cabinet members, along with its office bearers, in the constituencies to take care of the material needs of the campaign from the day the polling date was announced. 

The Congress sorely lagged behind the ruling party in resources. However, the Congress has shown more astuteness in candidate selection than the BJP. For Jobat seat, the BJP could not find a winnable candidate from its cadres and so had to field Congress defector Sulochna Rawat. A three-time Congress MLA, she joined the BJP barely a week ahead of the filing of nomination papers. In Prithvipur seat, the BJP roped in a turncoat from Samajwadi Party.

In Khandwa Lok Sabha seat, the denial of ticket to Harsh Singh, son of the five-time MP from the seat late Nand Kumar Singh Chouhan, fuelled speculation of a massive sabotage by the Thakurs, whose support has been decisive in the BJP’s victory in the past. To control possible damage, the party brought in Congress MLA Sachin Birla last week. Birla, a prominent Gujjar leader, had won on the Congress ticket from Badwah seat, one of the Assembly segments in the Khandwa Lok Sabha seat. 

The month-long electioneering saw the CM hopping from one election rally to another, attacking Kamal Nath, painting a rosy picture of the state, and promising El Dorado to the electorate. However, Chouhan evaded responding to Kamal Nath’s repeated demand to give an account of the achievements in the 17 years of BJP rule.

The Congress leader asked in election meetings that if Chouhan’s performance was indeed so spectacular as the chief minister claims, why did the voters reject his party in the 2018 Assembly election?

The revolt by Jyotiraditya Scindia and his 19 MLAs had made it possible for Chouhan to return to the post for a record fourth time in March 2020.

Since then, he has been skating on thin ice. It is widely believed that the BJP high command had to hastily anoint him chief minister for want of time to look for a more favourable alternative amid an outbreak of Covid-19. Chouhan was elected a day before the Prime Minister declared the national lockdown on March 24, 2020. But will he survive the coming by-elections is the question all Madhya Pradesh is asking.

(The writer is a senior journalist based in Bhopal)

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