Madhya Pradesh

A rare hat-trick

Print edition : December 27, 2013

Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan surrounded by BJP workers after the party's thumping victory, in Bhopal. Photo: PTI

Jyotiraditya Scindia, the Congress' election campaign chief in Madhya Pradesh, at a rally in Gwalior in October. Photo: PTI

A hat-trick for Shivraj Singh Chouhan in Madhya Pradesh opens up interesting possibilities in the run-up to the 2014 general elections, since he has for long been seen as a challenger to Narendra Modi in the BJP.

A third straight victory for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Madhya Pradesh was almost a foregone conclusion. This was despite a clearly visible anger among the people over the government’s failure on many fronts, particularly law and order and employment.

The Congress campaign tried to cash in on this. But as the campaigning progressed, it also became clear that people were willing to overlook many of Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s failures because of his untarnished image and his success in delivering on his promises in the key areas of bijli (electricity), sadak (road) and paani (water).

There were complaints about his Ministers and other party colleagues, but he himself was still acceptable to most people because they were haunted by memories of the bad roads, long power cuts and poor water supply during Chief Minister Digvijay Singh’s period.

Even though Digvijay Singh was not the Congress’ face in Madhya Pradesh this time, people were not willing to take a chance. As pointed out by Frontline (“Battle royal”, December 13), people were willing to bet on the “lesser evil” in the hope that maybe this time he would be better at governance.

The only uncertainly about the election results in Madhya Pradesh was about Chouhan’s party’s seat tally, given that his challenger was the young, dynamic and aggressive Jyotiraditya Scindia, who was handpicked by Rahul Gandhi to be the party’s face in the State. Though Scindia’s name had not been announced by the party as its chief ministerial nominee, his projection had left nobody in doubt. The popular support that he attracted, mainly owing to his family’s legacy and the good performance of his father, the late Madhavrao Scindia, made it appear for a while that the Congress would improve its tally.

This, however, turned out to be wishful thinking. The Congress, which had won 71 seats last time, saw its tally dipping, while the BJP’s crossed the 143 it won in 2008. Congress insiders in Madhya Pradesh put the blame on the central leadership for keeping the leadership issue ambiguous. They feel that since the BJP’s chief ministerial candidate had been named, Congress voters should have been given a clear choice instead of being kept guessing. Besides, people were only “given to understand” that Scindia would be the Chief Minister, but they were still wary of the old war horses such as Suresh Pachauri, Kamal Nath and Digvijay Singh, whose legendary rivalry has cost the State dear in the past.

Another interesting factor that is now emerging is that even though people at large had shown their support for Scindia during campaigning, he antagonised many party workers because of his “haughty, royal ways”. According to party insiders, many party workers were left seething because Scindia was not giving any importance to those workers who would not touch his feet. He had also ensured the party ticket for his “cronies”, who did not have strong popular bases, and this had antagonised many old-time party workers. All this, however, meant that his own edge, if he had any, got neutralised as campaigning progressed. This is something that Scindia seems to acknowledge as, immediately after the defeat, he stressed the need to overhaul the party structure in the State.

Interestingly, the bigger story in Madhya Pradesh will now be the inevitable ascendance of Shivraj Singh Chouhan to national politics. Chouhan’s ambitions for a larger role at the Centre is no secret and much is being read into his immediate reaction after his victory became certain. The BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi, had launched the party’s campaign formally in the State on September 25 at a mammoth rally in Bhopal and subsequently addressed many big rallies. Chouhan, however, in his first reactions after his victory, sought to ignore Modi and thanked only the people of the State and his party workers for his magnificent showing. This brings to mind the picture at his September 25 rally where party workers, carrying placards with his photograph, had continued to chant his name even as party bigwigs were giving speeches, and this continued even when Modi was speaking. It became so jarring at a point that Chouhan himself had to go up to the front of the dais and chide his party workers and instruct them not to hold up his pictures. But the message had by then reached the party leaders and everyone else who cared to see.

It is no secret that L.K. Advani had tried hard to project Chouhan as prime ministerial material before Modi was named. If the BJP failed to win enough seats and needed to woo former allies who had deserted the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) after Modi’s anointment, it would need a softer face, someone who did not have the hardliner image of Modi. Chouhan’s USP, interestingly, is his secular image, something which even his detractors in the State acknowledge.

In his second tenure, especially, Chouhan has worked on a secular image. He frequently participated in Eid celebrations, had Muslim women tie rakhi on his wrist, and organised pilgrimages for elderly people of all faiths, including Muslims and Christians. This has paid rich dividends, and this could come in handy if he gets projected at the national level.

It is significant to mention here that immediately after victory became obvious in Madhya Pradesh, the BJP general secretary in charge of the State, Ananth Kumar, told the media that the Madhya Pradesh model of development should be an example for all to follow. Significantly, Modi is lauded for his “model of development”, but his politics, even BJP leaders agree, is not inclusive. In this context, Chouhan’s model of development, which is also accompanied by inclusive politics, could become a serious challenge for Modi. So Chouhan’s victory is a bigger challenge for the BJP than for the Congress.

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