Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan must have had a sound sleep on Wednesday (November 2) as results for crucial bypolls to three assembly constituencies and one Lok Sabha seat packed a 3-1 victory for the BJP against the Congress. Chouhan proved, yet again, that not only is he leagues ahead of his Congress rivals in devising winning electoral strategies, but is also one who the BJP’s top leadership will find difficult to cast aside.
Over the past month, the political grapevine in Bhopal had been buzzing with speculation of Chouhan’s imminent ouster as CM after conclusion of the bypolls to the Khandwa Lok Sabha seat and the assembly segments of Jobat, Prithvipur and Raigaon. Lately, the BJP’s central leadership has displayed its eagerness in giving states under its control fresh CM faces. Vijay Rupani in Gujarat, TS Rawat in Uttarakhand and BS Yediyurappa in Karnataka were all shown the door, replaced without any all-out rebellion, by Bhupendra Patel, PS Dhami and Basavaraj Bommai, respectively.
This was bad news for Chouhan, or so his critics and supporters alike within the BJP claimed in closed-door discussions. That there is no love lost between Chouhan, the last remaining BJP CM from the Atal-Advani era, and the new, ruthlessly power-appropriating BJP leadership of Narendra Modi and Amit Shah has always been common knowledge in political circles.
Speculation that Chouhan was a stop-gap CM had begun in MP immediately after he returned as CM for a fourth term last March after the BJP toppled the Congress-led Kamal Nath government with the help of Jyotiraditya Scindia and nearly two dozen turncoats. The defections were largely a joint operation between Scindia, state BJP chief VD Sharma, Union Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar and, most importantly, the BJP’s hardline Hindutva face from the state’s Bundelkhand region and key Chouhan adversary, Narottam Mishra. And so, since the BJP’s return to power in MP, rumours that Mishra, an RSS-favourite, would ultimately take over from Chouhan have been a constant in MP politics.
Why BJP insiders believed that Chouhan would finally be shown the door after these bypolls stemmed from a few key factors. First, of course, was the party’s CM-changing spree. Then, there was the impression that Mishra, now the state’s powerful home minister, was setting the government’s hardline agenda – new and stringent laws against stone pelters and ‘love jihad’, regular threats of police action against creative expression, as seen in the recent controversies over advertisements by Dabur, Fabindia and Sabyasachi – and steadily appropriating more power.
Finally, many believed that Chouhan would be unable to deliver a comprehensive BJP victory in the bypolls as two of the three assembly constituencies had been Congress strongholds for decades. However, Chouhan, a relentless campaigner and acute poll planner, proved his detractors wrong. Though the party lost Raigaon to the Congress after having held the seat for three decades, the BJP convincingly won the Khandwa parliamentary bypoll by an 80,000-plus margin and wrested Congress bastions of Prithvipur and Jobat too.
Chouhan broke from tradition to force the BJP into denying tickets to kin of the party MP/MLAs whose deaths had necessitated the bypolls in Khandwa and Raigaon – the gambit failed in Raigaon but paid off in Khandwa. He also cared little for the election code of conduct and went about announcing mega development projects for the bypoll-bound seats and populist social welfare schemes aimed at Dalits and tribals, who constitute a large chunk of voters in Jobat and Raigaon.
Next, Chouhan brought in his own lot of turncoats in Khandwa, Jobat and Prithvipur to strengthen the BJP’s victory prospects and his own clout, which had been diluted last year with the induction of Scindia loyalists and elevation of Mishra. And finally, playing to his strength, the CM launched an extensive yatra of the bypoll-bound seats, addressing nearly 60 rallies and public meetings over the past two months and assigning practically his entire cabinet and senior state BJP leadership similar responsibilities.
In contrast, Kamal Nath, the state Congress chief and leader of opposition in MP, was preoccupied with dousing factional fires in his party at the national level – he was among Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s interlocutors dealing with the G-23 rebels and also Amarinder Singh – while also battling poor health. Nath managed to address just about a dozen public meetings in the bypoll-bound constituencies. The other party stalwart, Digvijaya Singh, made only perfunctory interventions in the election campaign.
For Chouhan, much was riding on the outcome of the results in Khandwa and Jobat and Prithvipur. In Khandwa, the bye-election was necessitated by the death of five-term MP and former state BJP chief Nand Kumar Singh Chauhan. The BJP denied a ticket to Chauhan’s son, Harsh Singh Chauhan, and the CM prevailed in fielding his confidant, Gyaneshwar Patel. Chouhan then poached Congress MLA Sachin Birla, a prominent leader in the area whose constituency, Barwah, falls under the Khandwa Lok Sabha seat.
The Congress had initially planned to field former Khandwa MP Arun Yadav in the bypoll. Yadav’s father, the late Subhash Yadav, was an influential leader in the region and served as the state’s deputy CM under Digvijaya Singh in the 1990s. Arun’s younger brother, Sachin Yadav, is also a Congress MLA and was a cabinet minister under Nath. Arun, however, refused to contest the bypolls, amid rumours that he and Sachin were planning to defect to the BJP. The Congress finally fielded former Congress MLA, Raj Narayan Singh Purni, who lost the bypoll to Patel by a margin of 82,410 votes.
The BJP’s gains in the assembly bypolls weren’t insignificant either. Chouhan poached Sulochana Rawat, a former three-term Congress MLA, days ahead of the announcement of the bypoll schedule and then fielded her as the party candidate. Rawat succeeded in winning the Jobat seat, held earlier by Congress’s Kalavati Bhuria, kin of former Union minister and party’s tribal face Kantilal Bhutia, by defeating Congress candidate Mahesh Patel by 6,104 votes.
In Prithvipur, a Congress stronghold vacated following the demise of former minister Brajendra Singh Rathore, the BJP fielded Shishupal Yadav, a leader Chouhan acquired recently from the Samajwadi Party. Shishupal had narrowly lost the 2018 assembly polls to Brajendra while the BJP had finished a distant fourth on this seat. This time round, the Congress fielded Brijendra’s son Nitendra Singh Rathore, hoping to ride a sympathy wave to victory. However, Shishupal managed a comfortable victory, defeating Nirendra by a margin of 15,687 votes.
The disappointment for Chouhan, however, came in Raigaon, the BJP’s citadel. The seat was vacated after the death of party veteran Jugal Kishore Bagri and Chouhan erred by pushing Bagri’s son, Pushpraj Bagri, out of the fray. The BJP, instead, fielded Pratima Bagri on the seat, triggering an all out rebellion by Pushpraj and other members of the Jugal Kishore clan. The Congress fielded Kalpana Verma, who had narrowly lost the 2018 polls to Jugal Kishore, and Nath urged all his colleagues, most notably Ajay Singh ‘Rahul’, son of former CM Arjun Singh, to put up a united fight in Raigaon. Verma defeated Pratima by a 12,290 margin, bringing Raigaon into the Congress fold after 31 years.
The results should give Chouhan some much-needed respite from the constant worry of losing his chair. Though BJP insiders say these victories do not necessarily guarantee Chouhan’s longevity as CM, sources say Chouhan’s rivals like Narottam Mishra may dial back their ambition of replacing him for the time being.