Pre-poll damage control: MP CM Chouhan inducts 3 new faces in Cabinet
While Bisen and Lodhi are backward-caste leaders from Mahakaushal and Bundelkhand, respectively, Shukla is an influential Brahmin leader from the Vindhya region
Barely four months before Madhya Pradesh goes to polls, chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan on Saturday (August 26) inducted three new ministers in his Cabinet. The trio are Gaurishanker Bisen, a seven-term MLA and two-term former MP from Balaghat, four-term Rewa MLA Rajendra Shukla, and Rahul Lodhi, a first-term MLA from Khargapur constituency and nephew of former CM Uma Bharti.
Bisen and Lodhi are leaders of the backward caste community from the state’s Mahakaushal and Bundelkhand regions, respectively. Shukla is an influential Brahmin leader from MP’s Vindhya region.
Chouhan’s decision to induct the three is being viewed in the state’s political circles as a desperate damage-control measure ahead of the Assembly polls, given that the BJP is not only facing palpable anti-incumbency but is struggling to quell dissent within its ranks that a visibly revitalised Congress, under Kamal Nath, has been eager to exploit.
Quelling possible rebellion?
Sources in the Madhya Pradesh BJP said a “combination of factors” led to the Cabinet expansion. “Everyone knows that with the elections just months away and the model code of conduct expected to come into force by October first week, none of them will be able to do anything significant as ministers, but bringing them in was important for a variety of reasons, including quelling possible rebellion and addressing grievances related to caste-groups and regional aspirations,” a senior minister in the Chouhan Cabinet from the Bundelkhand region told The Federal.
Sources said both Bisen and Shukla, who had served as influential ministers in earlier BJP governments, had been sulking over their exclusion from the fourth Chouhan Cabinet, which had a sizeable chunk of defectors from the Congress who had helped the BJP topple the Nath-led Congress government in March 2020.
There had also been frenzied speculation that 71-year-old Bisen, who comes from the Mahakaushal region, which includes Nath’s stronghold of Chhindwara, was planning to switch to the Congress ahead of the Assembly polls, as he felt his non-inclusion in the state Cabinet was an indication that the BJP may not give him a ticket this time round. Likewise, Shukla, who was one of the most powerful ministers in the previous Chouhan-led government and has strong links with the BJP’s ideological mentor, the RSS, had been vocal within the party about the sidelining of “true BJP workers” and the “growing influence of MLAs loyal to Jyotiraditya Scindia”, sources said. It was Scindia’s rebellion against the Congress in March 20202 that had caused the defection of 22 Congress MLAs to the BJP and helped Chouhan return to power for a fourth term.
The case of Rahul Lodhi’s induction as minister of state is also similar. Lodhi’s aunt, Uma Bharti, has been a known detractor of Chouhan in the MP BJP. Ever since Chouhan returned as CM after the fall of the Nath government, Bharti has been taking potshots at the policies and programmes, particularly the liquor policy, of the state government. Bharti has often threatened state-wide stirs against her government’s policies and, on one occasion, had even told members of her community — the backward-caste Lodhs, who constitute over nine per cent of the state’s population and hold sway across nearly 60 of MP’s 230 assembly seats — at a public event that they had no compulsion to vote for the BJP if they felt the state’s government wasn’t working in their interest.
Two birds with one stone
By including his bête noir’s nephew in his council of ministers, Chouhan has sought to pacify Bharti while simultaneously trying to woo the Lodh community and give greater representation in his government to the state’s Bundelkhand region.
Interestingly, the induction of backward caste leaders Bisen and Lodhi came within days of Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge’s election rally in Sagar district, which is the largest district on the Madhya Pradesh side of Bundelkhand, during which the Congress made a strong bid to woo the backward castes with the announcement of conducting a caste census if voted to power in the state.
The Congress, sources in the party told The Federal, has been drawing up various strategies to gain electoral ground in the state’s Bundelkhand and Vindhya regions, the latter of which was singularly responsible for the Grand Old Party falling just short of a majority in the 2018 Assembly polls.
Across the seven Bundelkhand districts of Sagar, Damoh, Niwari, Chhatarpur, Panna, Tikamgarh, and Datia, the Congress has been at an electoral disadvantage against the BJP ever since the saffron party began assiduously reaching out to the OBC community, particularly the Lodhs, back in 2003 when Bharti was projected as the CM face against the Congress’s incumbent CM, Digvijaya Singh. Additionally, in several of the 29 Assembly segments that fall in MP’s Bundelkhand, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and Samajwadi Party (SP), too, have a formidable presence which turns electoral fights here into a multi-cornered contest.
In the 2018 Assembly polls, which saw the Congress return to power in the state after a 15-year hiatus, the party could bag just 12 of these 29 Assembly segments while the BJP won 15 and the BSP and SP got one each. Later, the Congress lost two of these seats — Bhander in Datia district and Surkhi in Sagar district — to the BJP in bypolls necessitated by the defection of incumbent MLAs to the saffron party.
Dousing anger against BJP
Meanwhile, Shukla’s return to the Chouhan Cabinet is also meant to douse the rising anger against the BJP within the influential Brahmin community in the Vindhya region. Various Brahmin organisations in Vindhya, most of them with close links to the BJP and the RSS, have been up in arms against the state government for bulldozing the residence of Parvesh Shukla, the BJP worker who had been caught on video urinating on a tribal man a month ago.
The Vindhya region has three electorally dominant castes — the upper-caste Brahmins and Thakurs and the backward-class Kurmis. Over the past two decades, the BJP had been able to win over each of these groups which once formed the backbone of the Congress’s dominance in Vindhya with stalwarts such as former CM Arjun Singh (a Thakur), former Assembly Speaker Sriniwas Tiwari (a Brahmin), and former multiple-term minister Inderjeet Patel (a Kurmi). With the demise of these three stalwarts and the respective members of their second generation failing to retain political clout, the BJP had succeeded in sweeping Vindhya in consecutive Assembly polls since 2003.
In the 2018 polls, the Congress was able to win just five of the three dozen Assembly segments that fall in the economically impoverished Vindhya, a tally the party is stridently trying to improve substantially in the elections due this November. The inclusion of Inderjeet Patel’s son and two-term MLA from Sihawal constituency, Kamleshwar Patel, in the recently constituted Congress Working Committee (CWC) is being projected by the Congress as a statement of intent by the party for its commitment towards the backward castes. Kharge, while addressing the Sagar rally, had made a pointed reference to Kamleshwar’s inclusion in the CWC as evidence of the Congress’s support for backward castes.The Congress has been hoping that it would be able to rekindle its support among the backward castes and Brahmins of Vindhya owing to the “raw deal that the communities and the region have both received from the BJP despite its two-decade-long reign”, a senior party leader from the region told The Federal. Shukla’s induction in the state government, the leader said, could be Chouhan’s way of “trying to prevent Brahmins of Vindhya from deserting his party”.