The fate of the five-month-old Madhya Pradesh government led by BJP Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan hangs on unprecedentedly large numbers, or as many as 27, by-elections that are to be held for the State Assembly.
And in the run-up to polls for these Vidhan Sabha seats, the recently reconfigured politics of the State is going to be tested. The entry of Jyotiraditya Scindia in the BJP along with 22 MLAs from his erstwhile Congress party has changed the complexion of the State politics. The by-elections are supposed to put a stamp of approval on Scindia’s move on the one hand and ensure Chouhan’s continuation in power on the other.
Yet, the fact is that Scindia is not just a new player brought into the BJP but right from the time of his entry he has also turned out to be a co-sharer in power with Chouhan. This became palpably clear when 11 Scindia supporters who left Congress to join BJP became ministers in Shivraj’s team. Earlier, only six MLAs loyal to Scindia were ministers in the Congress regime of former Chief Minister Kamal Nath.
So Scindia’s men have got a lion’s share in Chouhan’s 34-member Cabinet. Chouhan had to first make room for them by keeping his old party colleagues out of his government; and now together with Scindia the Chief Minister has to work for the new entrants’ victory in the by-polls. This is the price that entailed Chouhan’s catapulting to the top post of the State with Scindia’s help.
Once the campaign for the by-elections starts Chouhan will have to seek votes for candidates who had fought last Assembly elections against his own party candidates. These polls were held less than a couple of years ago and now it can be anybody’s guess as to how the BJP’s new association with the Scindia-led Congress faction translates at the ground level. Scindia is believed to have a clout in 16 Assembly seats spread over the Gwalior-Chambal region. These are among the 27 seats that are billed for re-poll.
Earlier, Scindia had been a contender for the post of Chief Minister when Kamal Nath was sworn in. Thus, Scindia may well carry on his old ambition in his new party. From the point of view of Chauhan, the new entrant to the BJP can well be an addition to other potential contenders for the post of Chief Minister in future. Other formidable BJP leaders from the State are Union Minister for Agriculture Narendra Singh Tomar and former Chief Minister Uma Bharti. The two may also join the BJP campaign for the by-elections.
So the stakes in them are as big as the campaigners who are poised to throw their hat in the ring. Yet, it is an irony that these elections somehow appear to lack the potential to turn them into a vote against the virus, courtesy the downcast mood in the Congress. This cuts across both the State and Central levels, say those who are keeping an eye upon Madhya Pradesh bypolls.
This is so despite the fact that these polls have been necessitated due to change of power in the State amid the deadly Corona outbreak. The top post of the State had changed hands from Congress to BJP in March when the threat posed by COVID-19 pandemic loomed all over.
Congress cried foul as soon as the BJP robbed the grand old party of a leader like Scindia, blaming the Centre ruled by the BJP to have delayed the lockdown. Nath and his cohorts accused the BJP of posing a grave risk to the people just because it has been buying time to topple his legitimately elected Congress government.
The raging pandemic made Chouhan to slow down quite a bit, though he may not have got as rattled as his detractors tried to make out. Congress blamed him of not appointing even a Health Minister who could have single-mindedly taken on the virus.
So after becoming Chief Minister on March 23 Chouhan expanded his Cabinet only as late as July 2. And he took another 11 days or so to allot portfolios to his colleagues. Thus, Dr Prabhuram Chaudhary, a physician, and former Congressman, became Health Minister.
Yet, there was hardly any let-up in the grim situation created by the rampaging coronavirus. Cities after cities from Gwalior to Indore were reeling under its impact as they continue to do even now. The villages around them are hardly any better. The last count as per official figures available on Friday, August 21, for the State puts the number of the infected at 49,493 with 1,171 deaths.
Infections have started to be detected rather early in the State Capital Bhopal and those caught up with it included an IAS officer and several health department officials. This was in the first half of the month of April and ever since the list of those hit by the virus came to include even Chief Minister Chouhan who has recovered from Corona infection only recently.
No sooner than Chouhan came out of the hospital his attention went to the impending by-polls that were deferred because of the COVID-19 situation but cannot be postponed for long under the laws. A few days ago the Chief Minister announced his decision to reserve all State government jobs for applicants domiciled in the State. The move is clearly inspired by the need to summon and add a public-savvy image in view of the upcoming by-polls.
Chouhan has come back to power 15 months after losing the fight though narrowly against the Congress in 2018 Assembly polls. Several of the MLAs who deserted Congress and joined the BJP to bring him to power have been made ministers by him. Now all of them besides a few others who resigned their membership after Chouhan won the trust vote on March 25 will have to face a by-election in their constituency. They and their new party mainly bank upon the possibility that their and the party, or BJP’s, votes will add up and they will return to the Assembly with greater margins of victory after the re-poll. The BJP needs only nine more seats to win in order to cross the halfway mark in a 230-member House.
Scindia’s influence among the electorate comes from his erstwhile ancestral principality of Gwalior and it is spread to a few neighbouring districts. He has become a Rajya Sabha member from Madhya Pradesh after joining the BJP and can well be appointed as a Central Minister once Prime Minister Narendra Modi goes for a reshuffle of his Cabinet. This is being taken as a foregone conclusion and can well help his loyalists to flaunt it in their constituencies to win back their seats in Assembly by-polls.
Despite having such advantages the BJP is keeping its fingers crossed. Chouhan’s move to reserve all government jobs in the State for local youth is indicative of this. Though it has been ridiculed on social media platforms, Chouhan appears to have taken a cue from his predecessor Kamal Nath’s similar intentions. Nath had said when he was Chief Minister that his government planned to reserve 70 per cent jobs (including private sector jobs) in the State strictly for local applicants.
Both Chouhan and Kamal Nath did not say anything about the possibility of other States going for a tit-for-tat in view of the salvo thus fired. As a corollary to the step being resorted to by Chouhan other States may likewise cite and exercise their jurisdiction to bar job seekers from Madhya Pradesh from applying to get employed beyond its confines.
Besides this, there are constitutional obligations to be followed by the States and these forbid discrimination among the citizens of the country on myriad, or possibly every conceivable, ground, including their place or region of birth and domicile.
So behind the step touted by both Chouhan and before him Kamal Nath expediency rather than constitutional propriety appears to be the main guiding force. Both the leaders have been trying to look doughtier than the other in view of the ensuing by-elections.
Yet, it is a fact that the bitter tussle that is going to lead to by-elections has left the people at the mercy of the virulent virus; and that too when there seems to be a little chance anytime soon of a respite from it.
(The writer is an independent journalist based in Delhi. He tweets @abidshahjourno)