On December 13, 2018, following the narrow assembly election win of the Congress over the BJP in Madhya Pradesh, then party president Rahul Gandhi tweeted a picture of himself with the two chief ministerial contenders, Kamal Nath and Jyotiraditya Scindia. Alongside ran a quote from Leo Tolstoy: The two most powerful warriors are patience and time.’ Nath and Scindia paid no heed to the advice, their turf war culminating in the latter’s coup that pulled down the 15-month-old Congress government in MP. If anybody chose to remain patient, and was rewarded, it was Shivraj Singh Chouhan. The three-time BJP chief minister, who had been at the helm for 13 consecutive years, was back in the saddle on March 23. Withstanding a phase when he fell out of favour with the BJP central leadership, Chouhan bided his time, and when the moment came, he proved to be a heavyweight his rivals could not dislodge.
How did Chouhan bring himself back in the reckoning with his bosses in Delhi? His stint outside power had hardly been reassuring. In December 2018, soon after his election defeat, Chouhan had announced a statewide tour to reconnect with the masses, but the party’s central leadership asked him to defer the plan. Gopal Bhargava, a former cabinet colleague of Chouhan but not part of his camp, was appointed leader of opposition in the state assembly. Then BJP state president and Jabalpur MP Rakesh Singh, not known to be close to Chouhan either, began asserting himself in the state unit, formulating the strategies to be adopted against the Congress government. In January 2019, the BJP brought Chouhan into national politics, appointing him national vice-president. But it was only in June that year that Chouhan got any significant responsibility to spearhead the party’s membership drive.
Meanwhile, back in the state, a section in the BJP was reportedly trying to destabilise the Nath government. The group allegedly included former state ministers Narottam Mishra and Vishwas Sarang. While the police and vigilance agencies questioned people considered close to them, Chouhan focused on touring the state and wasn’t seen to be at loggerheads with the Congress dispensation. Not only did he enjoy cordial relations with Nath, but none of the corruption charges, Vyapam scam, sand mining scam, that the Congress had brought against him during the election campaign were also probed. Chouhan was given the security detail he wanted and there were no signs that the government was upset with him.
However, a cloud of instability began to hang over the state government, with a group of BJP leaders, led by Mishra, reportedly establishing contact with some Congress MLAs who were upset at being denied cabinet berths. The Congress launched a counter-offensive by pulling in two BJP lawmakers, Narayan Tripathi and Sharad Kol. We will not do anything to pull down the government, but if it falls under its own weight, we will act accordingly, Chouhan had said, hinting that he wasn’t in favour of destabilising the Congress government.
Chouhan’s fortunes turned around with the appointment of J.P. Nadda, with whom he shares a good rapport, as BJP national president in January this year. He was roped in for the operation to get Scindia to defect from the Congress along with his loyalist MLAs. Scindia changed political colours and Nath’s eventual resignation set the stage for the BJP’s return to power in MP. However, Chouhan, though a frontrunner, wasn’t the only contender for the top post.
Sources said that while Prime Minister Narendra Modi favoured a new leadership, Union home minister Amit Shah saw Chouhan as the most popular BJP face in the state. Nadda, too, put his weight behind Chouhan. Some of the party bigwigs considered the name of Union minister Narendra Singh Tomar, but he enjoyed less support among the elected MLAs. A senior BJP leader involved in the exercise to choose the state chief minister says: Some top leaders may have thought of an alternative to Chouhan, but everyone knew that there was actually none. Chouhan is best suited to manage the MLAs in the current scenario. Another party leader believes Chouhan’s report card speaks for itself. As chief minister, he has spectacular achievements to show across sectors, he says.
Other factors that went in Chouhan’s favour were Scindia’s induction into the BJP and the assimilation of former Congress MLAs loyal to him into the party. While Scindia is not learnt to have put forth conditions as to who should be the chief minister, he was more comfortable with the choice of Chouhan. This is partly because Tomar, like Scindia, belongs to the Gwalior region. Mishra, another contender, too, hails from Dabra near Gwalior. Chouhan’s detractors were rallying behind Tomar on the grounds that a bulk of the 24 assembly segments where bypolls are scheduled fall in the Gwalior and Chambal regions.
Though murmurs of dissent cannot be ruled out, officially the BJP is firmly behind Chouhan. The leadership experience and hard work that Shivraj Singh Chouhan brings with him can undo the damage done to the state during the Congress rule, says BJP state spokesperson Rahul Kothari.
Chouhan’s fourth stint will, however, have its own challenges. With the threat of coronavirus looming large, his administrative capabilities will be put to the test. The three-week lockdown announced by the Centre to contain the pandemic will bring economic hardships. Several of Chouhan’s ambitious welfare schemes, covering health, power, women, child development and agriculture, were discontinued by Nath, citing shortage of funds. He would be looking to find resources to restart them. There is also the farm loan waiver launched by the Congress government. In the given situation, it looks like a financial tightrope walk for Chouhan. Will he slip or make it?