The posters lining the streets of the business capital of Madhya Pradesh foreground PM Narendra Modi and the CM Shivraj Chouhan and hold out the promise of transforming Madhya Pradesh from a “developed” to a “prosperous” state. But scratch the dominating visuals and there’s little doubt that unlike Modi, who held unchallenged sway over Gujarat for the 12 years that he helmed it, Chouhan, the avuncular “Mammaji”, is not quite the overlord he is perceived to be. In the prelude to the assembly elections, he has had to regroup his support within the MP unit of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) with a motley bunch of leaders to combat rivals, real and imagined.
BJP sources said the joust for supremacy was evident in the process of ticket distribution. “While Chouhan managed to get most of his favourites in, he could not have had his way without consistent support from Tomar,” a source said. Narendra Singh Tomar is the union rural development minister and Gwalior MP who made common cause with Chouhan to safeguard his turf in the hostile Chambal region. Tomar — whose name periodically cropped up for the chief minister’s post whenever somebody sniffed trouble for Chouhan — has daunting adversaries on home turf. “Royalty” and a plebeian. “Royalty” refers to Yashodhara Raje Scindia, Shivpuri legislator and a minister in the Chouhan dispensation while the pleb is Gwalior MLA , Jaibhan Singh Pawaiya, a favourite of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Like Yashodhara, Pawaiya is a minister but draws his clout as a former president of the Bajrang Dal and a tireless champion of the Ram temple. “If Tomar gave a walkover to Yashodhara and Pawaiya and couldn’t get tickets for his loyalists, he might have found it hard to retain his Lok Sabha seat,” a source said.
However, the Chouhan-Tomar duo does not make up the entire cast that played a role in the unfolding drama. Sumitra Mahajan, Indore MP and Lok Sabha Speaker, managed to get the better of her local antagonist, Kailash Vijaywargiya, the soft-spoken BJP general secretary who caught the party president Amit Shah’s eye for his organisational prowess. “She had a greater say in distributing tickets in the Indore region than Vijaywargiya,” a source close to the general secretary admitted. The source added that Vijaywargiya expended his time and energy wangling one for his son, Akash who is contesting from Indore Vidhan Sabha 3 against a Congress veteran, Ashwin Joshi, and is counting on his father’s goodwill and political legacy to see him through.
In the joust to redraw and manipulate the power terrain, Rakesh Singh, Jabalpur MP and the state BJP president picked by Shah months before the elections, figured nowhere although historically in the state, the chief minister and the regional party chief worked as a team after attaining mutual trust and understanding. “Chouhan had nothing to do with Singh’s appointment so he ignored him,” a source said. Union minister Dharmendra Pradhan, who is the chief central “prabhari” (minder), distanced himself from the tangled exercise. But central vice-president Vinay Sahasrabuddhe, who’s also a “prabhari”, was in the thick of the negotiations with Chouhan and Tomar.
How does the multiplicity of players and side-actors involved in distributing 230 tickets reflect on the BJP’s central leadership that supposedly rules over the states with an iron hand? “Shah and Modi kept themselves aloof once they realised that the job was messy. The problems Kailash ji faced are on account of the leaders’ absence of intervention. Kailash ji is close to both. When Modi was the MP ‘prabhari’ (in the nineties), Kailash ji was his window to understanding state politics. When Shah asked if he would resign as minister (in the Chouhan government) and work for the BJP’s central organisation, he instantly put in his papers,” said Subhash Parmar, an Indore BJP worker and a Vijaywargiya loyalist. Yet not only did Chouhan, with help from Tomar, Mahajan and Sahasrabuddhe, ensure that Vijaywargiya was denied a ticket in the name of “sacrificing electoral politics”, he saw to it that a Vijaywargiya acolyte, Ramesh Mendola did not give up his own “safe” seat for the son, Akash although Mendola was willing to. The upshot is Akash has been fielded from a “less safe” constituency and that too after the BJP general secretary (organisation), Ramlal, actively intervened.
Contextualising the scenario in MP’s power politics, a state BJP office-bearer said, “We have been in power long enough for Chouhan and Vijaywargiya to master the art and skill of bestowing patronage and earning loyalties. The CM has mostly packed the positions of power, big and small, with his people. Vijaywargiya coaxes loyalty by working and doing everything he possibly can for the BJP cadre. Chouhan can’t match the following Vijawargiya has in the organisation all over MP and not just Indore. But come elections and giving out tickets, none of our regional leaders wants to be surpassed by the others in obliging their adherents. Unfortunately, this time Vijawargiya seems to have lost out a bit.”
However, the real test for Chouhan and the others is yet to come because the selection of candidates is the first part of a lengthy and arduous operation in which he and the BJP are up against daunting odds.