BJP sees the writing on the wall in Madhya Pradesh

A long, scam-ridden run in power and too many ambitious satraps vying for the top job make for bad news

Madhya Pradesh chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan with BJP state president V.D. Sharma
Madhya Pradesh chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan with BJP state president V.D. Sharma

Kashif Kakvi & Pooja

Four months before the next assembly election in the state, the BJP in Madhya Pradesh is working overtime to put its house in order. Union ministers Bhupendra Yadav and Narendra Singh Tomar have been drafted as election in-charge and convenor of the election management committee, respectively.

Preparations are afoot to launch five Vijay Sankalp Yatras by the end of this month, to be led, among others, by Union ministers Jyotiraditya Scindia and Faggan Singh Kulaste.

But despite all the chopping and changing, the party does not appear to be battle-ready. Having been in power for the better part of 18 years, the party is forced to cope with anti-incumbency and defend its record of governance. It is wary of the ‘charge sheet’ being prepared by the Indian National Congress, with Congress leaders claiming to have listed more than 100 scams and cases of corruption during this period.

To the great embarrassment of the BJP, two further controversies surfaced this month. The first one over the results of the recruitment of patwaris by the MP Employee Selection Board (MPESB), which is the current name of the infamous Vyapam, which got embroiled in a scam that rocked the state 10 years ago, also just ahead of an assembly election.

The results revealed that seven of the first 10 successful candidates and as many as 140 of the successful candidates had appeared from the same centre in the Gwalior– Chambal region. The centre was the NRI college run by BJP MLA Sanjeev Kushwaha, formerly from the BSP.

The controversy gained ground with fresh revelations that six of the successful candidates from this centre hailed from a single family. It also surfaced that several successful candidates who secured full marks (25/25) in English had all signed their examination papers in Hindi.

As many as 12.34 lakh applications had been received for the 6,000 vacancies and 9.74 lakh aspirants finally appeared at the recruitment examination. Online examinations were conducted by Bengaluru-based company Eduquiry Career Techno Pvt Ltd, which charged the Board Rs 168 per examinee by way of examination fees. While the company made a killing, protests grew and the chief minister first ordered that the results be kept in abeyance, pending re-evaluation, and then recommended a judicial probe.

Vyapam has consistently been a lightning rod for scandal since 2013, when the alleged recruitment scam claimed around 50 lives—including examiners, examinees and whistleblowers—all of whom died in mysterious circumstances. Even a journalist died a day after he arrived in the state to investigate the allegations. The inquiry was eventually handed over to the CBI (Central Bureau of Investigation), which did put a large number of people behind bars; but most people in the state believe the kingpins were never nabbed.

In 2021, when Vyapam was known as the Madhya Pradesh Professional Examination Board, another scandal dealing with the recruitment of 862 agriculture officers surfaced. Reports said most of the successful candidates at the top of the list belonged to the same caste, hailed from the same college and region, and had made identical mistakes in the examination.

The examination was eventually cancelled. “The name of Vyapam has changed thrice in the last 10 years but the same level of corruption appears to have dogged the board,” lamented Arun Yadav, former Union minister and a senior Congress leader.

During the 18 years of BJP rule, the Congress has alleged, the state has seen a hundred scams in nutrition, women and child development, recruitments, mid-day meals, school uniforms, irrigation, the PDS (public distribution system), nursing, a Rs 3,000 crore e-tender, tree plantation, the Mahakal Lok corridor and the Karam Dam.

Vyapam/MPESB remains under the scanner over as many as 24 recruitment tests it conducted, the Congress has claimed. Worse than the allegations of rampant corruption, however, the Madhya Pradesh BJP appears to be suffering from a surfeit of ‘heavyweights’.

Besides current chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan—who has been in the saddle since 2005, barring a short break after the 2018 election—there are several claimants for the top political office. Union ministers Jyotiraditya Scindia and Narendra Singh Tomar, state BJP president V.D. Sharma and state home minister Narottam Mishra are among the contenders for the top job in the state.

The BJP has attempted to project Scindia as an OBC (Other Backward Classes) leader and this is widely believed to give him an edge over Mishra and Sharma, both Brahmins, in popularity ratings. The OBCs form a major chunk of voters in Madhya Pradesh.

However, while the Brahmins and other upper castes enjoy considerable political clout, Scindia— who seems to enjoy the confidence of the party’s central leaders—is not popular among the BJP workers. It has been decided that the BJP will not project anyone as the next chief minister in the run-up to the elections. It has also been resolved that publicity material will display both Prime Minister Modi and chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan.

However, the party is acutely embarrassed by the lack of coordination and consultation between its senior leaders in the state. Often enough, the chief minister is left to defend the government alone; even more frequently, the leaders seem to be speaking at cross-purposes.

BJP insiders point to the video from Seedhi, which had shown an associate of a BJP MLA urinating on a man from the Kol tribe in public. While both the men seemed to be inebriated and the video was said to be old, the proactive chief minister hurriedly invited the tribal man home, washed his feet, shared lunch with him and sent him off with monetary compensation.

While Chouhan pulled off the damage-control exercise on his own and hogged the limelight, he neither invited nor consulted other leaders. The result was that most leaders shrugged off the chief minister’s publicity stunt as an overreaction and dismissed the incident, saying that the culprit, Pravesh Shukla, should pay for it. Others argued that the CM’s gesture actually looked like intimidation and could boomerang.

Scindia distanced himself and the party further from the incident saying that Shukla had committed a crime and did not belong to any political party. Narottam Mishra got off with a huffy quip that bulldozers were being sent to demolish the culprit’s house. Sharma simply condemned the incident. Narendra Singh Tomar lauded the chief minister.

The varied reactions, say party insiders, gave away a lack of coordination and consultation. The day after the chief minister ordered an inquiry into the controversy related to the recruitment of patwaris, his home minister was found accusing Congress leader Kamal Nath of making a mountain of a molehill.

Narottam Mishra tweeted that Nath was spreading falsehood and indulging in ‘dirty politics’. The contradictory stands of the two senior ministers made the party and the government look silly, said observers. As the BJP battles public perception on the one hand, the party itself is looking fraying at the edges, with different leaders spouting different narratives on the same subject.

The state’s ranking per the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) is also giving party leaders sleepless nights. Madhya Pradesh tops the list for atrocities against tribals, is ranked second for cases of rape, third for atrocities and crime against Dalits, fourth for murders and abductions and sixth for violence and crime against women. Not an enviable record, by any standard.

The state government’s failure to deal with unemployment and provide jobs to the youth, on top of the recruitment scams and question paper leaks, have also tarnished the party’s image.

Not surprising, then, that the BJP in Madhya Pradesh is looking like a house divided and its leaders unsure of their grip on the situation and uncertain of their future.

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