Madhya Pradesh polls: Fanning the ‘hawa’ where none exists
The BJP will field seven sitting MPs, including three union ministers and a national general secretary, in the forthcoming assembly polls. Desperate measures?
If MPs are being sent back to the state to contest in assembly seats, will the party now ask its MLAs to go back to the panchayats, asks a visibly peeved Bharatiya Janata Party leader in Madhya Pradesh.
“Why not field all the MPs?” The statement, dripping with sarcasm and thinly veiled hostility, was in reaction to the party’s second list of candidates for the assembly election, due to be notified soon. “My best wishes to the party and the candidates on this list,” he added, gloomily.
The BJP’s second list for Madhya Pradesh, released on Monday, 25 September, includes three union ministers, four sitting MPs and a national general secretary.
If the idea was to end factionalism, it doesn’t seem to have worked. Reports of simmering discontent in the party have surfaced quickly, and public statements made by BJP leaders seem to lend credence to the reports.
In a viral audio, Kedarnath Shukla, a BJP legislator from Sidhi who dropped in favour of sitting MP Riti Pathak, was overheard saying that Pathak would lose by a record margin.
A viral video clip from Indore appears to confirm that even the central leaders who are being fielded in the assembly election are not happy. Kailash Vijayvargiya is seen saying: “I do not have even 1 per cent interest in contesting this election… I’d planned to campaign, address eight public meetings every day, five by helicopter and three by car… Being a loyal soldier (of the party), I’ll fight, but if I fail to reach out to the voters, <you> (the unnamed eminences in the party high command responsible for the list) will have to obtain their blessings to ensure a big victory.”
Vijayvargiya is evidently cut up that the party has chosen to replace his son Akash, a sitting MLA, with him.
There are others in the party with less at stake than the Vijayvargiyas who are also not on board with the plan to draft central leaders for state polls.
This section of the party believes that recalling leaders who have been out of the state for the past 10–20 years sends out bad signals, and that the returnees will struggle to address local issues and concerns. Some even smell a conspiracy by the ‘sinking coterie’ in the state to go down, if it’s fated, with the central leaders.
The reaction within the BJP is mixed, though, with a section arguing that fielding central leaders from the state will add heft to the party’s campaign because the newly drafted MPs would have more money and manpower at their command.
Their presence and campaign will have an impact in several adjacent constituencies as well, this lot believes.
Some even claim this is another ‘masterstroke’ of the Delhi Duo, and that the deployment of ‘heavy artillery’ has caught the Congress' state committee by surprise.
Some BJP watchers point out that the reshuffle in Gujarat ahead of the assembly election in December 2022 was even more dramatic. The BJP had let go of not just chief minister Vijay Rupani, but his entire cabinet. This knowledge has triggered another round of speculation about incumbent MP chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s political future. BJP workers have been talking about how Chouhan was not mentioned even once by union home minister Amit Shah and prime minister Modi in their last two public meetings, even though Chouhan was very much present on the stage.
The section of the party that backs the strategy manifest in the second list points out that of the 79 constituencies for which the party has finalised candidates in its two lists, the BJP had lost all but three to the Congress and other parties in 2018.
The BJP, they say, has nothing to lose and everything to gain by fielding strong candidates in these ‘lost’ seats. If the party forms the government and some of these central leaders win, there will be many available to replace Chouhan as chief minister.
Significantly, the party has also dropped all the three sitting MLAs from these 79 constituencies.
Union agriculture minister Narendra Singh Tomar, minister of state for food processing and jal shakti (hydropower) Prahlad Singh Patel and minister of state for steel and rural development Faggan Singh Kulaste are the three union ministers named in the list. Patel has been a Lok Sabha member for five terms. Tomar has been a union minister since 2014 and a Lok Sabha member since 2009. Kulaste has been a Lok Sabha member since 1996 and a Rajya Sabha member for two years.
Patel will displace the sitting MLA from the Narsinghpur seat, who happens to be his younger brother. Kulaste will contest from the Niwas seat, reserved for scheduled tribes. Tomar has been fielded from Dimni assembly seat in Morena, a seat the Congress won in 2018 and in the by-election in 2020.
BJP sources foresaw that this strategy would also be tried in Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, and central leaders and union ministers would be asked to contest for the assembly. Sure enough, this seems to have been actioned.
The four MPs fielded by the party in Madhya Pradesh too have a formidable record.
Rakesh Singh, who was the state BJP president between 2014 and 2020, is a four-time MP from Jabalpur. Ganesh Singh is also a four-time MP from Satna. Riti Pathak, a two-time MP, had defeated Congress stalwart Ajay Singh at Sidhi by a margin of 2.86 lakh votes in 2019. Uday Pratap Singh is also a three-time MP from the Hoshangabad seat.
"Candidates," says Girijashankar Aggarwal, a political analyst in Bhopal, "will make a difference in this election in the absence of big-ticket issues." That is why, he says, the BJP—which polled more votes but fewer seats than the Congress in 2018—is putting up formidable candidates this time.
The collateral damage, it appears, is acceptable to the party high command.
Hours after the BJP released the second list, two BJP leaders—Rajesh Mishra and Ratnakar Chaturvedi—resigned from the party. Mishra had been associated with the BJP since its days as the Jan Sangh and served as Sidhi district president. Chaturvedi used to be president of the BJP's youth wing, the Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha.
Quipped analyst Dinesh Gupta, "Heavyweights are needed when the going gets tough. Clearly the chief minister and his welfare schemes are not cutting much ice with the people."
Veteran political commentator N.K. Singh observed that the reactions within the BJP, especially that of Kailash Vijayvargiya, indicated that neither the chief minister nor the state BJP have played any role in ticket distribution. “It is clear that Amit Shah is running the show from New Delhi”, he added.
Reactions from the Congress were on predictable lines. "The BJP has conceded defeat even before the polling," quipped Aloke Sharma, the spokesperson. "Fielding union ministers shows that the BJP is only concerned with winning elections and not on governance since none of the three union ministers will be able to devote much time in their ministries for the next two months," said yet another Congress leader.
The Congress also attacked the BJP for giving a ticket to Monika Batti, a former Gondwana Ganatantra Party leader from Chhindwara's Amarwara seat. The party alleged that she and her father Manmohan Shah Batti were accused of burning the Ramayana in public and for setting up a temple to Ravana. "The party which swears by ‘sanatan dharma’ stands exposed," mocked Piyush Babele, an advisor to Kamal Nath.
The listless public meetings led by the prime minister are adding to the uneasiness within the BJP in the state too. The prime minister this week blamed the Congress for turning Madhya Pradesh into a sick 'BIMARU' state. He in fact is said to have taken the name of the Congress party 44 times in his 51-minute address.
It is strange for the prime minister to blame the Congress when it is the BJP which has ruled over the state for the last 20 years, barring a relatively brief 15-month period, pointed out observers.
For nine-and-a-half of these 20 years, there has even been a ‘double-engine’ government at the Centre and in the state; and yet Congress is to be blamed for the sad plight of the state? They all wondered aloud over this.
Several BJP insiders grudgingly agreed. The prime minister’s public meetings have not yet generated the hawa that they expected. The optimists among them are certain that it will come—though the spectre of the Karnataka elections is being discussed in these circles with even more frequency than before.
The hawa is there—but just not blowing favourably for them yet, they conceded.