The isolation of Shivraj Chouhan
...and why the BJP has been acting like a headless chicken in Madhya Pradesh
Amit Shah’s unscheduled four-hour visit to Bhopal the week of 9 July sparked intense speculation about an imminent replacement of chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan.
To the disappointment of the anti-Chouhan lobbies within the BJP, nothing of the sort happened.
Shah left for New Delhi after delivering a marathon pep talk to BJP MLAs and office-bearers that lasted from 8.30 pm to 11 pm on Tuesday, 11 July. Shah’s stern message was to unite in order to prevent a repetition of Karnataka (which the Bharatiya Janata Party lost in May) in the assembly election due in Madhya Pradesh in November.
The futility of replacing the chief minister three months before the election, with none of the other contenders—namely, Jyotiraditya Scindia, Narottam Mishra and Kailash Vijayvargia—enjoying enthusiastic support among the BJP legislators would have carried weight with Shah. But notwithstanding the reprieve, Chouhan—the longest-serving chief minister in Madhya Pradesh, having been in the saddle for almost 18 years since 2005—finds himself isolated within the party and outside it.
He had earlier been dropped from the party’s parliamentary board and, though he was once placed among PM hopefuls along with Narendra Modi, he appears to have lost ground to BJP chief ministers like Yogi Adityanath of Uttar Pradesh and Himanta Biswa Sarma of Assam.
The day after Shah’s unscheduled visit, the five-day assembly session was adjourned sine die on Wednesday, 12 July. The session had barely lasted for one-and-a-half days, and the ostensible reason was the government’s reluctance to allow an adjournment motion to discuss atrocities perpetrated against tribal individuals in the state.
A memorandum handed over to the state’s governor by the Indian National Congress claimed that 30,000 cases of atrocities against tribals had been registered in Madhya Pradesh under BJP rule.
The document highlighted the incident in Sidhi, where an upper-caste man nonchalantly urinating on the head of a seated Adivasi man (a member of the Kol community) who was making no effort to move, had resulted in a viral video. It also mentioned the Nemawar mass murder, in which five members of a tribal family were killed and buried, besides the Neemach incident in which a tribal individual was tied to a speeding vehicle and killed.
Conscious of the potential damage that the video could do in an election year, the chief minister deployed the police to produce the victim from Sidhi, 600 km away, at the chief minister’s residence in Bhopal to have lunch with him.
This time the video of the chief minister washing the victim’s feet, apologising to him for the incident and calling him a ‘friend’ of his was officially released to contain the damage. As part of this knee-jerk reaction, Chouhan also ordered the culprit to be arrested under the National Security Act (NSA) and for part of his house to be demolished with a bulldozer. This alienated the Brahmin community, even as tribal citizens remained seemingly unappeased.
“Even tribals who do not have Android phones and live deep in the jungles are now aware of the incident,” Balveer Singh Tomar, general secretary of the Gondwana Gantantra Party (GGP) was quoted as saying. “It is the image of a man peeing on the face of a poor tribal that is going to remain etched in the collective memory of the tribals,” he added.
While the Sidhi incident was a public relations disaster, Kalsingh Bhabar, head of the state’s BJP ST morcha, exuded confidence that it would not affect the party’s electoral prospects. “We have been celebrating tribal culture and we brought drinking water, irrigation and other schemes to the tribal belt,” he pointed out. Scheduled Tribes account for over 21 per cent of the population of the state, and 47 seats out of the 230 seats in the Assembly are reserved for them. The BJP, which had won 31 of these seats in 2013 but only 16 seats in 2018 assembly elections, has been working overtime to claw back lost ground.
The image of Shivraj Singh Chouhan as the pleasant, amiable ‘Mama’ (a maternal uncle) has undergone a transformation. Between 2005 and 2015, he was the face of ‘moderate Hindutva’, and did not mind attending an iftar gathering or donning a skull cap. With the population of Muslims in the state hovering around just 6.5 per cent, there was little value in polarising people on communal lines, after all.
Chouhan instead vigorously pursued welfare schemes like rice at Re 1 for the poor, a maternity assistance of Rs 16,000 for women labourers, electricity at a flat rate of Rs 200 per month, etc. Chouhan reportedly wanted to sit in the opposition after losing the election narrowly to the Congress in 2018. The BJP had then won 109 seats to the 114 seats won by the Congress.
But he returned as chief minister when the central leaders of the BJP engineered defections from the Congress, when Scindia and his followers walked out and joined the BJP in 2020. With Modi and Amit Shah unleashing ‘hard Hindutva’ after winning the general election in 2019, Chouhan fell in line and shed his moderate image. Not only did he try to ape his Uttar Pradesh counterpart Yogi Adityanath by ordering bulldozers to demolish the houses of the ‘riot-accused’, mostly Muslims and Dalits, he also went out of his way to protect vigilante groups like the Bajrang Dal.
He also, conversely, announced an allocation of Rs 100 crore to construct a temple to Sant Ravidas, a 15th-century saint-poet revered by the Dalit communities. The BJP government under Chouhan also introduced Hindu scriptures in the curriculum of government schools, and released grants for the construction of temple corridors in Orchha, Ujjain and Chitrakoot. However, Chouhan’s public image was dented when he succumbed to pressure and ordered police action against the Ganga Jamuna Higher Secondary School in Damoh.
The minority-run institution had been imparting education in the English medium to students from marginalised sections. But an advertisement celebrating the success of its students in the board examination drew the ire of BJP hardliners because even the Hindu students of the school were shown wearing headscarves.
The school was viciously attacked for making the students recite a verse penned by famous Urdu poet Allama Iqbal. The school’s principal, a teacher and a guard were arrested for running a ‘jihadist empire’ and the school was charged with violating building laws. The state education board suspended the school’s affiliation.In line with his new image, Chouhan has announced the formation of a Brahmin welfare board to appease the small but influential population, enhanced the salary of temple priests to Rs 5,000, and ordered the construction of a Parshuram Lok in Indore.
The chief minister has been busy making a breath-taking array of promises too. He announced the Ladli Behna Yojana (‘beloved sister scheme’), under which financial aid of Rs 1,000 a month would be given to over 1.20 crore women aged between 23 and 60 years.
He announced the formation of several welfare boards and declared 12 new government holidays this year. He also announced a Seekho Kamao Yojana (learn and earn scheme) that offers stipends of Rs 8,000–10,000 to youth, and has promised to fill one lakh vacant government posts. Chouhan has in fact made 2,715 announcements in the last three years as chief minister, between June 2020 and June 2023, the Madhya Pradesh assembly was informed on 11 July. The reply was given in response to a question put by first-time Congress MLA Ramchandra Dangi.
The beleaguered chief minister eventually blurted out his sense of isolation while addressing women in Indore on July 10. “Believe me, I am alone; how much can a single person do or look at? I need your help. Will you not help me?” the chief minister pleaded. His plaintive appeal was greeted with bemused silence.
His isolation in the party had in fact become evident as early as January this year, when members of the so-called Karni Sena used abusive terms in discussing the chief minister’s mother. No word of protest came from the party leaders, while the Bhopal police lodged an FIR only a week after the video surfaced and only after the chief minister’s wife led a protest and demanded action.
Conspicuously, the party itself—like the citizens that Chouhan had addressed—maintained a studied silence.