Has Modi Sidelined Shivraj Singh Chouhan?

In 2018, Mr Chouhan became chief minister for the fourth time with some support from Mr Scindia. This time, nothing can be said with any certainty.

Is this Aasembly election going to spell the end of Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s career in state politics?

He is keeping his fingers crossed. He was announced as the Bharatiya Janata Party candidate from Budhni on the party’s fifth list.

When his name did not figure on the first four, addressing people in his constituency, Mr Chouhan asked: ‘Bataiye, chunav ladun ya nahi? Yahan se ladun ya nahin? (should I contest the election? Should I contest from here or go somewhere else?)’

Elsewhere at a meeting he added a rhetorical question: ‘Bataiye, Modiji ko pradhan mantri ban na chahiya ya nahi? (tell me, should Modiji become prime minister again or not?)’

Not that there was any doubt about the answer from the crowd, but that the question was being asked led to many raised eyebrows.

In Sehore, tears rolling down his cheeks, he said: ‘You won’t get a brother like me. When I go away, you will miss me a lot.

His agony was underscored by other events. Two stand out.

When he came to Bhopal for a meeting of BJP workers before the elections were declared, Mr Modi did not mention Shivraj Singh Chouhan by name even once in his address.

Nor was there any mention of important initiatives the state government had been rolling out, including the Laadli Behna scheme (Rs 1,250 per month to women below a certain income level, to go up to Rs 3,000), which the chief minister considers his personal achievement.

By contrast, a few days ago, when Mr Modi attended the 125th anniversary celebrations of the Scindia School in Gwalior, he lavished praise on (relatively) new BJP entrant Jyotiraditya Scindia, reminding the crowd that as a son-in-law of Gujarat, Mr Scindia had a special place in his heart.

He also had words of appreciation for the family, especially Madhavrao Scindia, who started the Shatabdi trains, which were the precursor of the Vande Bharat series running now.

Both Mr Chouhan and Union Agriculture Minister Narendra Tomar, now a candidate in the assembly elections, stood by, listening quietly.

Mr Tomar’s area of influence is next door to Gwalior, and till a few years ago, his supporters used to target the Maharaj.

Now, he is a valued colleague — and who can contradict the PM?

There are other ways in which the Centre, wittingly or otherwise, has undermined the Madhya Pradesh government.

The state contributes 60 per cent of India’s national production of soyabean, an important kharif crop.

Erratic rain this year hit production and compensation has been slow in coming.

On top of that, the Centre had slashed import duty on all major edible oils to zero in October last year.

The effective duty on imported crude edible oil, including soyabean, is just 5.5 per cent.

So, oil expellers and solvent extractors have plenty of cheap choices and are under no pressure to buy soyabean seeds from farmers.

Price realisation is low. Farmers are desperate.

So if Mr Chouhan is opting to look back rather than looking forward, it is consistent with the sense of hopelessness both he and his supporters are feeling.

This is evident in the posters and election hoardings.

They have a big picture of Narendra D Modi, with a smaller image of the BJP collective.

Shivraj Singh Chouhan, the captain of the team, is just one among a bevy of leaders — J P Nadda, national president of the party; V D Sharma, state president; Mr Scindia; Mr Tomar; and many others.

This was not the case in the past.

What lies behind this strategy, which is clearly dictated from New Delhi?

Mr Chouhan is in his fourth term as chief minister, and he first got the job when he was just 46.

He is popular in the rural areas of the state, but gets less resonance in urban centres like Bhopal, Indore, Jabalpur, and Ujjain.

One reason is obviously incumbency.

To dilute this, not only is the projection of the CM lower, but also an unprecedented number of central leaders, including Union ministers, has been fielded in an assembly election, edging out sitting — and possibly unpopular — candidates.

The Jan Ashirwad Yatras, which Mr Chouhan used to undertake and lead himself, are now being helmed by different leaders, including Pralhad Patel, Mr Tomar, and Mr Scindia.

Mr Chouhan has thrown money at voters like there’s no tomorrow.

Back-of-the-envelope calculations suggest that at a certain income and family-size level, a small family could ‘earn’ between Rs 15,000 and Rs 20,000 a month just sitting at home, simply on the back of government largesse.

Mr Chouhan’s justification is that once people have a little bit put by, the money enters the markets and generates employment and business in return.

He has made this speech many times as a response to his opponents’ ‘revdi‘ allegation. But people want more.

Corruption is a serious problem, especially in the lower reaches of government.

Systems work imperfectly and people get angry when their entitlements are held back because of systemic glitches — or worse.

In Madhya Pradesh, the BJP’s best performance was in 2003, when it won 173 seats in the 230-member assembly.

In 2018, it won 109 seats and Mr Scindia’s decision to ditch the Congress and join the BJP with his supporters led Mr Chouhan to become chief minister once again.

This time, nothing can be said with any certainty.

Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/Rediff.com

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