The Gwalior Gamble
“Jab manthan hota hai toh amrit nikalta hai, aur joh vish nikalta hai usko Shiv pee jaate hain (A churn yields both ambrosia and poison, and Shiva drinks the poison [for the greater good]),” said Madhya Pradesh chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan on his return from Delhi on July 1 following tough negotiations on the much-awaited expansion of his cabinet. The sense of disappointment was palpable in the words of Chouhan, who in his past three terms as MP chief minister had enjoyed unfettered control over cabinet appointments and government posts.
Chouhan inducted 28 ministers on July 2, but the leader who walked away with a lion’s share of the appointments was a recent BJP entrant, Jyotiraditya Scindia. Poised to return to the Union cabinet himself, Scindia secured 11 positions for his loyalists in the 34-member state cabinet. The three other former Congress MLAs who got berths are not Scindia acolytes, but were among the 22 legislators who had crossed over along with him to the BJP in March.
How did Scindia succeed in driving such a hard bargain in his new party, and why has the BJP risked antagonising its stalwarts in MP to accommodate his loyalists? Most importantly, how will all of this impact Chouhan’s chief ministerial stint? Sources say that at the time Scindia was negotiating his entry into the BJP along with his MLAs, whose resignations would bring down the Kamal Nath government, it had been decided that six of his loyalists would be made ministers in the new BJP government. They were Tulsi Silawat, Govind Singh Rajput, Pradyuman Singh Tomar, Mahendra Singh Sisodia, Prabhuram Choudhary and Imarti Devi. MLAs Aidal Singh Kansana, Bisahulal Singh and Hardeep Dang, who were not Scindia camp members but had worked out their entry into the BJP, too, were to get cabinet posts. Rajvardhan Singh Dattigaon, an MLA considered close to Scindia, too, was to be appointed. However, the cabinet expansion on July 2 saw four more inductions from Scindia’s team, as ministers of state, Brajendra Singh Yadav, Giriraj Dandotiya, Suresh Dhakad and O.P.S. Bhadoria.
The Chouhan cabinet now has 12 ministers from the Gwalior-Chambal region, which accounts for 34 out of the 230 assembly seats. Seven out of them are Scindia nominees. Gwalior-Chambal remains a key battleground between the BJP and the Congress as 16 of the 24 assembly seats where by-elections are slated fall in the region. The bypolls have been necessitated by the defection of 22 Congress MLAs to the BJP and the death of two legislators.
Sources say the BJP agreed to give four additional cabinet slots to Scindia’s team as it felt that contesting as ministers would improve their chances of victory. A top state BJP functionary explains: “The MLAs [who crossed over in March] were Scindia loyalists while in the Congress. But now that they have joined the BJP and will be contesting the by-elections on its ticket, ensuring their victory becomes the BJP’s responsibility. And on their victory hinges the stability of the Chouhan government.”
The BJP’s decision to accommodate additional ex-Congress MLAs from the Gwalior-Chambal region has impacted the regional and caste balance in the cabinet. MLAs from the Vindhya region, where the BJP performed the best in the 2018 assembly election and won 24 seats, got only three cabinet berths. Going by community-wise population estimates in MP, the Thakurs are over-represented in the cabinet while the Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes are underrepresented. “That the BJP is anti-Dalit and against marginalised communities stands exposed by the cabinet expansion,” said Congress spokesperson K.K. Mishra.
The BJP has several senior leaders from Gwalior-Chambal, such as Union minister Narendra Singh Tomar, Jyotiraditya’s aunt Yashodhara Raje and state home minister Narottam Mishra, but it seems to back Scindia as its best bet in the region. Tomar managed to get Bharat Singh Kushwah, considered close to him, a cabinet berth. Yashodhara Raje, too, has been included in the cabinet as was Mishra, considered a Chouhan baiter, in April. While Chouhan himself enjoys a pan-MP appeal, for the moment Scindia’s influence in the BJP seems to exceed everyone else’s.
Chouhan took charge as chief minister on March 23, two days before the national lockdown kicked in. He inducted the first lot of ministers, five of them, on April 21. Two of them, Silawat and Rajput, belonged to the Scindia camp. The delay in formation of the cabinet was the first indication that consensus was eluding top BJP leaders. Chouhan had then said that a full cabinet would take shape in early May, but he eventually took two more months. He even insisted on face-to-face interactions with BJP central leaders in Delhi before that.
Chouhan made the trip to Delhi on June 29, with state BJP president V.D. Sharma and general secretary (organisation) Suhas Bhagat. The chief minister called on Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Union home minister Amit Shah, BJP president J.P. Nadda, old-time ally Tomar and Scindia.
Chouhan had insisted on one-on-one meetings with the BJP leadership on two counts. One, to get certain senior party members into the cabinet, most of them his former cabinet colleagues. The list included Rajendra Shukla and Rampal Singh, considered close to Chouhan. Members of Chouhan’s previous cabinets who were denied a berth this time are Surendra Patwa, Jalam Singh Patel, Ajay Vishnoi and Nagendra Singh. Second, to flag concerns about the dearth of experience in his cabinet. As Bhopal-based political analyst Girija Shankar says: “Chouhan’s concerns about the need for experienced hands are genuine. Thirteen ministers from his previous government lost the 2018 election while another four were denied tickets. Most ex-Congress MLAs who have joined the new cabinet are first-time ministers or have hardly 15 months of experience in the Kamal Nath government.”
Senior BJP MLAs and Chouhan loyalists lost out because the BJP was keen to accommodate Scindia’s men in view of the by-elections and also wanted some new faces in the cabinet. Among the debutants from the BJP are Usha Thakur from Indore; Arvind Bhadoria, who played a key role in the defection of the Congress MLAs to the BJP; Prem Singh Patel, a tribal leader from Malwa; Om Prakash Saklecha, son of former state chief minister V.K. Saklecha; Mohan Yadav, MLA from Ujjain; Ramkishore Kawre, Inder Parmar, Ramkhilawan Patel and Bharat Singh Kushwah.
Even as BJP state chief Sharma described the new cabinet as “reflective of efficiency and balance”, protests erupted within the party. Upset over Kailash Vijayvargiya loyalist Ramesh Mendola being denied a berth, a BJP worker attempted self-immolation in Indore. Supporters of Surendra Patwa and Yashpal Sisodia protested over their exclusion. Former state chief minister Uma Bharti, too, spoke out. “Since end-February, when the Congress government was about to crumble, I have held the view that the amount of effort that would go into winning the 24 seats [in the by-elections] would have won us (BJP) the entire state,” she said.
Former minister Ajay Vishnoi, who was denied a cabinet berth, made a telling remark on Twitter: “First the number of ministers, and now portfolios. I am concerned the BJP worker on the ground might get offended at the insult of our leader. It will be damaging.”
Portfolio allocation posed another challenge, with Chouhan going to Delhi on July 5 to meet BJP central leaders. The delay, sources said, was over Scindia’s requests for key ministries for his loyalists. Asked about the delay, senior BJP leader Gopal Bhargava said: “The cabinet is not a group of sadhus. Everyone has ambitions.”
Many in the BJP feel the Scindia camp will start asserting itself in the cabinet. “When the Scindia loyalists were part of the Kamal Nath cabinet, they placed their leader above the chief minister. There were showdowns in cabinet meetings between Nath and ministers loyal to Scindia. The loyalists owe their place in the Chouhan cabinet to Scindia and not the BJP. So nothing has changed,” says a BJP leader.
The political heft shown by Scindia has set off speculation within a section of the state BJP that he may lead the party in MP in the future, potentially as a CM face. Whether or not true, for now, Scindia’s trajectory in the BJP may well be defined by the outcome of the forthcoming by-elections.