Decoding the BJP’s CM choices in the three heartland states

Decoding the BJP’s CM choices in the three heartland states

It is difficult to fault political analysts who have seen a combination of both caste calculations and winds of generational change to explain the choices BJP has made to lead the governments in the three states

A L I ChouguleUpdated: Sunday, December 24, 2023, 08:37 PM IST
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The choice of chief ministers for the states of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Chhattisgarh, where the Bharatiya Janata Party emerged victorious in the recent Assembly elections, not only surprised many people in the BJP but also confounded political analysts. It is true that the party did not project a chief ministerial face in any of the three states but fought the elections under collective leadership. But in all the three states, post-election the BJP cast aside established and well-known leaders and new leaders were selected to lead the governments. What does it signify?

Clearly, the choice of chief ministers has the unambiguous imprint of the party’s central leadership, especially the power and authority of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah. Does this indicate a total control over the party of Modi and Shah? The answer is obvious, though there might have been other considerations too, which includes the Modi-Shah duo’s strategy for a return to power in 2024. As all the names were surprises, there is a possibility of clear political plans behind each of them, which are for the longer term for the party. The second question is whether the shuffle in leadership represents a generational shift for the BJP.

Let us take the case of the ‘sidelined’ leaders of the three states — Shivraj Singh Chouhan, Vasundhara Raje Scindia, and Raman Singh. Madhya Pradesh was considered a no-hope state for the BJP. But under Chouhan’s chief ministership the BJP went on to win a surprisingly landslide victory. Collective leadership can be given credit for the party’s impressive performance, but a lot of credit also goes to Chouhan and his welfare schemes. Thus, the obvious choice for the chief minister’s post was expected to be Chouhan, still a popular leader even after his 16-year-long stint as chief minister. But the party’s central leadership’s choice for Madhya Pradesh was Mohan Yadav, who belongs to the state’s dominant OBC community.

In Rajasthan, the hold of two-time chief minister Vasundhara Raje Scindia over the party’s state unit was so strong that after sidelining her initially, the BJP central leadership was forced to acknowledge her clout and accommodate her supporters in ticket distribution. She may not have been a favourite for the chief minister’s post but the party could not afford to marginalise her completely. However, much against expectations, the BJP chose first-time MLA Bhajan Lal Sharma over Scindia and other expected names like Gajendra Shekhawat and Diya Kumari. In Chhattisgarh, also a no-hope state for BJP, it was assumed that former three-time chief minister Raman Singh would get the job in case the BJP won the election. But Modi and Shah chose to surprise everyone with their choice of the chief ministerial name — Vishnu Deo Sai — though Singh has been accommodated as Speaker of the Assembly.

This is not the first time that the BJP central leadership has replaced prominent state leaders. A few years ago, it had also sidelined Sushil Kumar Modi for the deputy chief minister’s post in Bihar, after winning the 2020 assembly poll in which Sushil Kumar had campaigned in a similar manner to Shivaraj Singh’s campaign in Madhya Pradesh. While he was expected to be ‘accommodated’ in the central cabinet, given his experience and loyalty to the BJP and RSS, Sushil Kumar Modi was almost relegated to insignificance and later sent to the Rajya Sabha. His position in the party is now peripheral. Whether Shivraj and Vasundhara would meet the same fate as Sushil Kumar remains to be seen in the ‘era of surprises’ ushered in by Modi and Shah, but it seems certain that their independent stature has been weakened.

Interestingly, the ‘sidelined’ leaders are much younger than 75, the age that the Modi-Shah duo has set for retiring from politics in the BJP. The question that arises is whether the BJP leadership is deliberately sidelining experienced leaders for a generational change, to introduce new faces and promote freshness in the party. Or is it a strategy to counter the politics of social justice, a move embraced by I.N.D.I.A bloc parties like the Janata Dal (United) and Congress as a counter to the BJP’s politics of Hindutva? It is difficult to fault political analysts who have seen a combination of both caste calculations and winds of generational change to explain the choices BJP has made to lead the governments in the three heartland states.

For instance, Vishnu Deo Sai, a tribal leader, has both ministerial and organisational experience and his selection is being considered as a sign of importance that the BJP is trying to give to the tribal community, which forms about 30% of Chhattisgarh’s population and 9% of the national population. It is also being seen both as a symbolic extension of the election of Draupadi Murmu as India’s president and a commitment to the state’s tribal constituency. In Madhya Pradesh, it is said, the choice of Mohan Yadav as chief minister is aimed at taking the wind out of the Congress’ caste census platform: the move demonstrates that OBCs are well assimilated into the Hindutva social and cultural discourse. As an OBC leader, he is also expected to have an impact in UP and Bihar too.

In Rajasthan, where forward castes have prominence in politics, Bhajan Lal being a Brahmin may have been one of the reasons for his selection to lead the state; the other reason is said to be that he is a confidant of home minister Shah. Political messaging to the Brahmin community in the Hindi heartland was necessary, particularly after an OBC chief minister was selected in Madhya Pradesh and a tribal leader in Chhattisgarh. Since the Ram temple movement in the 1990s, Brahmins in the Hindi heartland have thrown their lot in with the BJP. Their large-scale desertion is said to have played a significant role in the erosion of the Congress in north India.

While caste and community seem to be the key motives behind the BJP’s leadership choices in each state, it is difficult to ignore the centralised functioning of the BJP under Modi and Shah, which has become a party driven completely by the high command with all decisions coming from the top. This was evident earlier in the selection of chief ministers in Assam, Uttarakhand, and Gujarat and now in MP, Rajasthan, and Chhattisgarh. The choices may or may not have particular significance for the 2024 election, but the message is that the BJP will rely overwhelmingly on Modi’s appeal, issues like the Ayodhya temple, the Article 370 verdict and the caste balances and social engineering that it has been working on to win the Lok Sabha poll.

The writer is a senior independent Mumbai-based journalist. He tweets at @ali_chougule

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