How BJP is trying to overcome 'Chouhan fatigue' in Madhya Pradesh

It is bringing back old horses and giving tickets to family members

PTI10_23_2023_000039B Emotional connect: Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan with wife, Sadhna Singh, during ‘Kanya Puja’ on the Navratri festival in Bhopal | PTI

IF ELECTION management had a template, the BJP has used it all in Madhya Pradesh―from making Prime Minister Narendra Modi the face of the campaign to bringing back old war horses into the battle. It is an all-hands-on-the-deck effort.

With less than a month to go to the polls, the state is expected to set the tone for the Lok Sabha elections next year. But before that, the results will determine the future of Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan.

The longest serving BJP chief minister, Chouhan mixed welfarism and hindutva in equal measures to strengthen the party in the state. But now even his own partymen say there is a fatigue. He underwent an image makeover to overcome this, donning an aggressive avatar, bringing vigour in his body language and dialling up his connection with the voters. It remains to be seen if it is good enough to take on the Congress, and his competitors within the party.

Chouhan has been assiduously wooing women voters, with grand schemes for them. “You will miss me if I’m gone,” he told them in a rally in his constituency, Budhni.

While there is no doubt that Chouhan is the BJP’s best-known face in the state, the party has decided to follow the collective leadership formula for the election. This is best captured in the election publicity material in which Modi is the focus, and Chouhan is only one among the 10 state leaders.

The BJP strategy has been to focus on different regions in the state, and it has brought in leaders like Union Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar for the Gwalior-Chambal region, Kailash Vijayvargiya for the Malwa-Nimar region and Prahlad Singh Patel, Union minister of state for food processing, for the Mahakoshal region. This has set tongues wagging about other chief minister candidates.

For the crucial Gwalior-Chambal region, the party is also relying on Union Aviation Minister Jyotiraditya Scindia. In 2018, the Congress won 26 of 34 assembly seats in this region, mostly owing to Scindia’s clout. When he left the Congress for the BJP, he took 22 of them with him. Interestingly, Modi attending the 125-year celebration of the Scindia School in Gwalior on October 21 set off the buzz that Scindia could be the surprise choice as chief minister if the BJP wins.

The Malwa-Nimar region has 66 seats and it had been a BJP stronghold. But the party suffered a set back in the last assembly elections when the Congress won 35 seats. The region has 22 seats reserved for tribals. Tribals constitute about 21 per cent of the state’s population, and the BJP has been celebrating tribal icons like Tantia Bhil and Rani Kamlapati to engage with the community. Historically, those who won the tribal seats won the state. Last time, the Congress won 30 of 47 seats reserved for tribals in the state.

Making Modi the face of the BJP’s election campaign comes with two objectives―overcome the anti-incumbency and create a continuity in engagement with the voters for the Lok Sabha elections, which is only a few months away. “MP ke mann main Modi; Modi ke mann main MP (Modi is in MP’s mind; MP is in Modi’s mind)” is the theme of the campaign. Modi has visited the state 35 times since he became prime minister.

The BJP has been fine-tuning its strategy since the days of the Karnataka assembly elections. Apart from the decision on collective leadership and pitting national leaders in state polls, the biggest change the party has made is relaxing the age ceiling for candidates. Two of its candidates, Nagendra Singh in Gurh and his namesake in Nagod, are above 80. Former ministers Jayant Malaviya, 76, and Maya Singh, 74, have been given tickets. Maya Singh was denied a ticket last time. These leaders were all looking at retiring when the party called them back into the fight.

Adding to the BJP’s anxiety are rebels, and resentment among those who have been denied tickets. There have been protests. “We are a cadre-based party. We have been in power for two decades. Naturally, there are many hopefuls who have been working for it. But it is not an issue; we are talking to them and they will come around,” said party spokesperson Hitesh Bajpai.

In yet another deviation, the BJP has given tickets to relatives of politicians, though it has restricted it to one ticket per family. Vijayvargiya was given ticket, but his son, a legislator, was denied. Relatives of eight former chief ministers are in the fray on BJP and Congress tickets.

With the Congress batting for caste census, the focus of the election has been shifted to OBC voters. The OBCs constitute more than 50 per cent of the state’s population.

The BJP has given tickets to 66 OBC candidates. It has always relied on the OBC vote bank; three of its chief ministers in the state, including Chouhan, were OBCs. Among the current hopefuls, Prahlad Singh Patel belongs to the Lodh caste, and Scindia belongs to the Kurmi caste, and Tomar from the Thakur caste. The outcome of the tightly fought election is likely to decide the political future of many leaders, as the party is nurturing a new crop of second-rung leaders.

“We are not like the Congress, which is family-run,” said Bajpai. “We always had a collective leadership. People will be stunned by the results. It will be like in Gujarat.” The BJP won 156 of 182 seats in the Gujarat assembly elections in 2022.

As the campaign picks up, the BJP will be relying on Modi and the welfare schemes to make an impact. It has identified about 6.98 crore of the state’s 9.5 crore population as beneficiaries of welfare schemes. While the promise of double engine is alluring, it remains to be seen if it will be able to get the party another term.