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Shivraj Singh Chouhan: The OBC chief minister BJP has tried to discard but without success so far

With an upper-caste chief minister in Uttar Pradesh and with Rahul Gandhi upping the ante on caste census, keen watchers of the political scene say that the BJP will think ten times before naming an upper-caste as the chief minister. Some even say it has little choice but to bank on Chouhan once again

A record 76.22 per cent of Madhya Pradesh’s electorate have fed their choices into the EVMs, now kept in strong rooms in the 53 district headquarters.

Votes were cast for electing the 230-member Madhya Pradesh Assembly on November 17. Counting is scheduled for 3 December. By late afternoon that day, it will be clear whether the Congress or the incumbent Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) will form the next government in the state.

While both parties are claiming that they are confident of winning a comfortable majority, most political pundits believe that the fight is so close that no matter which party wins, it will do so by a slender margin. 

Like Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, two more states from the Hindi belt where results of the polls will be declared on the same day – and unlike Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Haryana – Madhya Pradesh has an essentially bi-polar polity, with the Congress and the BJP together accounting for 226 of the 230 members of the Vidhan Sabha and all the 29 Lok Sabha and 11 Rajya Sabha members elected from the state. 

In the last (2018) Vidhan Sabha elections, the two parties had cumulatively polled 82 per cent of the votes cast. Other parties like the Samajwadi Party, Bahujan Samaj Party, Aam Aadmi Party and Janata Dal United have been trying their luck in the elections in the state for decades now. But none has been able to achieve notable success. 

It is thus clear that either the BJP or the Congress will be forming the government in the state after 3 December.  

Now, if the Congress gets a chance, there is no doubt as to who would head the government. Kamal Nath, 77, who is the president of the State Congress, is the obvious and the declared choice for the top job. Nath is a politician of publicly unknown caste. What is known about him is that he is an industrialist from Kolkata and was a Doon School classmate of Sanjay Gandhi. If the Congress makes the government, Nath, who had headed the Congress government from December 2018 to March 2020, will return to the helm.

However, in case the BJP manages to cross the half-way mark, the race for chief ministership will become interesting. 

Prime Minister Narendra Modi shares the stage with (from left) Union Minister Narendra Singh Tomar, Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan, BJP state president Vishnu Datt Sharma and Union Minister Jyotiraditya Scindia at a BJP workers’ meeting in Bhopal in September 2023

The BJP has been in power in Madhya Pradesh since 2003 (with a 15-month interregnum in which Congress government headed by Kamal Nath was in office). Over this period, the party appointed only OBCs as chief ministers. Uma Bharati, a Lodhi, was the chief minister from December 2003 to August 2004. When she had to demit office after a court in Hubli (Karnataka) issued an arrest warrant against her, Babulal Gaur, a Yadav, took over. He held office from August 2004 to November 2005 before being forced to quit in unsavoury circumstances. 

Gaur was replaced by Shivraj Singh Chouhan, a Kirar, also an OBC caste, who is now in his fourth term in office. He has been the chief minister of the state for almost 17 years – making him the longest-serving chief minister of Madhya Pradesh and the 14th longest-serving chief minister of the country. 

Besides his OBC status, Chouhan could survive for so long in office by his ability to connect with people, his capacity for hard work, his deftness in avoiding controversies and his not-too-strident Hindutva. He was a darling of Lal Krishna Advani and managed to remain in the good books of Narendra Modi.  

But, presumably, his long stint became a liability for him. During the run-up to these assembly elections, the BJP leadership made it clear that he would not be the natural or the obvious choice for the top job if the BJP won the election. “Why do you people worry? We will find someone,” Home Minister Amit Shah told newspersons when asked whether Chouhan was the chief ministerial face. Chouhan’s much-touted Ladli Behna Scheme was not made the prime poll plank by his party in the polls. Hoardings put up by the party were focused only on Modi, with Chouhan’s portrait appearing among 10 other state BJP leaders. An impression was sought to be created that Modi was the party’s poll icon. 

Chouhan’s name did not figure in the initial lists of candidates announced by the BJP, fuelling speculations that he may not be fielded at all. That prompted Chouhan to put a question, clearly aimed at the party leadership, to the audience at his public meetings. “Batao, chunav ladoon ya nahin?” (Tell me, should I contest the elections or not?) 

It is being said that the BJP sensed that fatigue had set in among the electorate over Chouhan and fearing this would damage the party’s poll prospects, he was sidelined. His supporters said it was a strategic move and did not mean that Chouhan had been dumped or that he wouldn’t be reappointed.  

But there are many holes in this theory. The foremost being that the party has fielded at least three senior leaders – union ministers Narendra Singh Tomar and Prahlad Patel and national general secretary Kailash Vijayvargiya – in the assembly polls. And if they win, they will be hardly satisfied with anything less than the chief ministership. Tomar is a Rajput, Vijayvargiya is a Bania and Patel is a Lodhi (OBC). 

With an upper-caste chief minister in Uttar Pradesh and with Congress leader Rahul Gandhi upping the ante on caste census, keen watchers of the political scene say that the BJP will think ten times before naming an upper-caste as the chief minister. Some even say it has little choice but to bank on Chouhan once again, especially given his vast administrative experience. Among other potential chief ministers, Uma Bharati is out of favour; she was not only not fielded but was not given any role in electioneering. 

Lady luck may smile again on Chouhan, say his backers.

Forward Press also publishes books on Bahujan issues. Forward Press Books sheds light on the widespread problems as well as the finer aspects of Bahujan (Dalit, OBC, Adivasi, Nomadic, Pasmanda) society, culture, literature and politics. Contact us for a list of FP Books’ titles and to order. Mobile: +917827427311, Email: info@forwardmagazine.in)

About The Author

Amrish Herdenia

Amrish Herdenia is Editor (Translation), Forward Press. He has been the Madhya Pradesh bureau chief for ‘Deccan Herald’, ‘Daily Tribune’, ‘Daily Newstime’ and the weekly ‘Sunday Mail’. He has translated several books, including ‘Gujarat: Behind the Curtain’ by R.B. Sreekumar, former Director General of Police, Gujarat, from the original English to Hindi

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