Jyotiraditya Scindia has been saying “Tiger abhi zinda hai” on loop. And as much as he is beginning to sound silly, no one can deny how Scindia has emerged rather strongly as a BJP leader in Madhya Pradesh, especially considering how many had expected him to be sidelined by his new party, just like other turncoats from the Congress and other organisations in the past.
Despite not being the chief minister, Scindia is regularly making his presence felt in Madhya Pradesh’s politics, unlike how he was when part of the Congress. Those who chose to trust him and walk away from Kamal Nath’s Congress government too have been heavily rewarded. However, it will be too simplistic to assume that Scindia is getting his share of the pie just based on his political merit. Look beyond, and you will see how bringing the ‘Maharaja of Gwalior’ on board is Narendra Modi and Amit Shah’s move to keep Shivraj Singh Chouhan in check. And this story can be traced back to 2013.
Scindia’s aspirations in the BJP
Scindia’s divorce from the Congress epitomises the culmination of a tussle between the old and the new guard of the party. Scindia was in an ego clash with Kamal Nath and Digvijay Singh. And to one-up the two, he expected the Gandhis to make him rise higher than them in Madhya Pradesh politics. But MP was won by the Congress on the shoulders of Nath and Singh, which is why the Gandhis couldn’t indulge in Scindia’s demands.
Scindia’s “tiger abhi zinda hai” war cry is directed at Kamal Nath and Digvijaya Singh. That Scindia needed the BJP to have achieved this royal revenge is just one half of the political deal between the two. According to the other half, BJP needs Scindia just as much to downsize Chouhan. Chouhan’s power legs have been trimmed with the Scindia loyalists now occupying a major space in the state cabinet, which was earlier reserved for the chief minister’s close aides during his previous terms. Chouhan has also been pushed in the deep end of the Covid crisis, where without a cabinet, he had to take care of most ministries alone. That makes him accountable for all the failures. It will thus make Scindia seem as the next best leader.
Modi has strengthened his grip over the party after becoming the prime minister, but in the run-up to the 2014 Lok Sabha election, and before his candidature was finalised, Chouhan was considered a rival to him. Someone who enjoyed a strong bond with L.K. Advani, Chouhan was much liked by then powerful bigwigs of the BJP who have now been relegated to the ‘margdarshak mandal’ or the metaphorical retirement home. But with the corporate backing, huge election funding and significant influence Modi had over the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), Chouhan lost the race for the candidature of the top post.
The 2018 MP assembly election that saw the BJP lose the state after a 15-year rule also weakened Chouhan’s position. A 13-year stint as the chief minister had made Chouhan the face of anti-incumbency, and even before the results came, there were talks of replacing ‘Mmaji’ with the likes of BJP national vice-president Kailash Vijayvargiya, union ministers Thawar Chand Gehlot and Narendra Singh Tomar, leader of opposition in MP assembly Gopal Bhargava or the chief whip of the legislature party Narottam Mishra. But thanks to his long hold of the power lever in the state, Chohan managed to come back as the CM three months ago.
Chouhan’s position was also undermined in the 2019 Lok Sabha election as his recommendations for candidates during ticket distribution were not considered. Even his wife was denied the ticket for Vidisha Lok Sabha seat, which Chouhan supposedly wanted her to contest. Rajya Sabha member and BJP leader Raghunandan Sharma had said that Chouhan should not contest or decide on the names of the candidates for the Lok Sabha election.
The reason Chouhan has been retained as the chief minister is the by-election. The BJP cannot afford to slip up in these 24 seats because the stakes are high. Even if the BJP was to win 15 out of these 24 seats, it would still not have a comfortable majority in the state assembly. It is unprecedented to have simultaneous bye-elections for 24 seats in the state. It won’t be a surprise if we instead see a mid-term election.
However, of the 24 seats up for by-election, 16 lie in the ‘Scindia belt’. And the BJP’s central leadership must be keeping a close watch on its latest acquisition—Scindia—to reap dividends, strengthen its government in the state, and at the same time send a message to Chouhan.
With Chouhan’s on-ground reach and the closeness to RSS, which has its roots deeply forged in MP, ‘Mamaji’ can make sure to drive these by-polls in BJP’s favour. And in case the house is dissolved, Chouhan’s presence can make BJP win the election, considering that they lost the 2018 fight by a slim margin.
There’s also the Muslim and OBC factor. Chouhan comes from an OBC background, which helps his reach within the backward classes in the state. And when it comes to Muslims, his popularity can be gauged from the 2013 Madhya Pradesh assembly election. According to the BJP’s national vice-president and Rajya Sabha member Prabhat Jha, 70 per cent Muslims had voted for Chouhan back then. Prominent Muslims from the state such as Indore’s qazi Abdul Rehman Farooqui have said in the past that had Modi not been fielded as the PM candidate, Muslims would’ve voted en masse for Chouhan in the 2013 assembly election.
And the sentiment is echoed throughout MP, where Muslims consider him a secular politician given his welfare schemes for the minority community like marrying Muslim youth under the Mukhya Mantri Kanyadaan Yojana or laying the foundation of the Hajj house or allotting land for an Urdu University. In case of fresh elections, Chouhan remains BJP’s main man to lead its way in the Mulsim-dominated constituencies in the state.
Amit Shah’s gift to Chouhan
Modi-Shah are evidently looking at nurturing a second rung of leadership in MP, considering that they don’t want Chouhan’s entry in national politics and also to ensure that the state is not lost to the Congress because of a lack of a second face. They want to downsize him eventually in MP’s politics because after 13 years of being a CM, who wouldn’t be aspirational for national politics? Narendra Modi made that aspiration a reality. And to keep Chouhan in check for nurturing the same ambition, they’re making a new star rise in Madhya Pradesh—the ‘young’ and popular Maharaja of Gwalior. Chouhan will now have to constantly look over his shoulders in Madhya Pradesh. That is Amit Shah’s gift to Chouhan.
The author is a political observer and writer. Views are personal.