Bhopal: The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) office in Bhopal is predictably in the midst of frenzied activity. Just inside the main gate, two young boys are distributing late afternoon vernacular newspapers with what can only be described as imaginative headlines. ‘Holi ka hangover — Kamal Nath ka game over (Holi hangover — Kamal Nath’s game over), ‘Scindia-Shivraj ki Holi, Congress ki satta doli (Scindia-Shivraj’s Holi, Congress’ regime rocked)’ and ‘Scindia ke haath mein kamal (a lotus in Scindia’s hand)’.
On Tuesday, senior Congress leader and former Union minister Jyotiraditya Scindia jolted his party out of its limited semblance of comfort, given its position nationally, by tendering his resignation.
These headlines are probably exciting enough for the BJP to allow the distribution of these newspapers on their premises, but this ‘lotus in Scindia’s hand’ for the Congress was long-coming.
Some senior Congress leaders say the seeds were sown as far back as 2013, when the Congress lost its third straight assembly election in Madhya Pradesh. The BJP, meanwhile, says it’s the current situation of the impending Rajya Sabha polls that laid fertile ground for what the party had been trying to do for the last year.
To be sure, however, Scindia is yet to join the BJP and many say this is keeping some hope alive in the Congress of the possibility of a last-minute bargain.
As of Tuesday evening, copies of resignations of 19 Congress MLAs were with the BJP and three more MLAs are believed to have quit as well.
A BJP leader, on the condition of anonymity, said that the party is unlikely to push for a floor test as the budget session is set to begin on 16 March. The thinking in the BJP, the leader added, is that if CM Kamal Nath fails to pass the budget, his government will fall anyway.
Scindia’s disenchantment & internal feuds
A senior Congress leader in Bhopal, on condition of anonymity, says it was in 2013-end when Scindia’s desire to rebel first became evident after he wasn’t given absolute charge of the party as he wanted.
“In 2013 itself we knew there would be cracks. He felt the Congress was losing badly to the BJP and if he was given full control, he could arrest the slide. Even in the run-up to the Lok Sabha polls, he wasn’t made the PCC chief and following the narrow win, missed out on the CM-ship as well,” the leader said.
In the 2019 Lok Sabha poll, Scindia could not survive the wave of Modi popularity and lost his seat — Guna, a traditional Scindia bastion represented by generations of the family cutting across party lines — despite being a popular MP.
For BJP, meanwhile, losing the 2018 polls was a setback but given Congress’ narrow margin of victory, it felt it had a chance at destabilising the government. A number of factors, BJP sources say, emboldened the party and enabled this turbulent situation.
One, the rivalry between Chief Minister Kamal Nath, former CM Digvijaya Singh and Scindia only widened and created watertight factions within the party.
“We read the situation from the start and knew there was an opportunity there. Of the 28 ministers in the state, 10 are Kamal Nath loyalists, 10 are Digvijaya Singh’s and eight Scindia’s. When the party is so divided, it makes it very vulnerable,” said a senior BJP leader, who did not want to be identified.
“The ground divisions in the Congress were conveyed to the BJP’s senior leadership in the state, which passed it on to the party’s central command. That is when the outreach towards Scindia began.”
The rebellion in the Kamal Nath-led government has been brewing for a while. At a recent cabinet meeting, Congress sources say, a senior minister openly told the CM that “things won’t work this way”, pointing to his style of functioning. These small instances of discontentment were promptly conveyed to the BJP, which decided to take advantage of the situation.
The BJP’s outreach towards the former Guna MP started early last year, sources say, but intensified over the past six months.
“The Congress had made tall promises but obviously it is difficult to meet them in such a short time. That also means public support erodes, which we sensed, especially given how popular Shivraj Singh Chouhan remains. This also gets translated into more confidence in the BJP to make such a move that goes against the election mandate,” the leader added.
However, the final push for the BJP was the impending Rajya Sabha election, and the Congress top command’s indecisiveness over Scindia’s nomination.
“Scindia is not someone to sit out of power. They belong to a royal family and for them, power is what matters. The final opportunity came with the Rajya Sabha election and chance to offer him a nomination from BJP since his own party was dithering. But more than Scindia, it was important to convey to his loyal MLAs that BJP is the better side to pick at this point,” said another BJP leader, also on the condition of anonymity.
Many in the BJP attribute the situation to the factionalism created by former CM Digvijaya Singh and the “games he plays”.
“The Kamal Nath government has betrayed the people of the state. The government was being run by Digvijaya Singh, who has ruined Madhya Pradesh. From making his son a minister to his own power ambitions, Singh has ensured the downfall of the Congress,” BJP’s media in-charge Lokendra Parashar said.
Dealing with Scindia
It, however, was a conscious decision to keep the state leadership and unit out of any deliberations with the former Guna MP. It was the party’s top national leadership that did all the talking, and even Chouhan stayed out of it.
“We know Scindia is a high-profile leader, known to be arrogant and not easy to handle. Anybody from the state unit talking may have been unacceptable to him and it was consciously decided to keep the dialogue open with him at the highest level,” said the first BJP leader quoted above.
Home Minister Amit Shah, known to be a master negotiator, was at the forefront and with the Rajya Sabha nomination issue becoming thorny, the BJP knew what carrot to dangle.
For BJP, meanwhile, this has to be a delicate balance given it already has a strong and popular state leader in Chouhan.
The party leadership, however, has it planned out. The idea is to keep Scindia out of the state by making him a Rajya Sabha MP as well as giving some central role and letting Chouhan be the man in Madhya Pradesh. Chouhan, sources say, is not feeling particularly insecure because he knows the party cadre and workers in the state are firmly behind him.
A worried Congress
The Congress office in Bhopal, meanwhile, is a picture in sharp contrast — deserted, dark and bearing the look of a party evidently unsure of its future.
Most of the action was at the CM’s residence where party MLAs were called in for a meeting that began around 6pm Tuesday. Sources say around 80 MLAs were present and some more were expected to meet Nath later in the evening.
The party knows the number-game is delicate. If all 22 MLAs actually do join the BJP and the seven fence-sitters — four Independents, and three MLAs from Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party — can also be swayed by the other side, the Congress government could be in serious danger.
Congress sources say they are also trying to ensure that these seven stay with the party.
“We are working out various strategies. There were legal and Constitutional experts also present in the meeting today. One option is for all Congress MLAs to resign en masse and force a fresh election. All proposals are being considered,” said a Congress MLA, who chose not to be named.
The focus now shifts to the role of the Speaker and the Governor in the crisis.