New Delhi: There is no question of replacing Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan, state Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) president V.D. Sharma told ThePrint Thursday, scotching rumours about a possible change of guard.
These rumours had their genesis in a series of closed-door meetings among senior state BJP leaders who are known as Chouhan’s detractors, including Kailash Vijayvargiya, BJP national general secretary in charge of West Bengal, state minister Narottam Mishra, and Union minister Prahlad Patel.
Repeated clarifications by these detractors that Chouhan will continue as CM seem to have only added grist to this speculation. Union ministers Narendra Singh Tomar and Faggan Singh Kulaste have also been issuing statements on the matter over the past few days.
Said Mishra to reporters earlier this week: “The BJP is totally united and organised under the leadership of Shivraj Singh Chouhan and V.D. Sharma. Honourable Shivraj Singh ji was the chief minister, Shivraj Singh ji is the chief minister and Shivraj Singh ji will remain the chief minister.”
Incidentally, in the days leading to the fall of the Congress-led government in MP last year, one slogan that was often heard from crowds gathered outside the state BJP headquarters was: “Hamara mukhiya kaisa ho, Narottam Mishra jaisa ho (Our leader should be like Narottam Mishra).”
Chouhan is believed to be under the scanner over his handling of Covid-19 in the state, which has drawn criticism from party leaders as well, as also the BJP’s loss in the Damoh assembly bypoll last month. Amid these circumstances, a series of interactions involving prominent leaders of the state has not gone unnoticed, even though they have been described as courtesy meetings.
In the last week of May, Vijayvargiya met Mishra in Bhopal. Over the past week, Vijayvargiya held meetings with Medical Education Minister Vishvas Kailash Sarang and Union minister Prahlad Singh Patel. Following this, senior BJP leader Prabhat Jha met Narottam Mishra.
Speaking to ThePrint, state BJP chief Sharma dismissed all speculation about Chouhan being replaced. “Our government has been working hard amidst the pandemic and there is no question of replacing the chief minister,” he said.
Other state BJP leaders, speaking on the condition of anonymity, admitted there was pressure on Chouhan, with some pointing to the Damoh outcome as a failure of Chouhan alone. However, others said his detractors in the state were using the Covid situation and Damoh bypolls to build a case against him, and added that Chouhan was a mass leader who wasn’t easy to replace.
BJP split over Chouhan
The BJP lost the 2018 assembly election to the Congress. However, Chouhan managed to return to office last March after Jyotiraditya Scindia quit the Congress to join the BJP and brought 22 leaders along.
Some BJP leaders claim Chouhan is solely to be blamed for the Damoh loss and feel an alternative has to be found for 2023 as he has been at the helm of affairs for over 14 years now. They point out that Chouhan was unable to get a mandate in 2018 and is the chief minister today “because of Jyotiraditya Scindia”.
“We are in the government and we could not win the bypolls. It is shocking indeed. On top of that the Covid-19 mishandling is something that the Centre will have to face as collateral damage,” said a BJP leader who didn’t wish to be named.
“The central leadership is already thinking about 2023 and the repercussions it would have on the 2024 elections. The West Bengal loss is a major shock for the party. And if we start losing Hindi heartland states, 2024 would become a difficult possibility,” the leader added.
Another leader said “Chouhan’s handling of Covid-19 came under fire not only from the opposition but leaders from within the BJP questioned his functioning too”.
“The state was in a complete mess and rather than listening to party members and colleagues, the government, it seemed, was being run by a handful of bureaucrats. The central leadership was aware of it but was also focussed on West Bengal elections and hence nothing happened during that time,” the leader added.
Talking about the ongoing speculation, a third senior BJP leader said state leaders who have been eyeing the chief minister’s post for quite some time are making a “desperate attempt” to build a case against Chouhan.
“Many were hoping that a win in West Bengal would result in senior BJP leader Kailash Vijayvargiya being rewarded, whether in the shape of him taking over or by giving the chair to someone of his choice,” the leader added. “However, a loss in West Bengal only gave a breather to Chouhan even though he lost Damoh. Hence, the leaders are now busy building a case against him. citing how ineffective he has been,” said the leader.
“As far as replacing the chief minister is concerned, it is unlikely. Right now, the central leadership is focussing only on Uttar Pradesh. As far as 2023 is concerned (when the next assembly election will be held), and finding an alternative to Chouhan, in politics anything can happen and the state leaders are busy creating a space for themselves. But dislodging Chouhan is not an easy task,” said the leader.
A fourth BJP leader claimed there “is definitely a design” to the speculation. “Whether it is Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka or Madhya Pradesh, all the three states have strong chief ministers who are in some way already bigger than the party or are becoming bigger than the party,” the leader said.
“The central leadership is aware of it. In some cases, it is not able to do anything because it doesn’t have other leaders to match the chief ministers and, hence, these pressure tactics are being applied to keep them under check,” the leader added.
‘Difficult to replace’
Some BJP members say the central leadership will not take any decision in “haste” after the West Bengal defeat and its poor showing in southern states during the assembly elections earlier this year.
“Had they won West Bengal, which is what everyone was expecting, Kailash Vijayvargiya’s supporters had built a narrative in Madhya Pradesh that it would result in a change in MP too. Narottam Mishra was also given responsibilities of several seats in West Bengal and made several trips to West Bengal hoping that it would change his fortunes too. But the result has only helped Chouhan, but how long will it last is the question,” said a leader.
Another senior BJP leader added that Chouhan is a mass leader and it will be difficult to replace him.
“As far as managing the Covid-19 second wave is concerned, tell me one state that did not fail. Rather, it is the central government that came under fire. So, how can we use this to target Chouhan?” the leader said. “All those leaders who are busy floating these stories will face major embarrassment after a few months as nothing of this sort is going to happen.”
(Edited by Sunanda Ranjan)
An earlier version of the report identified BJP leader Prabhat Jha, a former national vice-president of the party, as still holding the post. The error is regretted.