Bhopal: Over three months after he was sworn in as Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister, BJP leader Shivraj Singh Chouhan is struggling to expand his cabinet of six.
There’s been speculation of an imminent expansion since May, after Chouhan was spotted at the state headquarters of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) within a span of four days.
But he finds himself juggling a vast pool of candidates for the 29 berths available, which seems to be proving a hold-up in the exercise.
There are claimants among the 22 turncoats who helped prop up his government after a coup within the Congress earlier this year, and then there are the heavyweights within the BJP who are hopeful of scoring a ministerial berth.
Amid this struggle, Chouhan is trying to put up a brave front, telling reporters earlier this week that he’s in no rush to expand his cabinet.
“I am not in a hurry for cabinet expansion. I am not going to New Delhi with a list of probables. Wait for some time, I can go to Delhi by tomorrow or day after,” Chouhan said Monday as he replied to queries from the media.
However, he has yet to make the Delhi trip.
Rival claimants queer pitch for Chouhan
Over the past fortnight, sources in the BJP told ThePrint, Chouhan has had to twice withdraw his expansion plans, even dropping his planned trip to New Delhi to meet Union Home Minister and former BJP president Amit Shah and his successor J.P. Nadda to discuss probables.
“Chief Minister sahab was about to expand his cabinet after the ending of the third phase of the lockdown on 17 May,” a senior party leader said over the phone. “To discuss probables for induction in the cabinet, he had visited Samvidha (the office of the RSS, BJP’s ideological parent, in Bhopal) and the party headquarters.”
Chouhan visited Samvidha on 13 May, and the state party headquarters on 17 May.
At Samvidha, Chouhan reportedly met general secretary (organisation) Suhas Bhagat and other senior RSS functionaries to finalise the names and number of ministers to be inducted.
Similar discussions are believed to have been held at his meeting with state BJP president V.D. Sharma and other party functionaries and MLAs. A day earlier, on 16 May, Sharma had met Chouhan at his residence for the same reason.
It was widely expected that Chouhan would finalise the expansion just as the third phase of the lockdown wound down, but despite a go-ahead from Samvidha and the state party leadership, he has been unable to move ahead. This, sources say, is because of pressure from the rival claimants.
“Chouhan is under extreme pressure to accommodate at least 10 of the 22 MLAs who deserted the Congress to join the BJP,” a former minister in the Chouhan government said.
The 22 MLAs had succeeded in bringing down the 15-month old Kamal Nath-led Congress government on 20 March by resigning from the assembly and diminishing the party’s strength in the House.
The rebellion has been attributed to discontentment among Jyotiraditya Scindia and his loyalists about what was seen as the Congress’ raw deal for the erstwhile royal. Scindia left the Congress too, and was immediately offered a Rajya Sabha nomination by the Rajya Sabha.
At the tail end of this rebellion, Chouhan was sworn in as chief minister on 23 March, a day before the Covid-19 lockdown was announced. Amid the Covid-19 pandemic, he ran his government for nearly a month without a full-time health minister, and finally expanded his cabinet on 21 April. The five ministers included two Congress rebels.
The Constitution allows for a state to have a cabinet, including the chief minister, no larger than 15 per cent of the assembly strength (but no less than 12). In Madhya Pradesh, where the assembly has 230 seats, this comes to approximately 34.
The claimants include some high-profile names. From the Congress rebels’ camp, it includes four former ministers Mahendra Singh Sisodia, Imarti Devi, Prabhuram Chaudhary and Pradyumn Singh Tomar.
Heavyweight candidates from the BJP include former state minister and Jyotraditya’s aunt Yashodhara Raje Scindia, besides Gopal Bhargava, Rajendra Shukla, Vishwas Sarang, Bhupendra Singh, Ajai Vishnoi, Satyendra Vijay Pathak, Dev Singh Saiyaam, and Gauri Shankar Bisen, among many others.
Even in the second round of expansion, Chouhan is likely to leave some seats vacant to ease the tensions in the BJP camp even as he looks to fulfil his promise of accommodating turncoats in the cabinet, multiple sources in the BJP said.
Out in the open
Tensions within the BJP over the imminent expansion already seem to be flowing into the public domain.
In a tweet Tuesday, cabinet hopeful and Rewa MLA Rajendra Shukla approached Bollywood actor Sonu Sood, who has been helping stranded migrants reach home throughout the lockdown, to bring back local workers stuck in Mumbai. This, when it is his own party’s government in power in Madhya Pradesh.
Shukla is a local political heavyweight, having served as minister in previous BJP governments led by Uma Bharti, the late Babulal Gaur and Chouhan himself.
The opposition Congress was quick to take note.
“I can’t believe my eyes. He (Shukla) is a former minister and MLA, and has his party in power in MP and Centre. He has party MLAs and MPs in Maharashtra and he is seeking help from actor Sonu Sood. If you have any shame left, resign and sit at home,” Congress leader Alka Lamba said in a tweet.
BJP MLA asks Sonu Sood for help Alka Lamba turns angry – BJP विधायक ने सोनू सूद से मांगी मदद तो भड़कीं अलका लांबा,बोली- शर्म करो https://t.co/IcJVGzCc8u
— Alka Lamba 🇮🇳🙏 (@LambaAlka) June 4, 2020
Shukla subsequently deleted the tweet.