Turns Out, BJP Can’t Replace This Chief Minister

The BJP has, according to reports, decided to fight the election in Madhya Pradesh, due later this year, under the captainship of Shivraj Singh Chouhan. This ends months of speculation about a “Chief Minister shuffle” in the state.

Shivraj Chouhan, aka “Mama (uncle)”, is the longest-serving Chief Minister (16 years plus) of Madhya Pradesh. He is also the BJP’s longest-serving Chief Minister across states.

There has long been a buzz about Shivraj Chouhan’s replacement by someone younger, a fresh face, like in Gujarat, Uttarakhand and Tripura, to offset local disenchantment.

The “drop Shivraj” brigade has been citing the example of Himachal, the lone state where the party didn’t change its Chief Minister and lost to the Congress.

There was a time when Mama was considered Prime Minister material. That was before Narendra Modi.

Over the years, Shivraj Chouhan has mellowed, but despite his long tenure, his popularity hasn’t faded.

He is known to be down to earth, and affable. These attributes, along with pro-poor schemes like Laadli Laxmi, Teerth Darshan and Kisan Kalyan Yojana, have kept him ahead of rivals.

There may be dissatisfaction on the ground due to the inaccessibility or non-performance of BJP MLAs, but that anger is not singed Mama, who has built a strong women’s vote block.

Besides, Shivraj Chouhan is 64, “fit” and doesn’t yet fall in the 75-plus category in which redundancy is a real threat. At least in the BJP. He is one of the few Vajpayee-Advani era politicians who has stood the test of time and has even survived in the Modi-Shah era. He has managed to build an aura of indispensability.

The biggest factor in Shivraj’s favour is that he belongs to the OBC (Other Backward Class) community. OBCs account for more than half the population of Madhya Pradesh and Shivraj is the tallest OBC leader, across parties.

Over the past nine years, the BJP has projected itself as the champion of the backwards, buoyed by the fact that Prime Minister Modi belongs to the community. The party claims OBCs have the highest representation in the Modi cabinet. In state and national elections, the BJP makes it a point to mention how it has picked a large number of OBC candidates.

OBC support for the BJP has doubled at the national level, from 23 per cent in 2009 to 44 per cent in the 2019 general election, per the Centre for Study of Developing Societies (CSDS). In the Hindi heartland states, this backing has created a new “non-Yadav OBC vote block”, which has facilitated the BJP’s win two consecutive elections in Uttar Pradesh.

Shivraj Chouhan is perhaps the BJP’s only OBC chief minister across India. The party is in power in 11 states on its own and in five states in alliance with regional parties. Replacing him would show the party in poor light.

A majority of its Chief Ministers today belong to the upper caste (Brahmin, Thakur) or middle caste (Maratha, Patidar, Khatri, Vaishya) communities. Replacing Shivraj Chouhan would be bad optics indeed – the party would be perceived to take advantage of OBC votes and still favour the upper castes for top posts”.

The top contenders for Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister are Narottam Mishra (state Home Minister) and state BJP chief VD Sharma, both Brahmins. Jyotiraditya Scindia belongs to a royal family and Kailash Vijayvargiya is from the trading community.

If the party replaces Shivraj, it needs a strong OBC face. He may not be a favourite of the Modi-Shah duo, but electoral compulsions seem to have saved Shivraj. Another likely OBC candidate is Prahlad Patel, a Minister of State in Modi’s cabinet, who couldn’t make the cut as he lacks state-wide appeal.

That said, it doesn’t mean Mama will have a free run in choosing candidates or managing the Madhya Pradesh campaign. It’s common knowledge that Shivraj has been under a lot of pressure in his latest term, from rivals; from Congress hoppers who facilitated his return just before the lockdown in 2020; and from the BJP high command.

The TINA (There Is No Alternative) Factor has worked for Mama. His stock will rise exponentially if he is able to win the state for the BJP again, propelling him to a significant national role in Modi 3.O if the BJP retains power at the Centre.

(Amitabh Tiwari is a political strategist and commentator. In his earlier avatar he was a corporate and investment banker.)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.

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