The Srimad Bhagvat Maha Purana is one of the 18 great Puranas of Hindu philosophy and Kshir Sagar Manthan (churning of the sea of milk) is one of its best known episodes of it.
After the Devas (gods) were defeated by the Asuras (demons) in a battle for the universe, Lord Vishnu suggested a diplomatic coalition between the two to bring out the coveted Amrit (nectar for immortality). Churning brought out the nectar but a battle ensued between the gods and the demons.
Lord Vishnu took form of an enchanting female “Mohini” and lured away the demons. The gods aided by the Amrit thus became immortals and defeated the demons. But the Churn had also produced “Halahala”, the deadly poison. Lord Shiva stepped forward and gulped down the deadly fluid and earned the title of “Neelkanth” (blue throated god).
Among the Hindus, Lord Shiva’s act of consuming the vish (poison) is considered as an unsurmountable example of selflessness and sacrifice, narrated by grannies to kids in bedtime stories.
If one goes by the Puranas and granny tales, what signal was the Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan recently handing out while replying to a question about his “failure” to induct more of his loyalists in the state council of ministers?
Chouhan had cryptically said, “Sagar manthan se amrit nikalta hai. Vish to Shiv pee jaate hain (Nectar of immortality is produced when the seas are churned, Lord Shiva drinks up the poison).”
Chouhan is a deeply religious man and knows the Puranas and vedas. So, his analogy can only be interpreted as an admission that he had to accept an expansion of his council, which was dictated and didn’t have his stamp of authority.
Earlier on Thursday last week, standing between his newly minted council of ministers, Chauhan had offered muted smiles.
Now, I have watched Chouhan take oath with ministers in 2005, 2008 and 2013. Compared to the last three occasions, the smile on his face had a grudging character to it. And, that’s because unlike the last two times, he had not “earned” the chief ministership and ensuing council of ministers. It was rather manufactured and it had a “made by BJP top brass in collaboration with Jyotiraditya Scindia” stamp on it.
The Scindia factor is a party spoiler for Chouhan. The relatively younger Scindia, by bringing crucial numerical support to the state government, has been negotiating directly with the BJPs top brass in Delhi.
No, he is not creating a direct confrontation. But in the current context, he is leaving subtle “pug marks” of his ambition. In Bhopal after the induction ceremony of 28 MLAs to the council of ministers, Rahul Gandhi-confidante-turned BJP man Jyotiraditya Scindia was asked about his “success” in getting 12 ministerial berths for his loyalists as a reward for ditching the Congress and bringing down Kamal Nath.
Scindia signed off his statement to the media teams with a triumphant “Tiger abhi zinda hai” (tiger Is still alive) comment.
Those who have followed politics in the land of tiger reserves-over the last few months discussed Scindia’s remarks in adda chats as Chouhan on the day he lost the election in December 2019 had said — “Tiger abhi zinda hai”.
Scindia’s “salmanesque” comment may be directed at his past detractors in the Congress but I am sure it must have made Chouhan realise that Scindia is not merely borrowing much his punch lines, rather he may be eying his thunder.
In his earlier terms, Chouhan has displayed deft footwork to edge out competition from the likes of Uma Bharti and Narendra Singh Tomar, now a key minister in Modi cabinet. But Scindia is not like Shivraj challengers in the BJP, or even many other turncoats who joined the party ranks in the past.
Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan with BJP leader Jyotiraditya Scindia at state cabinet expansion ceremony. (Photo: PTI)
Though leaders in the state BJP unit remain opposed to Scindia, the central leadership is lending its ears to him, and he seems to be making his weight felt in each decision taken in the state.
Fifteen months after the electoral loss, the BJP engineered defections by 22 congress MLAs. While the top brass held negotiated a deal with Scindia, Chauhan had to hang around in Delhi for long durations.
Then on March 10, while Holi celebrations were on, Scindia had his first public meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Home minister Amit shah had personally taken him to the PM’s Lok Kalyan Marg home. Shivraj could take oath on 23 March.
Shivraj had to wait till April 21 to induct first five ministers. Two of these were his loyalists while Narottam Mishra emerged as a new power centre in the state BJP. Remaining two were Congress turncoats or Scindia men.
Round-2 of cabinet expansion took place on July 2. That’s over 70 days after the first.
Jyotiraditya had bargained hard and managed to grab 14 ministerial berths (12 loyalists and 2 Congress turncoats). Worse, of the remaining 16 who took oath, only a dozen-odd belong to the Chouhan camp. That means in the final 33 member strong council, Shivraj has only 14 loyalists and 14 are Scindia’s men.
Now five days after the expansion, Chouhan has not been able to allocate portfolios to his council. Reason — Scindia wants plum portfolios for his men.
This alters the power equation in the state and BJP matrix for Chouhan. He has three and half years remaining in this term. Scindia is younger and ambitious. He has a large number of men in the council, a Rajya Sabha seat under his belt and is tipped to get a berth in the Union cabinet in an expansion that PM Modi is likely to go for.
He will be in Delhi close to the BJP’s top two who seem to have accorded a lot of significance to Scindia. With most of his loyalists from the Gwalior-Chambal belt, he is a regional warlord — a parallel power centre.
So, Chouhan may have got a fourth term — but his weight in the state he lorded over once has diminished. In simple words, he is being cut to size.
BJP insiders say that the party leadership may be heating up the race for Shivraj but the leader with royal roots has to pass the bypoll test. The common refrain in MP and BJP circles is that if Scindia succeeds, it may not be all so good news for Chouhan. But here, I add that the BJP is inviting bad news by its actions in not so distant future.
SCINDIA HAS ANOTHER TEST TO PASS
Scindia may have won the round of negotiations. But another with big hurdle looms ahead of him. Twenty-four assembly seats lie vacant. Of these, the congress turncoats would have to get elected to the assembly before six months are over. That is, by the first week of new year 2021.
To prove his mettle in the bjp and emerge as a prospect for tomorrow, Scindia has to bring the 22 or majority of the defectors back to the assembly. If he fails, some ministers may have to quit the council.
The number game in the state assembly is such that there would be more pressure on Scindia to do better than Shivraj Singh Chouhan.
Currently, in the 230-member house, the BJP has the backing of 113 MLAs (107 BJP, 3 Independent, 2 BSP, 1 SP). The Congress has 93 MLAs (including 1 independent). There are 24 vacant seats.
The gap between the two formations currently is 20 MLAs.
Hypothetically, it would be a game on only if the Congress wins 22 seats and BJP two. The final tally in the assembly would be BJP+ 115 and Cong+ 115. To dethrone Chouhan, the Congress has to win 23 of the 24 bypoll seats.
The 24 seats for which bypoll would be held are spread over three regions in MP- Gwalior-Chambal, Malwa-Nimar and Bundelkhand. Of the 24 assembly seats, 16 are in Scindia stronghold Gwalior-Chambal region.
Victory at eight seats — outside the Gwalior Chambal region — alone will push the BJP tally to 121. The Congress would be out of contention and Chouhan will feel safe. The oft-repeated question in Bhopal now-a-days is, “Will the old tiger who swallowed poison figuratively help the new tiger?”
The task ahead for Scindia gets tougher as majority of the Scindia loyalist MLAs had won in 2018 by defeating the BJP rivals in the Gwalior-Chambal belt. The losing BJP candidates, if denied ticket, would contest as rebels in the bypolls. That would aid the Congress.
Already in MP, the state BJP unit is facing protests by workers in several districts. The party’s cadres are agitated over the rise and rise of Scindia and decline of those who have grown in BJP stables.
In Sagar, supporters of BJP MLA Shailendra Jain protested by observing a “jal samadhi” last week. Supporters of BJP MLA Gayatri Raje Pawar in Devas, those of Kailash Vijayvargiya-backed MLA Ramesh Bindola in Indore, and of MLA Yashpal Bhadoria in Mansore have been staging protests after these leaders weren’t made ministers.
Uma Bharti has protested the absence of ministers from her Lodh community and Bundelkhand region in the council.
So, the BJP in MP has multiple power centres, cut-to-size chief minister constantly looking over his shoulder, dissent in the ranks and a high-command driving the decisions. A senior old-timer in the BJP quipped, “This is what used to happen in the Congress. The party took away power from Congress and has inherited that party’s habits. That’s why I will say the Congress culture BJP mein zinda hai (Congress culture is thriving in the BJP)”
BJP EMULATES CONGRESS
Many in the BJP admit that the Congress’s yesterday is BJP’s today all over again when it comes to dealing with its state warlords. Reacting to the situation Shivraj Chouhan finds himself in, during closed door conversations, leaders indicate that BJP’s state-level leadership’s dependence on the central leadership has gone up.
In 2017, BJP ruled almost 70 per cent of India’s landmass. By 2020, it came down to almost 40 per cent. But the real problem for the BJP is not just sheer loss of territory.
During 2014-17, the BJP lost chief ministers who impacted polls like regional satraps. Narendra Modi was Gujarat chief minister till 2014 polls. The BJP won all 26 Lok Sabha seats in Gujarat.
Under Vasundhra Raje in Rajasthan, the BJP had won all 25. Under Shivraj, the BJP won 26 of the 29, 10 of 11 in Chhattisgarh under Raman Singh. Manohar Parikar helped BJP win both Goa seats, plus he rose as a state strongman.
THE BJP STOCK
Let’s have a quick look at India’s political map since 2014. It shows that the BJP has also been witnessing a weight loss by its chief ministers.
First, the powerful CMs like Vasundhara Raje, Raman Singh and Chouhan have had an uncomfortable relationship with the top bosses. All three of the BJP state satraps lost elections. Another budding state-level leader Devendra Fadnavis in Maharashtra also lost the last election in 2019. Today, he awaits a split in the ruling Maha Vikas Aghadi alliance and central assistance to gain power.
The Raje-Chouhan-Singh trio of regional chieftains suffered more loss in stature when in 2019 polls, riding on the Modi phenomenon, the BJP did well in their states despite opposition Congress ruling the states. Today, Chauhan is the lone old BJP war horse in the CM’s chair. Barring Yediyurappa and ML Khattar most are first timers.
In other states too, one way or the other, the CMs aren’t Virat Kohli kind of match-winners. Today, the BJP has 12 CMs. Arunachal CM Pema Khandu is an ex-Congressman who chose BJP colours four years ago. Assam CM Sarbananda Sonowal is over shadowed by his minister Himanta Biswa Sarma. Manipur CM N Biren Singh is an ex-Congressman.
Tripura CM Biplab Kumar Deb a giant-killer and Goa CM are inexperienced. Himachal Pradesh CM Jai Ram Thakur is a five-term MLA but wasn’t the face of the party in last election.
Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath has emerged as the strongest BJP leader holding this position. (Photo: PTI)
The Uttarakhand CM Trivendra Rawat, an ex-RSS cadre, is known more for being a strong organisational man. Gujarat CM Vijay Rupani continues to live under the shadow of Narendra Modi and Amit Shah. Haryana CM Khattar is known for fumbles and has strong challengers. Karnataka CM BS Yediyurappa has shed a lot of political clout.
One of the lone exceptions is UP CM Yogi Adityanath. The RSS and the BJP top team escorted him to the CM chair but he has used the last three years to emerge stronger as an administrator and also a hindutva mascot.
THE CONGRESS RESEMLANCE
This is what happened to the Congress over the last few decades before its decline. The high command culture, perceived threat that CMs May grow and challenge the Congress’s first family and vested interests of weak leaders and lateral entrants who were close to the dynasty led to dwarfing of its chief ministers. Once its CMs lost weight, party lost state assemblies and then Lok Sabha seats.
There are 38 chief ministers in India who have occupied the CM’s post in different states for more than 10 years. Congress may have ruled most states for a long time since Independence but only 14 of the 38 long haul CMs are Congressmen. Six are pre-Rajiv Gandhi era leaders.
The rot started during Indira Gandhi’s time and worsened as dynastic order deepened and Rajiv Gandhi took charge as congress general secretary. In 1982, on a private visit to Andhra Pradesh, he publicly admonished Tantuguri Anjaiah, the then chief minister for bringing party men and a band party playing drums to the tarmac of Hyderabad’s Begumpet airport. In front of his supporters, Rajiv called Anjaiah a “buffoon”. The CM was later sacked.
Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot is one of the few old-timers in the Congress to retain his regional satrap status.
On 23 July 1983, Congress’s Bihar CM Jagannath Mishra in a two-hour statement in the state assembly criticized the Centre. He said Bihar (undivided Bihar included mineral rich Jharkhand) mined 40 per cent of the country’s minerals but only got 14 per cent of the royalty earned. Soon Jagannath was summoned to Delhi and he was forced to resign by 14 August 1983.
In the mid-1980s, the Congress high command inducted a breed of leaders who in their anxiety to display their obsequiousness to Rajiv Gandhi, wounded leaders like Kamlapati Tripathi, who had been CM of India’s most dominant state — UP. Appointing “Darbari” leaders from Delhi as state incharges to create multiple power centres in states became a standard operating procedure.
After the 1984 landslide victory, Rajiv Gandhi entered the PMO with his Doon School chums in tow. Leaders like Tripathi, who had worked with four generations of the Nehru-Gandhi family, were sidelined by the then yuppie leadership.
Lalthahawla had been a CM in Mizoram for 21 years till 2018, Virbhadra Singh in Himachal Pradesh for 21 years till 2017 and Pratap Singh Rane in Goa for 15 years till 2007, started their innings in the Rajiv era.
Meanwhile, Shiela Dixit was CM in Delhi till 2013 for 15 years, Tarun Gogoi for 15 years in Assam till 2016, and Okram Ibobi Singh for 15 years in Manipur till 2017 emerged as powerful state leaders and became CMs around the time Sonia Gandhi took over reins of the party.
Ashok Gehlot, the present CM of Rajasthan is the lone old-timer who has spent 11 years in the hot seat and is still around in the Congress’s Sonia Gandhi era.
CONGRESS LESSON FOR BJP
Isn’t the BJP doing something similar? Many of its current CMs are central command appointees. Someone like Chouhan battles parallel power centres. Out of power, ex-CMs have little role in decision-making. In some states, green shoots of leadership are emerging but they will take more than usual time as the elbow room to flourish is not vast. In Jammu and Kashmir, Punjab, Delhi, Bihar, West Bengal, Odisha, AP, Telangana, Tamil Nadu and Kerala, the BJP either has no prominent state leaders or is totally dependent on allies.
The decline of the state-level leaders in the two major parties stands in sharp contrast to the rise of regional party leaders like Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal, K Chandrashekhar Rao in Telangana, YS Jagan Mohan Reddy in Andhra Pradesh, Naveen Patnaik in Odisha and Hemant Soren in Jharkhand.
The BJP has Modi, who has turned Lok Sabha elections into a virtual presidential contest. This is making glory depart from state level politics but BJP should take Congress history to the post-mortem table and realise state-level leaders are leaders of tomorrow at the Centre and force multipliers on their turf.