Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan is staring at an uncertain future. The party has shied away from declaring him as the CM face of the party. His pain and anguish at being ignored for the top job was visible in a rally in Sehore recently when he quipped “Aisa bhaiyya nahin milega. Jab mein chala jaunga, tab bahut yaad aaunga (You won’t get a brother like me. When I go away, you will miss me a lot.)
Shivraj is the longest-serving CM of BJP across states in India, 16 years plus and counting. When the BJP toppled the Kamal Nath government in 2020 with Jyotiraditya Scindia’s help, at that time too, there were talks of naming a new CM. However, that couldn’t fructify.
For the past year or so, there has been intense speculation that he would be replaced and the party would contest the upcoming polls under a new leadership, similar to the experiment in Gujarat, Uttarakhand and Tripura.
However, Shivraj, who is fondly called as “Mama”, is a survivor, with the party unable to find his suitable replacement. The fact that he is the only OBC CM of the party made matters tricky for the BJP.
Unable to replace him, the party has opted to contest the upcoming elections with the combined leadership of Shivraj Singh Chouhan, Narendra Singh Tomar, Kailash Vijaywargiya, Narottam Mishra, VD Sharma, Jyotiraditya Scindia, Prahlad Patel etc and fielded 7 MPs, including 3 Cabinet ministers. Early opinion polls predict a tough battle for the BJP in MP.
So why is the BJP not declaring Shivraj as the CM face of the party? There are rumours that he could be moved to the Central Cabinet. JP Nadda’s tenure is also up soon after Lok Sabha; he could even be made National Party President. The spiciest rumor is of course that the Central leadership wishes to weaken Mama else he could emerge as a strong competitor in case of a fractured mandate in 2024.
Here are eight reasons why:
Prevention of Anti-Incumbency
It’s very natural for a certain degree of anti-incumbency to creep in against any such long serving government led by any leader. While MP has done well on many socio-economic parameters, a lot still needs to be done with per capita income lower than the national average.
Price rise, corruption and unemployment are the top three issues in the state. 26 per cent respondents blame the CM for these issues as per PEACS-News24 survey. More than 60 per cent respondents rate his performance as poor, average or can’t say, less than 35 per cent as good – which is low.
Even some BJP supporters want BJP to project a new face in MP. 'Mama' did try to adopt a new image/reinvent himself in this term, copying Yogi’s bulldozer baba image, but it doesn’t gel with his personality.
Contesting Under Combined Leadership
In state elections in the Modi era (2014-date), BJP has fought 16 elections where it was in power (ignoring states where allies have the CM post), and has lost/failed to form a government in 7 states and won/formed the government in 9 states. Of the 7 states which BJP lost, Congress won 5.
In all these five states, Rajasthan (2018), Madhya Pradesh (2018), Chhattisgarh (2018), Himachal Pradesh (2022) and Karnataka (2023), Congress had not declared a CM face and fought under combined leadership. Now BJP is aping this model in MP where ideally it would have liked to replace the CM but couldn’t.
Preventing Boredom in Minds of Youth
First-time voters exercising their franchise in 2023 have seen Shivraj as CM for 93 per cent of their lives. Whatever good or bad in MP is attributed to Shivraj by them. In fact they haven’t seen the “dark days” of Digvijay Singh’s tenure, as BJP alleges. This generation also gets bored easily and wants to try out new things.
Highly Local Election
BJP has realised that state elections are highly localised, and the role of the local candidate is very important. In fact, CM face ranks third in voters' motivation for voting as per the CSDS' post poll study in MP in 2018.
For only 14 per cent of voters CM face was the most important consideration in MP in 2018, while 32 per cent voted on the basis of local candidates. The party feels that in a seat by seat contest, the CM role is low; plus he is suffering from anti-incumbency, so why project him?
High Level of Loyal Voters of BJP
MP together with Rajasthan and UP were the first states where BJP in its new avatar (post Bhartiya Jan Sangh) formed state governments. It is one of the stronghold areas of the party with a strong organisational base.
In India there are only 31 per cent loyal voters as per Axis My India exit poll of 2019, whereas this number for MP is 44 per cent. Additionally, for 46 per cent of voters, party was the most important voting consideration.
PM Modi's Popularity
The BJP's strategy is to seek votes in the name of PM Narendra Modi riding on his high popularity in the Hindi heartland state, with satisfaction ratings of over 60 per cent. This could negate the anti-incumbency against Shivraj to some extent, the party hopes. Along with the positive aura of tall leaders/ministers who have been asked to contest, the party hopes it has a winning formula.
Preventing Focus on Vyapam During SSC Tenure
This time unlike in 2018, the Congress' strategy is to make it a presidential contest between Kamal Nath and Shivraj, taking advantage of the weak position of the CM. One of the reasons Shivraj was not named the CM face in 2018 was that it would have given ammunition to the Congress to target the party on the alleged scams during his tenure including the infamous Vyapam scam. 26.3 per cent voters in the PEACS-News24 survey cited corruption among the top three issues in the state.
Shivraj Has Lost Popularity in CM Ratings
As per the ABP-CVoter survey, 37 per cent voters want to see Shivraj as the CM while 36 per cent want to see Kamal Nath as CM. Shivraj leads by only 1 per cent. In this question, the incumbent generally gets a few percentage points more because of the top of mind recall.
As per the PEACS-News 24 survey Shivraj leads by a mere 0.1 per cent. His popularity ratings have fallen from the mid 40s in 2018 to 37 per cent in 2023 highlighting voter fatigue as well as decline in satisfaction ratings of his government.
All in all, it’s a very tricky decision for the party. Since no CM face has been announced, Shivraj still emerges as the most popular BJP leader in surveys. His supporters claim he is not unpopular. It is also seen as BJP losing confidence in its leader. In such a case how can the party expect voters to back it? It’s sort of a "neither here nor there" strategy.
A similar thing happened in Himachal Pradesh where despite rumors of BJP replacing Jai Ram Thakur, he continued and the party suffered a loss. A repeat happened in Karnataka: suspense over Basavaraj Bommai’s future – will he, won’t he become CM if party comes to power – created confusion in the mind of the voter. Whether it will work in MP, only time will tell. Odds of the decision working for the party are heavily stacked against it.
(The author is an independent political commentator and can be reached at @politicalbaaba. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)