Infighting, which used to be the weakness of the Congress in Madhya Pradesh, has now plagued the BJP.
The entry of Jyotiraditya Scindia with 22 Congress MLAs in March 2020 led to the collapse of the Kamal Nath government.
Though the BJP regained power, the equilibrium of the political equations within the party was disturbed.
Many party leaders were threatened by the presence of Scindia and the MLAs who joined the BJP. Their political career was at stake.
Shivraj Singh Chouhan, the only poster boy of the party for long, did not remain untouched either.
Shivraj Bhajpa, Maharaj Bhajpa, and Naraaj Bhajpa
Almost a month before Scindia joined the BJP, Vishnu Dutt Sharma, or VD, an MP from Khajuraho, was appointed as the state party president.
Backed by the then national president Amit Shah, VD started flexing his political muscles, appointing his supporters on the key organisational posts. While VD was expanding his network, Chouhan had already been out of power for over a year.
Ambitious like any other politician, VD is now aspiring for the top post.
In March 2020, after an intense power struggle and alleged behind-the-scenes dealings, when Chouhan became chief minister for the record fourth time using 22 Scindia-supporting MLAs as his crutches, his wings had already been clipped.
Over a year as the state party president, VD was already well entrenched.
He even ensured his choice of the party MLA as the Vidhan Sabha speaker. After Chouhan became CM, the three factions started occupying as much of the political space within the party as possible.
Though Scindia was instrumental in making Chouhan the chief minister, the trust factor was always missing, confided a senior BJP functionary.
Rather, he was always seen as a threat to a large number of party leaders. When anger remains buried and unresolved for a long time, it usually festers and grows into resentment and bitterness, a senior BJP minister told me philosophically.
A few months ago, veteran Congress leader and Rajya Sabha member Digivijaya Singh articulated the BJP’s predicament.
He said there was not one but three BJPs in the state - Shivraj Bhajpa, Maharaj Bhajpa, and Naraaj Bhajpa (Shivraj’s BJP, Maharaj’s [Jyotiraditya Scindia] BJP, and the BJP of those unhappy after the entry of Scindia and his supporters).
After the appointment of two senior cabinet ministers - Ashwini Vaishnaw and Bhupender Yadav - as election in-charges, Digivijaya said there was another faction added to the BJP - Shah Bhajpa (Amit Shah’s BJP).
Chouhan, however, has rejected these theories, and claimed that the BJP is united in the state. He also termed the description of the three BJPs as rajnaitik shoshe (loosely translated as political shenanigans).
Bitter Infighting and Growing Dissent
As three factions fight for supremacy, many senior leaders are finding themselves uncomfortable in the state unit.
The former education minister of Chouhan's cabinet and son of an ex-BJP CM Kaliash Joshi, Deepak Joshi, left the party in May this year and joined the Congress.
In the by-elections held in Bagli, his assembly seat in Dewas district - first represented by his father and then by him - the BJP appointed Manoj Choudhary, a Scindia supporter, as its candidate.
Deepak Joshi told me that senior leaders like him were continuously ignored in BJP. "I tried meeting VD Sharma and Hitanand, the organisational general secretary, but in vain. Chouhan was not accessible. As people in my constituency suffered, I raised the issues of corruption in Bagli but no one was responding," he said.
He added, "BJP mein maar-kaat machi hai” (There is bitter infighting in the BJP).
Last year, the BJP lost seven of the 16 mayoral elections to the Congress and Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). This includes the prestigious mayoral post in Gwalior, the home turf of Scindia. This was a huge setback to the BJP, exposing chinks in the armor.
A number of Scindia supporters from Gwalior and Chamabal – who had left the Congress in 2020 with the scion of the erstwhile Gwalior family –rejoined the Congress in the last two months.
It is only after the reports of infighting and the huge anti-incumbency faced by the party did PM Narendra Modi and Amit Shah start intervening, claimed a party leader.
Since 26 June, Modi has already visited Madhya Pradesh thrice. Shah visited Bhopal last on 20 August, when he released a report card of the Chouhan government.
But Shah also dropped a bombshell – silently.
A senior RSS functionary said that the home minister was alarmed over squabbling, growing dissent, and yawning communication gap between the government and the state unit of the BJP.
The Crucial Role of Narendra Singh Tomar
Answering a question regarding who would be the chief minister in case BJP comes to power in MP, Shah was noncommittal about Chouhan's name. He also said, "Abhi toh Shivraj ji mukhya mantri hain (At the moment, Shivraj is the CM)."
Again on 27 August, after repeated questions on Chouhan, convener of BJP’s state election management committee, Narendra Singh Tomar, also said, "The parliamentary board will decide the CM’s candidate in MP."
Tomar’s appointment as the state election management committee convener goes against Scindia’s interests. An MP from the neighbouring Morena parliamentary seat, Tomar would also oversee the ticket distribution.
"Both belong to the Gwalior Chambal region and there will be a clash of interest in the region. Tomar will obviously have an upper hand," a BJP minister told me.
"Tomar would like to strike a balance between the Maharaj Bhajpa and the Naraaj Bhajpa factions," they explained further.
Responding to noncommittal party seniors over his position after the elections, Chouhan, who continues to be the party’s spearhead said, "I am a party worker and would obey the party's orders. I will carry out whatever work is assigned to me by the party."
The party has planned its massive public outreach, the Jan Ashirwad Yatra from 3 September to 21 September. This time, Chouhan will be part of the yatras for half a day every day, unlike the 2018 yatras when he did it solo.
Additionally, Chouhan, who seems to have redefined the post of chief minister by his demeanor, and systematically cultivated the image of mama, has often said privately to media persons, “I have nothing to lose. I have been CM four times.”
He still talks about how the 9 crore population of Madhya Pradesh is his God and he would never be tired of serving it.
Amidst allegations of misuse of government machinery for the mobilisation of masses in his rallies and programmes, Chouhan says, "People in Madhya Pradesh love me so much. Come and see how they throng in my events every day."
Undeterred by criticism, he is making announcements every day and is banking heavily on the Ladli Behna scheme, giving Rs 1250 cash to 1.25 crore women of the state to empower them.
Nevertheless, there are no signs of a truce about two and a half months before the elections. Internal differences would have to be resolved in order to put up a focused fight against a spirited Congress party.
(The author is a senior journalist based in Madhya Pradesh. This is an opinion article and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)