Speaking at an election rally in Dindori, Madhya Pradesh (MP) chief minister (CM) Shivraj Singh Chouhan posed this rhetorical question: “Should Mama (as he is popularly called) become chief minister or not?” The crowd roared a Yes. In normal circumstances, this would be no headline news. This poll season, however, Chouhan’s question and the response have left the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in a twist. Chouhan has been the state CM for nearly 17 years and is arguably the most recognisable party face in the state. However, the BJP has been non-committal about his return as CM if the party wins. A similar story is playing out in neighbouring Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, where the BJP seems reluctant to ask its two former CMs, Vasundhara Raje and Raman Singh, to shoulder the campaign. The picture has been further complicated by the BJP’s move to field a bunch of senior MPs and central ministers in Rajasthan and MP, indicating that the party may want to look beyond its tested regional leaders for high office in state capitals. The campaign is being led by Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi, and votes are being sought in his name, with him standing guarantee for the party’s poll promises. This is in continuation with the BJP’s recent poll strategy, wherein it has sought to relegate state satraps to the background and seek votes in the name of the PM and the party. It marks the end of the federal structure that the BJP under LK Advani’s leadership followed within the organisation wherein a galaxy of state leaders was nurtured and projected as the faces of the party in the states and their achievements celebrated. Chouhan, Raje and Singh — also PM Modi, were beneficiaries of a phase of the BJP when the party would allow the regional leaderships a definitive say in election campaigns.
The shift started in 2014 itself, which saw Indian elections turning presidential. In most political parties, the organisation has become secondary. The idea of a collective leadership or a loose federation of leaders, at the Centre and the state, is threatened in almost all political parties, including those that once boasted a robust tradition of federalism and factionalism. In the BJP, leaders such as BS Yediyurappa were removed from the leadership. This may have allowed the party to sharpen its messaging, combat anti-incumbency and eliminate any dissonance, but this tactic exacted an electoral price in Karnataka, where the party tried to abandon its mutt-centric communitarian character and adopt a strident Hindutva voice. Chouhan, Raje and Raman Singh, unlike Yediyurappa, came into the limelight in states where the BJP has a long history of presence and dominance — and so the decision to not build campaigns around them is surprising, especially since the Congress, the BJP’s opponent in the three states, has been unambiguous about its choices.
It is possible that the BJP senses fatigue among voters with known faces. It undertook a similar exercise in Gujarat by changing the CM ahead of the assembly election in 2022 and won. But Rajasthan, MP and Chhattisgarh are not Gujarat: The BJP has a tough political fight on its hands in these states. PM Modi’s skills as a campaigner and popularity are beyond doubt, and he is the tallest political leader in the country by a distance, but the party may be taking a risk in going up against three well-entrenched Congress satraps without a local face.
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