About four years ago, in the winter of 2018, prospects for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections began to look open for the opposition, courtesy of Congress clinching three crucial states from the incumbent Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Three BJP satraps- Vasundhara Raje, Shivraj Singh Chauhan, and Raman Singh- lost their chief ministership. However, owing to operation lotus, Shivraj and the BJP regained their lost power in Madhya Pradesh within 15 months.
Cut to 2023, and the political landscape of both the country and the BJP has undergone marked changes compared to 2018. The Modi-Shah duo have outgrown their predecessors and command unprecedented authority in the party hierarchy. There is absolutely nobody to challenge their dictum and air a dissenting opinion. Today, even the ideological parent Rashtriya Swyamsevak Sangh (RSS) has little sway in party affairs, unlike in the 2000s (see Gadkari, for instance).
The Modi-Shah juggernaut has been working with a prudent objective in mind. They have been promoting young and new heads and replacing biggies - having mass bases - of the old days, to nip any possibility of challenge or any alternate power centre in the future. And in this new scheme of things, the likes of Chauhan, Singh, and Raje don’t fit the bill. It is intriguing to put that, by 2018, Shivraj Chauhan (in Madhya Pradesh) and Raman Singh (in Chhattisgarh) had reigned for non-stop 15 years, all this in parallel with Modi who was at the helm of Gujarat for over 12 years.
The trio, since 2018, have been served with enough signals from the Delhi darbar. From sidelining to undermining (in the case of Shivraj), the saffron party seems to have made its intentions clear to the concerned leaders. Notwithstanding the fact that the three leaders had more or less the same political stature in their respective states when the candidature of Narendra Modi was announced by the BJP National Executive in September 2013.
Gujarat CM and BJP prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi congratulates Chhattisgarh CM Raman Singh for winning a third term. Credits: PTI;2013
Are curtains down for Singh?
Raman Singh remains the longest-serving chief minister of Chhattisgarh. However, the poll debacle in 2018 may have ended the road for him, at least in the state's politics. The first major step in this regard was his appointment as national vice president of the BJP after the poll loss. Being one of the twelve to hold a less-consequential post was seen as the end of the road for him.
And as things stand today, the party is looking beyond Singh, who is from the upper caste, in a state heavily dominated by Other Backward Classes (OBCs) and Tribals. The Ascent of OBC politics and "son-of-the-soil" Bhupesh Baghel, the current chief minister, from the opposition camp has forced the BJP to amend its approach. Eyeing the 2023 assembly polls, key appointments in the state leadership have been made in consonance with the caste demographics.
It is relevant to mention that Raman Singh's cabinet had always been an upper caste-dominated cabinet, despite backwards and tribals making up over 80% of the state's population. And though the BJP aims to project PM Modi as the party’s face, news reports have put a tribal leader having strong Hindutva credentials as the leading contender for the top job if the BJP comes to power. If this happens, it may eventually bring curtains down for Raman Singh.
Raje puts up a fight
Like Singh, Vasundhara Raje Scindia too lost power in 2018. Since the poll loss, for two consecutive times now she has been appointed the national vice-president, an ornamental post in the saffron party.
The party went on to appoint 57-year-old Satish Poonia, an all-weather critic of Raje, to the party chief post in the state.
Since then Raje is often at loggerheads with Poonia, a contender for the chair, who is in the good books of Delhi. He last year suggested a retirement age of 70 for politicians; Raje is 69. Though Poonia's remark was also aimed at other internal rivals like the Leader of the Opposition Gulab Chandra Katariya, and it does give a glimpse of factionalism, the fact remains that all of them are united in their dislike for Raje. The two-time chief minister finds herself alone and cornered.
However, Raje has refused to meekly accept the message from Delhi and instead has been defiant in her political manoeuvrings. She has been working to keep her substantial mass base mobilized behind her as well as doing temple runs to appease the top leadership. At the same time, she often skips meetings and programmes called by the state leadership, her rivals. As recently as this month, Raje mostly stayed away from the "hugely successful" Jan Aakrosh Yatra led by Poonia and others.
Is Shivraj delaying the inevitable?
Like the former two, Shivraj Singh Chauhan, now a fourth-term chief minister, was also relegated to the nominal vice-presidential post after the party lost to Congress in a tight fight. However, his fate reversed after the Congress government fell prematurely. He was credited with staging the collapse of the Congress government by bringing sulking Scindia and his faction on board. He was sworn in as the chief minister.
However, he is no longer the all-powerful chief minister he could boast of in his earlier avatars. Kailash Vijaywargiya and home minister Narrotam Mishra are functioning like alternate power centres, with the latter being a blue-eyed boy of Amit Shah. Jyotiraditya Scindia and his supporting MLAs being in a good negotiating position doesn't help either.
In another ostensible sign for things to come, last year, in August, Shivraj was dropped from the parliamentary board, the apex decision-making body of the party.
Though, Shivraj is astute enough a politician to sense the wind waves. He has been conscious of the changed political dynamics and is playing to the gallery. His image of a soft-spoken and amicable sabka mama has undergone hard-to-miss changes. Now he is a wannabe Hindutva icon and a ruthless bulldozer wielding tough-on-'criminals' chief minister. To sum up, he is trying all available means to maintain a mass base – what precisely irks the top leadership.
However, it's not yet all gloomy for the trio. The challenges of transition and limitations of Modi-mania do have some light in the tunnel for them.
…and some silver linings
For the BJP to shift the party leadership of Chhattisgarh from Raman Singh to men from his camp and finally to leaders perceived of other factions has been forced steps. Baghel and his sub-nationalistic politics have been proving to be an uphill task to take on. The BJP has suffered a fifth successive defeat in by-polls held since the 2018 assembly elections.
Similarly, in Rajasthan, the BJP has drawn a blank in six of the seven bypolls since 2018. Likes of Poonia and Katariya, the result shows, are a no match to Vasundhara and her appeal. The party's central leadership realises it too. Shah and Modi have lately praised Vasundhara and her governance record in their public addresses. In April last year, Modi made a point by giving time to Vasundhara.
Madhya Pradesh too is not drastically different. The high command's aspiration hits the leadership bumble. None in the state leadership stands close to Shivraj Singh Chouhan. The party may not have another option but to go with Shivraj in the elections which are slated to be held at the end of this year.
Further, the trends of assembly elections in recent years too are a positive sign for the satraps. Modi magic isn't always visible in state elections. Though there are no two ways about him being the biggest trump card of the party, the lack of an able and popular state leader has emerged as too big a hole for him to tide over.
And if the ascension of former chief minister BS Yeddyurappa to the parliamentary panel, against the impending Karnataka assembly elections, is anything to go by, things aren't down and out for the three regional chieftains.