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Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Shivraj to finally expand ministry: why was the process delayed for so long?

Chouhan has been weakened politically, and the party organisation now has greater say in Madhya Pradesh. Also, the CM wanted his loyalists in the ministry and to keep some vacancies in the cabinet for future exigencies.

Written by Liz Mathew | New Delhi | Updated: July 2, 2020 2:17:45 pm
Shivraj Singh Chouhan heads a government that was formed after 22 Congress MLAs withdrew support for the previous government led by Kamal Nath. PTI Photo

The expansion of the now three-month-old council of ministers in Madhya Pradesh is likely to finally happen on Thursday (July 2). The expansion exercise has been fraught – Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan had landed in Delhi on Sunday (June 28) night and had proceeded to hold a series of meetings with the top BJP leadership and several others who matter in the state party unit.

Chouhan had gone back to the state on Tuesday morning – and late on Wednesday evening, sources said the expansion of the cabinet was likely to finally take place.

What had been coming in the way of Chouhan, who ruled Madhya Pradesh from 2005 to 2018, expanding his six-member cabinet to help him deal with the current challenging times?

A politically weakened CM

The precarious arithmetic in the Assembly – which has 206 MLAs currently and 24 seats are vacant – had a significant role to play. Chouhan heads a government that was formed after 22 Congress MLAs withdrew support for the previous government led by Kamal Nath. Chouhan has been struggling to find the middle path between his choices and his political compulsions. This tricky balancing act is necessary to avoid trouble in the future.

Following the defeat in the 2018 Assembly elections, Chouhan no longer exercises the same control, and the party organisation now has greater say in decisions. Chouhan had drawn the ire of some BJP leaders by not taking the initiative to pull down the Kamal Nath government, which had only a razor-thin majority.

Although he still claims the loyalty of around half of the BJP’s 107 MLAs, it was not Chouhan who engineered the fall of the Congress government. According to party sources, it was Amit Shah who played a significant role in roping in Congress leader Jyotiraditya Scindia, who brought along the MLAs whose resignations resulted in the change of regime. Chouhan became Chief Minister because he remains the most accepted and experienced face of the BJP, but he has been weakened politically.

Jyotiraditya Scindia quit the Congress to join the BJP in March this year. Express Photo by Tashi Tobgyal

A delicate balancing act

The BJP leadership had committed 11 ministerial berths to Scindia, who has also demanded the post of Deputy Chief Minister for a loyalist.

In the first expansion in April when five ministers took oath, Scindia, despite intense bargaining, had to be satisfied with just two of his men – former Congress MLAs Tulsiram Silawat and Govind Rajput – being accommodated.

In fact, not just Chouhan and Scindia, all prominent leaders had to deal with disappointments, as the expansion focussed only on balancing castes. So, Narottam Mishra, a Brahmin, Kamal Patel, an OBC, and Meena Singh, a tribal, were inducted.

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In BJP, a tussle within

The BJP might have tried out someone else for the top job in the state – for example, Mishra or Union Minister Narendra Singh Tomar, who also played a role in bringing in 22 MLAs along with Scindia – had it not been the crisis created by the Covid-19 pandemic, sources said.

Chouhan draws strength from not only the MLAs who are loyal to him, but also from the fact that the party cannot take the risk of having an inexperienced individual at the helm as it prepares for the crucial byelections ahead. No other senior leader enjoys the acceptability that Chouhan has among the MLAs who have switched from the Congress. BJP leaders concede that even Scindia is not likely to accept anyone other than Chouhan.

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While the party has been insistent that Chouhan should accept its decisions in picking ministers, the Chief Minister was not ready to budge from his demand to induct his long-time loyalists in the cabinet. Chouhan’s stature appears intimidating to most other senior BJP leaders, who argue that it is time to build a new leadership for the party in the crucial state. The BJP’s central leadership too, agrees it is time for a new, younger crop of leaders in the state. Chouhan’s rivals argue that his being in power for so long has made one section of the party stronger, and the rest weaker, in Madhya Pradesh.

The party has pointed out to Chouhan that he failed to get all the party MLAs’ votes for the BJP’s official candidates in the recent Rajya Sabha elections. According to sources, there was not only cross-voting in the BJP camp, two votes were also rejected – and the leadership has sought an explanation from the CM.

With 11 berths virtually given to Scindia loyalists, Chouhan has a smaller number available for the BJP’s MLAs. Also, given his precarious position, he would like to keep some vacancies in the Cabinet for future exigencies. In the first expansion, Chouhan deferred to the organisation; this time he is trying to get his loyalists into the government. How this internal tussle in the party plays out in the expansion of the council of ministers, remains to be seen.

(This report has been updated to incorporate later developments)

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