Madhya Pradesh, which votes today, and Chhattisgarh, where the last phase of polling ended last Tuesday, have had the same chief ministers for the past three terms. Shivraj Singh Chouhan in MP and Raman Singh in Chhattisgarh are hoping for a fourth successive term in office, an exceptional feat if they manage it. India has seen many formidable state leaders, but few of them — barring Jyoti Basu, Naveen Patnaik and Manik Sarkar — have defied anti-incumbency for more than three terms. Powered by the Sangh Parivar’s organisational muscle, Chouhan and Singh have turned the BJP into the natural party of governance in MP and Chhattisgarh respectively. In the process, they have also carved a niche for themselves in a party that now seems to trust more in a centralised leadership. Which is why the outcomes in MP and Chhattisgarh could shape the politics of not just the two states, but also influence the internal dynamics of the BJP.
Chouhan and Singh, like Vasundhara Raje in Rajasthan, Narendra Modi in Gujarat and B S Yeddyurappa in Karnataka were said to be part of a generation of second-rung BJP leaders the party groomed to lead governments in their respective states. They were allowed the space to express themselves and become the face of the party on their home ground. The willingness of the BJP central leadership to encourage a decentralised power structure and allow leaders to rise in the party hierarchy from below was a welcome departure from the Congress tradition of the high command nominating chief ministers, and it was projected by the BJP as its USP. It gave credence to the BJP’s criticism of the Congress as a dynasty-oriented network of privilege and entitlement and helped the party to win over younger voters who saw the saffron outfit as a platform with relatively lower entry barriers. Chouhan and Singh also projected themselves as unassuming and accessible leaders. While anger among farmers over poor procurement, corruption scandals like Vyapam, and rising expectations have dented the influence of both leaders, they continue to be the pivots of the BJP campaigns in their states, despite the hectic electioneering by Modi and party chief, Amit Shah.
The current trend in the BJP is to privilege the central leadership over regional leaders. The Modi-Amit Shah regime in the BJP has preferred central nominees to head governments in the states. Another term would raise the profile of Chouhan and Singh within the BJP whereas their defeat could strengthen the forces that seek to centralise decision-making in the party.