When Bharatiya Janata Party president Amit Shah moved former chief ministers Shivraj Singh Chouhan, Vasundhara Raje and Raman Singh from their respective states and appointed them party vice-presidents earlier this year, it was said the trio’s seniority and experience would come handy in the Lok Sabha elections.
But of the three former chief ministers, it is only Chouhan who is being used extensively by the party in the ongoing poll campaign. The three-term former chief minister of Madhya Pradesh is busy touring his home state to canvass support for the BJP and is also being sent to other states by the party for electioneering. The other two chief ministers are involved in the campaign but only peripherally as Raje and Raman Singh have been keeping a low profile since they were dethroned by the Congress in last year’s assembly polls.
If the party has shown a marked preference for Chouhan over his counterparts, there are compelling reasons for it. Though he is not known to be a favourite with the present BJP leadership in Delhi, the former Madhya Pradesh chief minister has his uses in these polls primarily because he has the advantage of belonging to the “right” caste.
While Raje and Raman Singh come from the upper castes, Chouhan is an OBC, which comes in handy at a time when the BJP is making concerted efforts to woo the backward classes across the Hindi heartland. In fact, the BJP’s current focus on OBCs is in line with its two-decade-old strategy to move away from being labeled a “Bania-Brahmin” party.
The BJP was persuaded by its former high-profile ideologue Govindacharya to shift gears and embrace the backward classes after the implementation of the Mandal Commission in the late eighties dramatically altered the political landscape in Northern India. The social engineering resorted to by the BJP led to the rise of several OBC leaders such as Uma Bharti, Kalyan Singh, Sushil Modi and Shivraj Singh Chouhan. Continuing in the same vein, the party was equally quick to publicise the fact that Narendra Modi is an OBC during the 2014 Lok Sabha poll campaign, a move which paid the party rich political dividends then and continues to do so even today.
Persisting with the OBC card, the BJP made a conscious play for the non-Yadav backward classes in the 2017 assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh by giving a large chunk of tickets to these castes and also accommodating them in positions of power. Having swept the politically important Hindi heartland state, the party is once again depending on the backing of these castes in the ongoing Lok Sabha poll not just in Uttar Pradesh but across Northern India. Given this backdrop, the BJP needs to flaunt its pantheon of backward leaders, which includes Chouhan.
Not only has Chouhan emerged as a credible leader in his own right, he is perhaps among the few chief ministers who has not lost his personal popularity despite being defeated in the recent elections. On the contrary, it is to his credit that the BJP came close to retaining Madhya Pradesh for the fourth time. Though denied any position in the state unit, Chouhan is the BJP’s only mass leader in Madhya Pradesh today. There are reasons to believe that Chouhan will play a key role if the BJP leadership decides to dislodge the Kamal Nath government if the party comes back to power at the Centre.
In contrast to Chouhan, the BJP’s losses in both Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh are being viewed as a personal defeat for Raje and Raman Singh. Raje had become the direct target of attack by the Rajasthan electorate who felt she was inaccessible, arrogant and had failed to deliver on her promises. “Vasundhara teri khair nahin, Modi tujse se vair nahin,” was the common refrain heard in the assembly election. The BJP cannot take the risk of over-exposing Raje so soon after the assembly poll as it has the potential of jogging people’s memories about her rule and this could spell trouble for the party in the Lok Sabha election.
Though he has the distinction of being the longest-serving chief minister of Chhattisgarh, the low-key and once hugely popular Raman Singh took the brunt of people’s ire in last year’s assembly polls. The former chief minister was brought down by a host of reasons: agrarian distress, people’s fatigue, corruption charges, overlooking the interests of the backward classes and personal allegations of promoting a coterie. It will take a long time for him to recover from the party’s humiliating electoral defeat. At a time when the BJP is going in for a complete overhaul in Chhattisgarh — beginning by replacing all its sitting MPs with fresh faces — Raman Singh will have to wait his turn in the wings before returning to the political centerstage.
(The author is a senior journalist. Views are personal)