The BJP is poised to witness a tussle for the chief minister’s post in each of the three heartland states it has won, having chosen to fight the polls under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and without projecting any local face.
While choosing the chief ministers, the Modi-Shah dispensation will have to negotiate with three stalwarts from the Vajpayee-Advani era: four-term Madhya Pradesh chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan; former Rajasthan chief minister Vasundhara Raje and former Chhattisgarh chief minister Raman Singh.
“Modiji will decide who will be chief minister in the three states,” a party leader said.
Madhya Pradesh will demand special focus, given that the elections were fought under the incumbent Shivraj but he was still not projected as the next chief minister. Instead, by fielding a raft of Lok Sabha MPs, including some senior central ministers, the party leadership had indicated that it favoured a change of leadership in the state.
As the trends suggested a thumping victory on Sunday, the astute Shivraj expressed loyalty to the central leadership while at the same pitching himself as candidate for chief minister by suggesting his government’s welfare schemes had powered the BJP victory.
“Prime Minister Narendra Modiji is in the hearts of the people of Madhya Pradesh. His leadership is getting reflected in the trends,” Shivraj said. He went on to praise Union home minister Amit Shah’s “election management” and party chief J.P. Nadda’s leadership.
He, however, added: “The work done by the double-engine government, whether at the Centre or in the state, such as the Ladli Behna scheme, has helped uplift people and improve their lives. All of us have worked hard together.”
The Ladli Behna scheme, which entails a monthly cash dole of Rs 1,250 for poor married women, was started just ahead of the polls and is believed to have played a decisive role in overturning the accumulated anti-incumbency of two decades.
Party insiders indicated that despite its desire for a change of guard in the state, the central leadership might find it difficult to edge out Shivraj after the big mandate, at least ahead of the 2024 Lok Sabha polls.
Shivraj’s OBC identity can also make it hard for the leadership to sideline him, lest it send out a negative message in the run-up to the Lok Sabha polls. “Shivraj can only be replaced with a strong OBC leader,” a BJP insider said.
The top leadership has indicated that it might deny Raje, the state’s tallest BJP politician, another stint to lead the government.
In Rajasthan, particularly, Modi had repeatedly asserted that the “lotus” (party election symbol) was the only “face” and “candidate” in these Assembly elections.
Party insiders said that unlike the affable Shivraj, Vasundhara, member of an erstwhile royal family, was seen as an imperious and independent politician who often refused to toe the central leadership’s line. She might therefore be sidelined.
Like Shivraj, however, Vasundhara too came out to hail Modi, Shah and Nadda for their role in the Rajasthan victory, seeking to earn the goodwill of those who matter.
Sources close to her said that given the BJP’s thin majority in Rajasthan, it would be difficult for the party to deny Vasundhara.
“Vasundhara alone can keep the MLAs intact and run the government. Choosing anyone else could lead to dissension and factional fights,” a BJP parliamentarian said.
The party had fielded several Lok Sabha MPs in the Rajasthan elections, and they were seen as prospective chief ministers. Prominent among them was Diya Kumari, associated with the erstwhile Jaipur royal family, and slogans projecting her as chief minister were raised on Sunday after she won by a good margin.
Party insiders said a fresh OBC face could be brought in to head the Chhattisgarh government in place of Raman Singh, an upper caste who has been chief minister for three terms in the past.