Home minister Amit Shah on Sunday urged the people of poll-bound Madhya Pradesh to elect a "Modi-led BJP government" if they wanted their state to surge ahead in the next five years.
The call was interpreted as a hint that chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan, once considered a rival of Modi at the national level, was no longer being seen as a contender for power in the heartland state.
Shah, in Bhopal to release the report card of the state government, made the appeal with four-time chief minister Shivraj seated on the stage with him.
"If the people of Madhya Pradesh want their state to surge ahead as the number one or number two, then they have to form a BJP government under the leadership of Modiji here," Shah said as he appealed for votes.
Shah lauded Shivraj for ushering in transformation in the state during his long tenure since 2005, but stopped short of appealing for votes to make him chief minister for another term.
Party insiders said that by calling for a Modi-led BJP government in the state, Shah could be hinting at a repeat of what happened in Assam in 2021. The BJP contested the Assembly polls with Sarbanand Sonowal as chief minister but post-victory, the central leadership picked Himanta Biswa Sharma to become chief minister and Sonowal was made a minister in the central government.
Madhya Pradesh has in the recent past witnessed a strong demand for change of leadership from within the party on grounds of "fatigue" with Shivraj as chief minister.
The BJP's central leadership, however, didn't opt for changing Shivraj before the polls as they couldn't find a suitable replacement and feared dissension in the ranks, sources said.
"Despite strong anti-incumbency and fatigue with his leadership, Shivraj is still the most popular party face in Madhya Pradesh. Moreover, he is an OBC and most of the contenders are upper caste leaders," a BJP leader said, adding that "replacing Shivraj before the polls was a risky proposition".
At the same time, Shivraj doesn't appear to fit in the scheme of Modi-Shah, who have been systematically sidelining the old guard and promoting the next generation loyal to them, according to party insiders.
Indications from the ground, however, suggest that Shivraj is not ready to give in easily. He has been campaigning aggressively, seeking another term for himself. Known for being popular among women voters, he has recently launched another welfare scheme (Ladli Behana) under which his government is transferring Rs 1,000 every month to the bank accounts of 1.25 crore married poor women.
Shivraj has promised to increase the amount to Rs 1,500 in the near future and ultimately to Rs 3,000 if he is elected back to power. His managers believe that the scheme will be a game-changer.
"Replacing Shivraj is not going to be easy. He can be ousted only if the party loses the election," a BJP leader from Madhya Pradesh said.