Opinion: The Curious Case Of Vasundhara Raje And Shivraj Chouhan

It is baffling to see heavyweights like Vasundhara Raje Scindia and Shivraj Singh Chouhan shafted on their own turf by the BJP leadership. Election dates have been announced for Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Telangana and the states are in peak poll mode. Candidates are being named, senior leaders are being assigned the task of consolidating the party's social base, and strategies are being formulated to counter the Congress in three states. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is addressing rallies and Amit Shah is handling strategy workshops with party workers but top state leaders aren't seen anywhere. Their presence in these rallies is also negligible. There are instructions, apparently, that neither Shivraj Chouhan nor Vasundhara Scindia will be projected as chief minister candidates. The doctrine of collective leadership is being advocated.

This is a sure sign for Shivraj Chouhan and Vasundhara Raje that their time is up and the BJP is no longer willing to bet on them to win elections.

The two have dominated politics in their states for more than two decades. Vasundhara Raje Scindia proved to be a worthy successor to Bhairon Singh Shekhawat. A two-time Chief Minister of Rajasthan, she is the only charismatic leader with a pan-Rajasthan presence and a solid mass base. It's not that the BJP has found another mass leader to replace Vasundhara Raje. Those being groomed as her likely successors are too lightweight and have no presence beyond their constituencies. They cannot be relied upon to win state elections for the party. Arjun Ram Meghwal, Gajendra Singh Shekhawat, Satish Punia, CP Joshi, and Om Birla are no match for Vasundhara Raje.

Shivraj Chouhan's case is also curious. He is the leader who deserves credit for the BJP winning back Madhya Pradesh after the disastrous Chief Ministership of Uma Bharti. The BJP scored a massive win in 2003 after 10 years of Digvijaya Singh's Congress government. However, Uma Bharti squandered the goodwill. Atal Bihari Vajpayee and LK Advani, then the BJP's top two, removed Uma Bharti as Chief Minister. After a brief interregnum of Babu Lal Gaur, Shivraj Chouhan was given the responsibility of leading the party in the state. He took it up valiantly, not only consolidating his hold over the party but also winning two state elections and staying chief minister for 13 years. The mild-mannered leader was even seen as a candidate for a more prominent national role before the emergence of Modi. His downfall started after he failed to win the 2018 assembly election.

After the collapse of the Kamal Nath-led Congress government, Shivraj Chouhan returned as Chief Minister but his vastly depleted stock was evident. He had to compete with new leaders like Yogi Adityanath and imitate their style of governance. Shivraj lacked confidence in his fourth term as Chief Minister. It was whispered in power corridors that he did not enjoy the confidence of Modi-Shah in the way he had basked in the affection of Atal-Advani.

Shivraj is no Vasundhara Raje. He is not defiant. He is keeping up a brave face, knowing fully that his days are numbered in state politics. It is no coincidence that his rivals with Chief Ministerial aspirations are being chosen as candidates, yet his name is missing from the list. Narendra Singh Tomar is a central cabinet minister and Kailash Vijayvargiya has been a senior national general secretary of the party. Both aim to replace Shivraj Chouhan in the top post. Jyotiraditya Scindia, imported from the Congress, has been breathing down his neck ever since he joined the BJP three years ago. Like Vasundhara, Shivraj Chouhan is a mass leader who led from the front in past elections. Central leaders then were in subordinate roles. Curiously, this time he is struggling with rumours that he might not be allowed to contest assembly elections and may be drafted at the centre.

Like Vasundhara and Shivraj, Raman Singh is also languishing in the wilderness since he lost power in 2018 in Chhattisgarh. He was Chief Minister for 15 straight years. Surprisingly, today there are no takers for him. It seems that the BJP led by Narendra Modi is not interested in retaining him in a leadership role. The BJP in Chhattisgarh is today leaderless. There is no one to challenge the very active Bhupesh Baghel of the Congress. It is being said that the BJP has already given up in the state.

Three time-tested big leaders with a vast experience of winning elections for the BJP are benched and the party does not think to use them creatively to win. This is one of the biggest conundrums of today's politics. The BJP has decided to go with collective leadership in all three states. No single face will be projected. I can understand that thanks to the overwhelming presence of Modi and the party's total surrender to his authority, any revolt before the assembly elections is only a remote possibility. Gone are the days when Kalyan Singh in Uttar Pradesh, Shankar Singh Vaghela in Gujarat, Uma Bharti in Madhya Pradesh, and BS Yediyurappa in Karnataka could revolt against the leadership and float their own political outfits.

Atal-Advani were charismatic leaders, especially Atal Bihari Vajpayee. He and Advani groomed future leaders at the national level and also in states. Under them, the BJP had a galaxy of big leaders like Sushma Swaraj, Narendra Modi, Pramod Mahajan, Gopinath Munde, Yediyurappa, Ashwini Kumar, Uma Bharti, Shivraj Singh Chouhan, Kalyan Singh, Rajnath Singh, Arjun Munda, Raman Singh, Prem Kumar Dhumal, Madan Lal Khurana, Sahib Singh Verma, Yashwant Sinha, Sushil Modi, Ravi Shankar Prasad, Shankar Singh Vaghela, Manohar Parrikar, and Nitin Gadkari. They were promoted, trained and groomed by Atal-Advani and they all made significant contributions to the BJP's growth.

Every leader wants their team and accordingly promotes leaders who can implement their vision. Modi, after taking on the reins of the party, has turned the BJP into an election machine always chasing out-of-the-box ways of winning. But unlike Atal-Advani, Modi does not believe in creating a second line of leadership. Under his leadership, senior leaders are uprooted and replaced by rootless wonders. The choice for the Chief Ministers in states like Gujarat, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Haryana, Karnataka and Jharkhand is testimony to this new reality. The BJP, unlike in the past, no longer depends on its regional satraps to win elections. The party has complete faith that Modi's Midas touch is enough to defeat rivals. Modi presents himself as destiny's child and asks voters to vote for him. 

Recently, in Himachal Pradesh and Karnataka, he asked voters to forget who the BJP's candidates were and vote for him as he was the only guarantee for the development of the state.

However, results in these states tell a different story - that voters want one of their own, who can represent regional aspirations and symbolise regional identity. They are willing to vote for Modi in national elections but not in states.

In this context, the treatment meted out to Shivraj Chouhan, Vasundhara and Raman Singh is mystifying. It bears deeper investigation into why such stalwarts are being sidelined and why the party has no use for them anymore.

(Ashutosh is author of 'Hindu Rashtra' and Editor, satyahindi.com.)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.