Despite the bypoll results in Madhya Pradesh, Shivraj Singh Chouhan is still the favourite to win in 2018. (Mujeeb Faruqui/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)
Snapshot
  • Chouhan starts his new term in difficult circumstances. Given the new alignments in the state BJP unit, Chouhan will have to make sure that he keeps all factions happy and engaged.

After a month-long political drama in Madhya Pradesh, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has returned to form the government in the state. Shivraj Singh Chouhan, popularly known as Mamaji, has made a comeback, taking oath as the Chief Minister for the fourth time.

His 13-year, 17-day run as Chief Minister was rudely interrupted in December 2018, when the Congress edged ahead of the BJP narrowly in the state assembly. One of the main reasons why Congress won was the popularity of Jyotiraditya Scindia in the Chambal belt, where Congress won 30 out of the 36 seats, contributing in a big way to the party tally of 114.

After the election however, Rahul Gandhi famously tweeted a picture with Kamal Nath and Scindia using Leo Tolstoy’s line – "The two most powerful warriors are patience and time". Presumably, it was Nath’s time to be the Chief Minister and Scindia’s virtue to be patient.

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On 9 March, Scindia’s patience gave way. He resigned on 10 March from the Congress, sending a letter dated the previous day to Sonia Gandhi, acting president of the party, ending his 18-year journey with the Congress. He was miffed with the inability to influence any big decisions in the Nath government.

Digvijaya Singh, the wily old hand of the Madhya Pradesh politics, further influenced the government policies, causing a complex three-party rift, with Scindia getting squeezed.

Before he quit, 22 Members of Legislative Assembly (MLAs) had already decamped and pledged allegiance to Scindia. The Congress government falling was then a formality, delayed a few days by the shenanigans of the speaker and the matter moving to the Supreme Court. Nath did not face a floor test as the court had ordered.

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The BJP will now need to win at least half of the pending 25 bypolls to ensure that the government stays stable. That should not be very difficult, given the personal popularity of Chouhan, now endorsed by Scindia, who is himself quite a force in the Chambal – Malwa region.

The BJP leadership chose Chouhan again, despite political rumours that there were other contenders like Narottam Mishra and Narendra Singh Tomar in the fray. Apart from Chouhan, only Kailash Vijayvargiya, currently National General Secretary in charge of the West Bengal unit of the party, had the stature to keep things together in the state.

Local political circles are abuzz with the talks of two Deputy Chief Ministers being appointed though, one from the MLAs who came to the BJP along with Scindia.

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The first priority for the new Chouhan government would be to take immediate control of the coronavirus mitigation measures for MP. Currently, the state has only four cases, but the borders are not sealed. Not much has been done in terms of local capacity building to counter the spread of the deadly virus, which has locked down more than 3 billion people globally.

Despite Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s repeated appeals, pictures coming from Bhopal and Indore over the last couple of days have put BJP in a tight spot – the local party unit has not been able to apply social distancing in any meaningful way.

Once the threat of Covid-19 ebbs, Chouhan will have a few urgent tasks at hand. A slew of schemes which he ran as Chief Minister had been unwound or significantly tapered down by the Congress government. He will have to review what the state can afford to restart.

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He will have to create a balanced plan for the state, where each of the regions has its own peculiar problems and politics. Given the new alignments in the state BJP unit, Chouhan will have to also make sure that he keeps all factions happy and engaged.

But most importantly, in his fourth term, Chouhan will have to look at giving the MP economy a booster dose. He did stellar work in transforming agriculture sector in the state with a slew of measures since 2007-2008. But there may not be much to work on the margins in the sector, barring the seasonal interventions.

MP, with its $125 billion economy, has per capita income of just about Rs 1 lakh per annum. Chouhan should lay out a path towards doubling the gross state domestic produce (GSDP).

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This is achievable growing at just over 10 per cent for seven years – a tough ask but not impossible given the base effect. But this growth will not be driven only by advancements in agriculture.

The state will have to rapidly urbanise and attract industries as well as services to add new avenues of growth. This will also need a big investment in social sector, focusing especially on healthcare and education. These are areas which Chouhan had started to put more energy into, but will become the main priorities for his fourth stint as Chief Minister.

The coronavirus pandemic gives an opportunity to him to look at technology-led interventions on the healthcare side in a large state, where the population is sparsely distributed outside of the main cities.

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Chouhan starts his term in difficult circumstances. But his hold on the voters as well as the bureaucracy is strong. This is a perfect opportunity for him to distinguish himself extending his personal brand.

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