The choice of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) presidents to lead the organisation in poll-bound Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh does not necessarily reflect the advent of a hegemonic “high command”, contrary to an emerging perception. If anything, the recent appointments of Madan Lal Saini and Rakesh Singh to helm the BJP’s Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh units, respectively, and the continuance of Dharamlal Kaushik in Chhattisgarh show that the dynamics leading to their selection were as complex as they were in the years when the party was less powerful.
In Rajasthan, Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje had her way with the BJP President, Amit Shah. Her Madhya Pradesh counterpart Shivraj Singh Chouhan, desperate to dispel a notion about his soaring ambitions, accepted Shah’s candidate who was brought in to edge out Nandkumar Singh Chouhan, a Shivraj confidant. Raman Singh, the less problematic of the three chief ministers, was happy with the “re-election” of the low key Dharamlal Kaushik for a second term.
“The BJP is battling anti-incumbency in these states. But our CMs are powerful in their own right. Shah cannot entirely sidestep them,” a central functionary said.
The Raje-Shah faceoff began when he removed Ashok Parnami, handpicked by the chief minister as the BJP’s president in Rajasthan. After defeats in three by-elections in February, Raje appeared vulnerable and could do nothing to save Parnami.
But when Shah wanted to “foist” central minister and Jodhpur MP Gajendra Singh Shekhawat as state unit chief on the grounds that a Rajput could contain the community’s anger over the alleged encounter killing of a local outlaw, Anandpal Singh, in 2017, Raje put her foot down. “She argued that the Jats would desert the BJP,” a Rajasthan office-bearer said, adding that in the 2013 assembly polls, the party had dexterously brought the warring Rajputs and Jats under one umbrella.
The impasse gave Om Prakash Mathur, a former Rajasthan BJP president and Raje’s rival, a window to re-assert his relevance by mediating because he had Shah’s ears. He proposed the name of Madan Lal Saini, 74, a bred-in-the-bone Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh whole-timer. Saini is supposed to be an adept organisational hand. During a meeting at Mathur’s Delhi residence (he is a Rajya Sabha MP), which was attended uncharacteristically by Raje, who is used to presiding over “darbars” in her bungalow, she endorsed Saini. Shah “reluctantly” consented. “He realised that annoying Raje was fraught with unwanted consequences,” a source said.
A central functionary said: “Saini connected instantly with the BJP workers… He travels to Jaipur by bus from his home in Sikar, walks to the BJP office and returns the same way. He’s a former leader of the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (the RSS-affiliated trade union).”
“Saini is synonymous with sacrifice,” gushed Parnami. To make a virtue out of expediency, Saini’s origin from the backward Malli caste was hailed as his big asset. Former CM Ashok Gehlot of the Congress is from the same caste. “OBCs constitute 50 per cent of Rajasthan’s electorate. I am an OBC Gujjar and we are considered to be the weightiest backward caste. But we forget that Malli, Nai and Telli have considerable numbers in each constituency and make a difference in at least 25 (out of 200) seats,” said Om Prakash Bhadana, president of the BJP’s OBC wing in Rajasthan.
Rakesh Singh’s appointment surprised many BJP leaders in Madhya Pradesh because they expected an ascertained Shivraj Singh Chouhan competitor, notably Kailash Vijaywargiya, Narendra Singh Tomar or Narottam Mishra, to make the cut. Singh, 56, an MP from Jabalpur who opened the Lok Sabha no-trust debate for the BJP, beat the veterans to it. “Singh caught Shah’s attention as chief whip in the Lok Sabha. He’s not known as an organisational person. Chouhan tried to scuttle his appointment for a while but gave up,” said a source. A member of Parliament from the state was more scathing in his assessment. “Shah wanted someone who would execute his orders to the last letter. He speaks to Rakesh directly without going through Chouhan,” he said.
Despite winning Jabalpur thrice, many in the party doubt Singh’s ability to ensure a BJP victory in even three assembly seats in his Lok Sabha constituency. Singh was a students’ leader while studying in Jabalpur’s Government Science College. He was groomed by central minister Uma Bharti and is a nephew of Madhya Pradesh Home Minister Bhupendra Singh.
The choice of continuing with Kaushik, 60, in Chhattisgarh appeared easier. “He’s not a strong leader and that suits the chief minister,” said an MP. Kaushik did not even squeal when he was recently passed over for a Rajya Sabha seat from Chhattisgarh for the well-connected Saroj Pandey. This despite him being from the backward Kurmi caste in a state where OBCs form the electorate’s largest segment.