At long last, Shivraj Singh Chouhan formed his council of ministers – albeit a tiny, five-member one – on Tuesday, 29 days after he was sworn-in as Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh after the fall of the Congress-led government under Kamal Nath.
The absence of a cabinet in general, or a health minister in particular, at a time when the Coronavirus pandemic was rapidly claiming victims across the state had become the most strident criticism against Chouhan over the past month. Outlook had first reported on April 14 that Chouhan had initiated cabinet formation talks and a final decision on the subject would be taken by April 20.
With the swearing-in of Narottam Mishra, Kamal Patel, Govind Singh Rajput, Tulsi Silavat and Meena Singh as cabinet ministers, Chouhan has made a belated, though still half-hearted, attempt to silence critics who lashed out at him for becoming the longest-serving chief minister without a cabinet. This iniquitous record was held by Karnataka’s B.S. Yediyurappa till a few days back. The Karnataka CM had functioned without a cabinet for 22 days after he returned to power last year following the fall of the H.D. Kumaraswamy-led JD (S)-Congress coalition government.
However, the composition of Chouhan’s cabinet betrays the confidence that the fourth-term chief minister and his party have been projecting about delivering a stable government without the trappings of internal feuds. A major cause for this, BJP sources in Madhya Pradesh concede, are the circumstances that allowed Chouhan to return to power on March 23 and his own standing with the BJP’s central leadership. There is also speculation that the newly sworn-in ministers may function without portfolios till a full-fledged council of ministers isn’t in place since portfolio distribution remains a bone of contention between the BJP veterans and Scindia’s paratroopers.
Chouhan owes his current chief ministerial term to Scindia who had defected to the BJP on March 11 after quitting the Congress. Scindia brought to the BJP his flock of 19 Congress MLAs while three others – Bisahulal Singh, Aidal Singh Kansana and Hardeep Dang – also quit the Grand Old Party after receiving assurance of ministerial berths in the new government. It was clear from the beginning that Scindia would demand his pound of flesh from the BJP once the Kamal Nath government was toppled. The BJP rewarded Scindia with a nomination to the Rajya Sabha within hours of his joining the party. Sources say the Gwalior royal was also given an assurance by Amit Shah through BJP president J.P. Nadda that the six former legislators who were cabinet ministers in the Nath regime will be accommodated in Chouhan’s government too. This is where Chouhan’s complications began, “even before he took oath as CM”, a state BJP leader tells Outlook.
Over the past week, both Chouhan and Scindia spoke to Shah and Nadda on the blueprint of the state’s council of ministers. “Two options were discussed at length – first, swearing-in a cabinet of 16-21 members which Scindia backed as it would have allowed him to push for ministerial berths for his loyalists; and second: a mini cabinet of just five or six members which Chouhan lobbied for but Scindia opposed,” reveals a Chouhan confidante.
Scindia, say sources, wanted Silavat, Rajput, Pradyuman Singh, Imarti Devi, Mahendra Sisodia and Prabhuram Chaudhary – all cabinet ministers in the Nath government – to be given ministerial roles in the first round of cabinet formation. “Chouhan opposed the proposal because accepting it ran the risk of upsetting BJP legislators who were also lobbying for ministerial berths,” says a BJP leader.
Finally, on April 20, Chouhan got the green signal from Nadda to form a mini-cabinet as he desired and expand it after May 3 when the ongoing lockdown is lifted – or eased. State BJP president V.D. Sharma, who was part of the cabinet formation discussions, told Outlook, “Given the seriousness of the Coronavirus crisis, it was decided that a full-fledged council of ministers will be sworn-in after May 3 but some ministers will be inducted immediately”. Sharma, however, refused to answer why this need to have a cabinet wasn’t felt earlier considering that Coronavirus cases had spiked in the state in the first week of April itself and a large number of officials from the public health department were indisposed after being infected with COVID-19.
Chouhan may have got his way, for now, but the fissures within the state BJP are showing and at least some Scindia loyalists are already worried that their beloved “Maharaj is getting a raw deal from the BJP”. A Scindia loyalist who couldn’t make it to the cabinet on Tuesday tells Outlook, “Maharaj ki rajnaitik karmabhoomi Gwalior-Chambal sambhaag hai par is ilaake se unke ek bhi vidhayak ko mantrimandal mei shaamil nahi kiya (Maharaj’s political bastion is the Gwalior-Chambal division but none of his MLAs from there figure as ministers).” Silavat and Rajput belong to the state’s Malwa and Bundelkhand regions, respectively, while the only current member in the cabinet from Gwalior division is Mishra, who was instrumental in toppling the Nath government. Meena Singh belongs to the state’s Vindhya region where the Congress had been wiped out in December 2018 despite winning the state while Patel comes from the Hoshangabad division (part of the Bhopal State political zone). For now, Scindia loyalists from the Gwalior-Chambal belt like Imarti Devi are putting up a brave front claiming they will “definitely be made ministers” when the cabinet is expanded.
Another BJP veteran tells Outlook that Chouhan’s current cabinet gives regional and caste representation primacy. “Each member belongs to a different region and caste. Mishra is a Brahmin, Patel is an OBC like Chouhan, Singh is a tribal while Silavat and Rajput are from the scheduled caste and Thakur communities, respectively,” the leader says. He adds that with the exception of Mishra, Chouhan kept his detractors from among the BJP legislators out and these MLAs will now have to wait for the cabinet expansion. “Gopal Bhargava is among the seniormost BJP legislators, he has never lost an election since 1984 and was a minister in the Uma Bharati, Babulal Gaur and earlier Chouhan cabinets before being made Leader of Opposition when the Congress won in 2018, but he has not been included because he is a Chouhan-rival,” the leader admits. He says the chief minister “will have to be more accommodating if he wants to remain the captain because BJP seniors will not let him or Scindia’s men call the shots.”
A party leader explains that there is also a clear message for Scindia in Tuesday’s cabinet formation. “By not accommodating any Scindia loyalist from the Gwalior-Chambal region in the first cabinet, the party has indicated to Maharaj that he will not have a free run in his region and must learn to accept the claim of old BJP loyalists from this belt. The leeway that Congress gave him will not be entertained in the BJP… he helped us form the government and we are thankful for that but he must now earn his place in the party by ensuring that 16 vacant seats in the Assembly from the Gwalior-Chambal division are won by BJP in the bypolls,” the leader added.