Winning or losing elections is hard-wired in a mass leader’s psyche. This week, let me tell you the story of two leaders forced into retirement and the unexpected comeback of the third in the ongoing state elections.
Mass leaders win some elections, thankfully, and then they lose some, shrugging and smiling for the camera shutters clicking away. A win in India is marked by supporters going crazy, with drums, throwing marigold garlands, bursting crackers, and tucking in vast quantities of laddoos (sweets).
But what happens when your political career is ended not by defeat but by central leadership fiat? The current assembly elections underway in India will be career-enders for Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chauhan, former Chief Minister of Rajasthan Vasundhara Raje Scindia, and even former Chief Minister of Chhattisgarh Raman Singh, who has been dusted off and reclaimed from the mothballs.
Beleaguered leaders Chauhan and Raje are victims of friendly fire from Prime Minister Narendra Modi, collateral damage for not falling in line fast enough behind Modi and his new BJP.
Both leaders, currently campaigning frantically in their states, are hoping for a miracle despite the writing on the wall reading ‘finis’. The BJP has made a calculated punt, fighting the Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, and Madhya Pradesh elections under the euphemism of “collective leadership,” with Modi’s face front and centre.
While Chauhan tried a cosmetic, unconvincing do-over in the mold of Yogi Adityanath, the totemic Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, neither the central leadership of the BJP nor the Madhya Pradesh voters bought the makeover.
Rival Digvijaya Singh of the Congress mocked Chauhan with a shot, saying “the three factions in the MP BJP are Shivraj BJP, Maharaj BJP (Jyotiraditya Scindia erstwhile Maharaja of Gwalior), and Naraaz BJP (angry BJP of workers).
Chauhan, with his frequent tearful breakdowns in public meetings, looks like a diminutive version of himself virtually talking about his greatest hits in a farewell tour. Chauhan is out of touch with his own party, surrounded by and dependent on senior IAS officials.
Raje seems grimly determined, silently watching as her loyalists in the state BJP are denied tickets, quietly seething and giving them the nod to file and fight as independents. Rajasthan has, in its entire history, never returned an incumbent government, and Ashok Gehlot, Chief Minister, is hoping to make history, counting on the factions in the BJP.
Draw your own conclusions
Gehlot shares a better relationship with Raje than the central BJP, as palace whispers in the once-royal state say that she saved Gehlot’s government when rival Sachin Pilot rebelled.
Gehlot is calling all the shots in the election in the selection of candidates and even having his own consultant design-boxed for handling his image and political messaging. Gehlot has nixed all Congress high command suggestions.
In Chhattisgarh, up against the popular Congress Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel, the BJP has brought back three-term CM Raman Singh, who is proving to be a damp squib — tentative and out of touch. The BJP’s now trusty message is to ask for votes in Modi’s name.
Surprisingly, in Telangana, the Congress appears to have made a comeback, surprising even itself. Rahul Gandhi, former Congress President, is the main campaigner, and the Congress is running an interesting intrepid campaign of “vocal for local” issues, highlighting the state government’s alleged corruption, much like it did in its successful campaign for Karnataka. The Congress may not win, but it has clearly established itself as the main opposition. The BJP does not figure in the political conversation of Telangana.
Chauhan, Singh, and Raje are trying to find some vestige of hope in the return of B.S. Yediyurappa, former Chief Minister of Karnataka, who made a comeback via his son Vijayendra Yediyurappa, who was made state chief with an eye on the Lingayat vote for the Lok Sabha elections.
After Yediyurappa was forced into political “sanyas” wilderness, the BJP suffered a comprehensive defeat. Appointing his first-term MLA son as chief was an acknowledgement of his political clout with his Lingayat community despite the BJP’s professed disapproval of dynasty politics.
Yediyurappa proves the old political adage: you can never write off a political career that does not have a definitive full stop.
Taking heed, I am not writing any political obituaries yet. But draw your own conclusions.