There was palpable nervousness among BJP leaders in Bhopal ahead of Amit Shah's arrival on August 18. Senior ministers of the Shivraj Singh Chouhan government apparently spent hours with subordinates brushing up on issues in their respective departments. And just as well. Landing in town a day late (he missed his flight from Delhi), the BJP president was all business, even cutting short the long-winded welcome speeches of some of the leaders.
Shah's visit was part of his sojourns to states to craft electoral strategies ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. Retaining states like Madhya Pradesh, which have assembly elections in 2018, is crucial to the saffron game plan. At the meetings over three days in Bhopal, the BJP chief warned ministers and party functionaries against sharing any details of the discussions with the press. But local dailies still reported on the various ultimatums issued and on how non-performing ministers were put on notice. Of course, interacting with the media later, Shah scotched the reports as mere speculation. He did confirm the 'gag order', though, saying it was "necessary for discipline".
The BJP chief also scotched rumours about a possible change in leadership in MP. Chouhan, he proclaimed, would be the face of the party's campaign in next year's polls. Curiously, he made no such commitment on the continuation of the state BJP president, Nandkumar Singh Chauhan.
Shah's relationship with the chief minister has often been viewed as 'lukewarm', particularly after the Vyapam scam embarrassment and the raging farmers' agitation. Despite that, he was full of praise for Chouhan, crediting him for steering MP out of its BIMARU state reputation. He also declined comment on a possible expansion of the MP cabinet ahead of the assembly polls. Filling the six ministerial vacancies in the council of ministers, he said, was CM Chouhan's prerogative. This, despite the widespread belief that talent-spotting for leadership faces is part of Shah's agenda in these interactions in the states.
At his meetings with local leaders, Shah stressed the importance of winning every one of the 29 Lok Sabha seats in the state. The BJP chief's spiel included taking Guna and Chhindwara, the long-held Congress bastions of Jyotiraditya Scindia and Kamal Nath, which held out even in the face of the Narendra Modi wave in 2014.