A murder, a demolition and the Scindia factor has Narendra Singh Tomar’s back to the wall

Narendra Singh Tomar, the union minister for agriculture, addresses a press conference at the BJP’s headquarters in Delhi. Tomar was fielded by his party in the Madhya Pradesh legislative elections, and finds himself in a tough spot between the Chambal regions fractious caste politics and the influence of Jyotiraditya Scindia, the scion of the region’s erstwhile royal family. ANI
12 November, 2023

It was a journey that was once looked upon with dread. Now, it takes barely half an hour to leave Rajasthan’s Dholpur behind, cross the Chambal River, and speed down to Morena on a highway cutting through the ravines. The dacoits of the region now live on only in OTT platforms and Bollywood.

Just past Morena, a road leads off the highway through the Dimani constituency where Narendra Singh Tomar, the union minister for agriculture, finds himself in the unfamiliar position of having to contest a state legislative election for the first time in 20 years. As the man who presided over the farm laws, he is the most prominent of the seven members of the Lok Sabha, including no less than three union ministers, that the Bharatiya Janata Party has deployed in Madhya Pradesh’s assembly elections. 

In his constituency, people joke that he was appointed to screen candidates for the elections in the Chambal region—the electorally crucial northern region of the state below the Chambal River—and ended up finding himself in the fray, like a cricket selector who has to end up playing a T20 match. Tomar supporters favour the idea that he has been picked as a chief ministerial replacement for Shivraj Singh Chouhan, in the eventuality of the BJP forming a government by the many means the party has perfected. But this is a stretch. It may apply to a leader like Prahlad Patel, who hails from an Other Backward Classes community, or a Scheduled Tribes leader like Faggan Singh Kulaste, both of whom are among the seven members of parliament deployed in the state. But the BJP is unlikely to be seen replacing a four-term OBC chief minister with a Thakur like Tomar—particularly at a time when the issue of a national caste census continues to gain prominence.

Others suggest a more likely possibility, that some of these seats were lost causes to begin with, and that fielding heavyweights has at least ensured a fight. The Dimani seat was won by a Congressman in 2018 who then defected to the BJP along with Jyotiraditya Scindia. In the resulting bypoll, a Congress candidate won again.

The BJP’s move has also ensured that these ministers do not ask for tickets for close kin who likely would have been a major handicap. For instance, forcing party general secretary Kailash Vijavargiya to contest has effectively denied a ticket to his son who had hit the headlines for assaulting a municipal employee with a cricket bat.

Tomar was himself reportedly seeking a ticket for his son Devendra, who has also become the centre of a major controversy. A video of Devendra allegedly discussing mining transactions involving large sums of money has gone viral. Predictably, the Congress asked for an inquiry, and Devendra has claimed the video is a fake. Whatever the truth of the matter, many of those I spoke to in his father’s constituency seem unsurprised by the contents of the tape.

This, though, is only the beginning of Tomar’s worries. A substantial number of his constituents are drawn from his own Tomar subcaste, and another large group is made up of the Gujjars. Both are angry with Tomar in the aftermath of a recent murder.

The story was relayed to me by Hari Om Kushwaha of Kaji Basai, a Muslim dominated village in Tomar’s constituency. Surrounded by people from his own community, he first dispelled any suspicions of bias on his part in relating the story, “It is simple, in the Chambal, backwards like us Kushwahas”—non-dominant OBCs—“are counted in the BJP’s ranks, even if an individual or two vote otherwise, just like the Jatavs with the BSP.”

Referring to incident from 3 November, he said, “On Friday, a Gujjar farmer was bringing sand in his tractor through a Tomar village. He was playing loud music—not the traditional kind, but like one of those DJs.” He continued, “The Tomar sarpanch stopped him. That afternoon, he played the same music while passing the sarpanch’s house, and his brother backed him up when they were confronted by the sarpanch. At night the sarpanch collected a bunch of men from his village and went and shot the Gujjar dead.”

When I expressed surprise at the casual nature of the murder, he said with some pride, “The dacoits may have gone, but the water of the Chambal flows in our veins. Why, just a few months ago, six Tomars who were returning to the village after ten years were shot dead by their neighbours over an old feud.” 

Later in the day, I checked the newspapers and the each of these stories tallied substantially with the news reports. After the 3 November murder, the Gujjar victim’s family went and blocked a nearby state highway. When district officials went to meet them, they demanded that the sarpanch and others involved in the murder be arrested and his home demolished.

They had upended the frequently recurring motif of the bulldozer in the BJP campaign. An act that had stood out as one of vindictiveness by the BJP administration against the Muslim minority had come to be perceived as due process. Astoundingly, the district officials complied, and the sarpanch’s house was demolished.

“Now, the Gujjars,” Kushwaha concluded with some glee, “are angry with a Tomar minister because he is a Tomar, and the Tomars are angry with him because he has let a Tomar house be demolished.”

As a result, the situation Tomar finds himself in adds to the BJP’s worries in the Chambal region. In the 2018 assembly election, before Scindia defected, the Congress had won 26 of the 34 seats in the region. At the time, Tomar was the uncontested leader of the party in the region. With Scindia’s entry, this was no longer the case. If Tomar loses the elections, he would cede control over the region to Scindia, who has not been asked by the party to contest.

The constituency is afloat with rumours that maharaj—high king, as Scindia is referred to here—would not be too unhappy over Tomar’s defeat. “However,” Kushwaha told me, dispelling the impact Scindia could have, “in this region we do not like turncoats, so maharaj’s appeal is not what it was.”  

A few hours after I spoke to Kushwaha, Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed a large gathering in the town of Morena with Tomar in attendance. Through his half-hour long speech, he did not refer to Tomar once. I was told by local journalists that we should not read anything other than Modi’s megalomania into this fact. He has also given speeches in the state where he has not referred to Shivraj Singh Chouhan, a four-term chief minister, even once. The BJP is going into this campaign with the slogan: “Modi Ke Mann Mein Base MP, MP Ke Mann Mein Modi”—MP resides in Modi’s mind, in MP’s mind is Modi.

Left out of Modi’s mann, Tomar has been forced to campaign door-to-door in a manner rarely expected of a leader of his seniority. A few days before my visit, he was in Kaji Basai constituency, actually asking its Muslim inhabitants for votes. This is, to say the very least, surprising for the BJP, which almost always bypasses the Muslim voters. 

At a local grocery shop, Mumen Mohammed, who retired from the central reserve police force as a havildar, told me, “I have never seen Tomar come here, over the last five years. This is the first time most of us are seeing his face.” Mohammed was joined by others from the village. One of them said, “They speak of kaam”—work—“but there is one word they do not use, prem”—love. He added, “We all know why that is the case.”

Mohammed leaned forwards in his chair. “The best he could do was ask us, ‘Agar mainen kabhi Musalmaanon ka nuksaan kiya hai to batao’”Tell me, have I ever done any harm to the Muslims?