An odd thing happened some time over the last year. The Bharatiya Janata Party’s Lal Krishna Advani, of the Ram Rath Yatra fame, started to become something of a liberal icon as he continued to oppose the ascent of Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi. Advani’s obstructionism, seen by many in the BJP as an opportunistic has-been refusing to give way to the future, ended up being championed by many on the other side of the spectrum who were happy to laud any effort that might stymie Modi’s progress.

Something odder still happened in Bhopal one day last month. Posters suddenly turned up carrying images of Advani, who has been the incumbent Member of Parliament from Gujarat’s Gandhinagar for four terms. By afternoon, however, the posters had disappeared, and it was soon clear that Advani would not be trekking to Madhya Pradesh for what could be the 86-year-old’s last Lok Sabha election.

If it had happened, Advani’s prospective LS seat would have been right next door to the constituency of Vidisha, currently held by Sushma Swaraj — a fellow BJP leader who has also seemed uncomfortable with Modi’s apparent stranglehold on every aspect of the party’s campaign.

Bridging these two constituencies, in a sense, is Shivraj Singh Chouhan. He lives in Bhopal as chief minister of the state, but contests from an assembly seat within the Vidisha Lok Sabha constituency. In fact, one of the reasons Advani was kept away from Madhya Pradesh was to prevent the creation of a Bhopal-Vidisha faction opposed to Narendra Modi.

Chouhan — with his quiet "aam aadmi" demeanour, his appeal to Muslims and his populist schemes — is even more of a liberal choice within the BJP than Advani and Swaraj, at least based on the new fault-line of Indian politics that judges everyone as being either pro- or anti-Modi. Even those who support both acknowledge the difference.

“Both of them ask for votes from very different platforms,” said Barilal, a BJP worker who lives a few kilometres away from Sanchi, in the Vidisha Lok Sabha seat. “We’ve seen what Chouhanji has done, it’s not exactly development" – he gestured to the woeful roads in the district – “but he has put in schemes that make marriages cheaper, that help girl children, and the people of MP have benefited from this. Modi will bring the roads.”

Modi’s presidential-style campaign over the last two years even featured what was effectively a behind-the-scenes primary, as the party’s other prime ministerial hopefuls staked their claim to the seat, only to see the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the cadres rally behind the Gujarat chief minister. Despite being a three-time chief minister from a state that sends more MPs to Parliament than Gujarat, Chouhan was not a contender — no matter how many Advani speeches hailing the Madhya Pradesh model over Gujarat’s.

Chouhan is seen as a leader-in-grooming for future elections, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t have a part to play in the backstage drama. In September last year, right in the middle of campaigning for assembly elections, Chouhan took time out to visit Delhi and speak to RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat asking him to keep Modi away from the state, lest he disturb the electorate — including Muslims — that the BJP had cultivated in Madhya Pradesh. Chouhan was overruled, and the sweeping MP victory was credited nationally as being part of the Modi wave.

But Chouhan’s intervention was noted, even at the local level. Standing in front of hoardings in Vidisha district that carry both Chouhan and Modi’s photos  — “Jan jan ki avaaz, Dilli mein Modi, Pradesh mein Shivraj” (the people are demanding, Modi in Delhi, Shivraj in the state) — Ram Singh, a security guard, acknowledges this. “Narazgi to hai. There is some anger. Modi was all praise for Chouhanji when he came to Madhya Pradesh, but they are not comfortable with each other,” Singh said.

Yet, even as India’s political centre completes its right-ward shift alongside the ascent of Modi, it is important to point out: Shivraj Singh Chouhan is much more than just Modi without the baggage. And he certainly isn't an icon whom liberals can hope to rally around in case of Modi comes to power.

There is no doubt that his welfarist credentials are much stronger, compared to Modi’s Big Business image. “The farmers love him. He knew he has to keep them happy, but what he has done with the wheat bonuses and other schemes has surpassed their hopes,” said Ravi Rathore, from Betul in Southern Madhya Pradesh, which relies heavily on food and grain production.

More clearly as a counterpoint to Modi is Chouhan’s engagement with the Muslim community. He attends Eid celebrations every year, wearing the skull-cap that Modi has refused to put on, and his schemes are cross-community.

But Chouhan’s RSS background is also not in doubt.

“When you talk of factionalism with Shivraj, one thing comes in the way,” said Devesh Kumar, a senior journalist who has covered the BJP for decades. “He is too much of an RSS man. He owes his rise in the ABVP and the BJP to the RSS, and they were the ones who picked him to be chief minister. He will do what they say.”

From making the RSS’ exercise of choice, the surya namaskar, mandatory in schools, to the prohibition of cow slaughter in the state, Chouhan’s tenure has been as typically BJP as they come. There have also been allegations that the RSS work with the Madhya Pradesh tribal population has been focused on Hinduisation.

While he might not have the ‘communal’ tag that Modi has earned, many in the state believe Chouhan will be felled by that other disease that afflicts Indian politicians: corruption. “Chouhan doesn’t have the personal tag of corruption,” said Deepak Tiwari, author of Rajneetinama Madhya Pradesh Rajnetaon Ke Kisse, a study of the state’s politics over five decades. "But the BJP and the government in the state do have it, and whose government is it?"

Over and above all of this, though, is Chouhan’s ability to read the writing on the wall. Advani’s innings has been played out. Swaraj has never had much of a base beyond herself within the party. With nearly a decade between himself and Modi, Chouhan needn’t play all of his cards now.

“It’s wishful thinking [from liberals] to hope that, if Modi comes to power, people like Chouhan will try and gang up on him at the Centre,” Tiwari said. “At least for the first two years, I don’t see anything of the sort happening, and if things go well, not at all. Chouhan knows which way the wave is heading.”

Modi has himself sent signs to Chouhan that he can jump onboard the gravy train. While touring Madhya Pradesh for his rallies, the prime ministerial candidate singled out Chouhan for his work in boosting agriculture and making the state nearly self-sufficient in energy.

“The signals that Modi has given is that he would like to take everyone, including Chouhan along… he will play an important role in Modi’s scheme of things,” veteran journalist Kumar said. “Chouhan is only 55, so he will bide his time.”