If the BJP’s prime ministerial gambit is essentially the sum of its chief ministerships, Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan can be sure he counts in that equation.
If he wins the state elections this year, he will join the ranks of BJP CMs in their third successive term in power. Plus, one with a working record that fits in well with the BJP’s ‘good governance and development’ veneer over its aggressive Hindutva moorings.
Chouhan talks about his achievements, routinely refers to MP as ‘No. 1 state’, holds global investor summits, and seeks votes in his own name, even as he cultivates an image of a humble leader who likes to be addressed as ‘mama (mother’s brother)’.
He is not afraid to don a skull cap, nor drop in for an iftar. Increasingly, Chouhan is not afraid to take on the Opposition either, while the launch of his ongoing yatra saw him in a row over exclusion of Narendra Modi from the posters.
Chouhan plays that down, as he does any talk of ambitions larger than the Bhopal seat of power. Given his limited appeal beyond Madhya Pradesh, that is just as well. However, in a political battle where few are showing their hand, Chouhan is playing his cards right—as the BJP’s other face, as its long-distance runner with, importantly, the patience to wait.
2014 may belong to Modi, but in the BJP’s jostling constellation of stars, Chouhan has acquired a calculated shine.
Under the CM, Madhya Pradesh has hosted two Global Investor Summits, the latest being in October 2012. The next one is slated for next year. Chouhan has projected these as his affairs, even asserting “I am the single window” .
One of the reasons he has the ear of industrialists is the state’s success on the electricity front. If Gujarat can boast of being a state that provides 24-hour uninterrupted power supply, Chouhan claims to have achieved “power to all at all times” under the Atal Jyoti Abhiyan. The state government recently issued advertisements highlighting that this achievement matched Gujarat’s. Interestingly, the advertisements in Hindi also appeared in Gujarati newspapers.
“Power availability has been planned in such a way that it would continue to be surplus till 2017-18,” said an official.
After setting this target, Chouhan wound up the state electricity board in April 2012 and unbundled the generation, transmission and distribution operations. The new utilities have subsequently recruited over 5,000 young professionals for a salary structure with increased promotional opportunities but reduction in per unit employee cost from 76 paise/unit to 60 paise/unit.
State government officials also highlight the performance-linked pay introduced for the discom utility. Private participation has been brought into distribution and last year, Gwalior, Ujjain and Sagar were awarded to private players.
However, Madhya Pradesh’s success in attracting investment has been a mixed bag. Since 2007, the state has hosted three major investor summits in Indore and Khajuraho and a couple more minor meets. In all, 1,544 MoUs were signed pledging investment to the tune of Rs 10,94,047 crore. Only 91 companies with investment of Rs 24,951 crore have started production. The government admits that 111 MoUs that were to result in an investment of Rs 1,24,216 crore have been cancelled.
According to Chouhan, “We began from zero and it will take time for results to show.” The Opposition, however, rubbishes these figures, alleging that even proposals and preliminary talks are being fobbed off as MoUs.
Chouhan has balanced this pro-business face with pro-farmer credentials. In what would have been unthinkable a few years ago, Madhya Pradesh replaced one of India’s food baskets, Haryana, as the second largest contributor to the government’s central pool for food security this year.
In 2002-03, Madhya Pradesh contributed less than two lakh tonnes of wheat to the PDS pool. Last year, the figure went up to over 85 lakh tonnes. This year, when procurement is down, Madhya Pradesh has climbed to the top spot, with 63.55 lakh tonnes of wheat contribution against Haryana’s 58.73 lakh tonnes.
The Chouhan government achieved this by incentivising farmers to produce more, offering a bonus of Rs 100 a quintal last year, revised to Rs 150 this year. Production jumped from 49.23 lakh tonnes in 2003 to 127.53 lakh tonnes in 2012.
Under an e-procurement system, a databank has been prepared of over 15 lakh farmers, along with records of their landholdings, bank accounts, mobile numbers and preferred procurement centres.
Compared to less than 10 lakh hectares under irrigation in 2004, under Chouhan’s two regimes, irrigated area has increased to 25 lakh hectares. Farmers have been extended cheap loans, the interest on which is almost down to nil.
This surge—earning Madhya Pradesh Krishi Karman awards earlier this year—has also earned the BJP much-needed goodwill among farmers in a state where a significant population is rural.
Chouhan’s social schemes like Ladli Laxmi, Mukhyamantri Kanyaadaan and Janani Suraksha also have many takers in a state where a large population is tribal, belongs to backward classes or is poor. While Ladli Laxmi promises a better future for the girl child, ensuring her Rs 1 lakh when she turns 21, under the mass-wedding Mukhymantri Kanyadaan Yojana, more than 2.5 lakh girls have benefited since 2006. Janani Suraksha is a central scheme that promotes institutional childbirth.
Recently, whether intentional or not, this “good governance” image has found him being held in comparison with Modi. At a time when the Gujarat CM was ridiculed for claims of saving “15,000 Gujaratis” stranded in flood-struck Uttarakhand, the Madhya Pradesh government made it clear that it had been equally prompt but much more modest.
In a series of tweets on July 1, it said about 7,200 pilgrims had been helped by the team from Madhya Pradesh and that a little over 1,800 of them were from other states. The tweets underlined that the rescue efforts had been “without any discrimination”.
While Modi has been running into controversies with his remarks regarding the 2002 riots, his assertion of being a ‘Hindu nationalist’ and his ‘burqa of secularism’ quotes, all in the month of Ramzan, Chouhan attended iftars. On Raksha Bandhan, a row of burqa-clad women lined up to tie him rakhi.
His government’s free pilgrimage largesse includes not just Hindu shrines but also Ajmer Sharif and the Velankanni Church.
At the same time, Chouhan routinely endears himself to the BJP’s core constituency through controversial measures such as the introduction of Surya Namaskar, yoga and chapters based on Gita in schools, and the passage of stringent anti-cow slaughter and anti-conversion legislations.
The cow slaughter law was the BJP’s first legislation after coming to power in 2003. Under Chouhan, provisions were made more stringent. Similarly, the anti-conversion law (awaiting assent) got more teeth under him.
Before Chouhan became CM, officials were prohibited from taking part in RSS activities. He lifted this ban in 2006.
If it comes to the national sweepstakes though, Chouhan remains junior to both Modi (who became CM in 2001) and Chhattisgarh CM Raman Singh (who took over in 2003). Chouhan first became Madhya Pradesh CM replacing Babulal Gaur in 2005. However, at a relatively young 54, he has the age advantage over both.
While that logic is enough to keep Chouhan out of the party’s apex Parliamentary Board, of which Modi is a member, that could change should the BJP do well in Madhya Pradesh. The state anyway contributed 16 Lok Sabha MPs to the party’s kitty as compared to 15 from Gujarat.
Besides, Chouhan has shown good skills in protecting his political interests. In 2011, he ensured that Uma Bharti would not interfere in Madhya Pradesh on her return to the BJP by tying it up with her being restrained to home state Uttar Pradesh.
Last year, he engineered Narendra Tomar’s replacement of Prabhat Jha as state unit chief. Nobody saw Jha’s departure coming and he famously compared the secrecy to that surrounding the nuclear blasts in Pokhran.
It helps Chouhan’s case that he is seen to have the support of senior BJP leaders L K Advani and Sushma Swaraj, both of whom have accepted Modi’s ascendancy reluctantly.
More recently, Chouhan created a flutter at the launch of his Jan Ashirvad Yatra from Ujjain on July 23, when party posters carried no pictures of Modi, the BJP’s chief campaigner, while pictures of other top party leaders were on display. Sushma, among the BJP’s prime ministerial contenders, was called to flag off the tour — which is to cover 220 of the state’s 230 constituencies.
At the Ujjain launch, Chouhan’s message was clear: “Only look at me and the lotus.” For the first time he himself publicly brought up the dumper case. While the mere mention of the charge — that he misused his official position to rent out dumper trucks to an industrial house as a quid pro quo for allotting a mining lease — used to visibly unsettle him even in private earlier, he has crossed that hurdle on the back of favourable court judgements.
That confidence also shows in the other charges that the Opposition throws at him. The Congress has launched a smear campaign, the CM proclaims, because “Shivraj Singh Chouhan haunts their dreams”. A series of corruption scandals and eye-popping details of seizures from junior government employees have not affected the CM’s personal image either.
A bitterly divided Congress, split between groups loyal to Digvijaya Singh, Jyotiraditya Scindia, Kamal Nath, Satyavrat Chaturvedi and Suresh Pachauri, has made Chouhan’s job easier. Last month the Congress’s no-confidence motion was scuttled in the Assembly when Chouhan, in a master stroke, got the Congress deputy leader to switch sides.
The BSP and Samajwadi Party have only marginal presence.
Chouhan and wife Sadhna Singh, whose ambitions — so to speak — are not as cautiously couched, slapped a criminal defamation suit against leader of the Opposition Ajay Singh. Singh has accused the Chouhans of personal corruption and said his relatives have minted money in the past few years.
Shiv Kumar Sharma, who recently floated the Kisan Mazdoor Praja Party, accuses that health and education infrastructure across the state is abysmal. “A major chunk of funds is spent on building Chouhan’s image,” he claims.
Calling him “bhashanveer (one who keeps giving speeches)”, Sharma says: “How can a leader be called honest if his ministers are alleged to have indulged in corruption?”
Transparency International member Ajay Dubey says the BJP government has not given any evidence to prove its claims of ‘zero tolerance towards corruption’ and, worse, not even given sanctions in cases pending from the previous Congress government. It has also failed to confiscate even one property under its special anti-corruption law, Dubey adds.
He also points to the information commission being rendered non-functional since the retirement of its members.
With the missing Modi posters plaguing Chouhan’s yatra throughout, the MP CM made place for them in the Neemuch leg on August 20. That tact of knowing when to yield, in fact, holds Chouhan in good stead, particularly when compared to his more belligerent counterparts.
Earlier, at a BJP conclave in the state on June 1, Advani clearly underlined what set the MP CM apart. Ahead of the BJP national executive, where Modi would go on to be named head of the BJP poll campaign panel, sending Advani into a sulk, the BJP veteran said: “I tell Narendrabhai Modi that Gujarat was healthy earlier also. You have made it the best and you deserve congratulations. But what Chouhan and the Chhattisgarh chief minister have done is wonderful.”
Advani also drew parallels between Chouhan and Atal Bihari Vajpayee.
Asked about Modi, Chouhan always calls the Gujarat CM his “elder brother” and Advani the “tallest leader”, without ever acknowledging Modi as his leader. “Narendra Modi is my senior, my elder brother. Raman Singh is also senior to me. Leave alone being number one, or number two, I am not even at number three,” Chouhan had said after Advani’s June remarks.
Dismissing any talk of a rivalry, BJP vice-president Prabhat Jha said: “Narendra Modi is our elder brother and leader. Shivrajji respects him as his elder brother. There is no controversy.”
A BJP parliamentary board member also rubbished the absence of Modi’s posters from Chouhan’s yatra in the beginning: “For MP Assembly elections, if not our chief minister, who else would be the tallest leader?”
Another senior leader however saw some truth in this perceived rivalry. “If there is pressure being built from the Modi camp to get him declared the party’s PM candidate ahead of the Assembly elections in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, the reason is that victories of Chouhan and Singh will get them enhanced bargaining power in that decision-making.”
To other BJP leaders though, the debate is settled: “Chouhan is no match for Modi outside Madhya Pradesh.”(IndianExpress)