BHOPAL: Shivraj Singh Chouhan, 57 will complete 11 years in office on November 30, 2016. And this, in itself, is no mean achievement.
Last year, dislodging Digvijay Singh, he had become the longest-serving chief minister of the state. The number of chief ministers in the country – past or present – who can match or better Shivraj Singh’s record can be counted on the fingertips. And they include stalwarts like Jyoti Basu, Bidhan Chandra Roy and JB Patnaik.
When he was sworn in as the chief minister of the state in November 2005, Chouhan was a greenhorn, as far as ministerial assignments are concerned. True, he was four-time member of the Lok Sabha from the Vidisha Parliamentary constituency neighbouring Bhopal but he had not served as a minister for a day. At that time, no one could have imagined that 11 years later, he would still be presiding over the destiny of the state. But then, as they say, facts are stranger than fiction.
What are the secrets of Chouhan’s durability in office? Here are a few:
No sexual peccadilloes
Chouhan is free from another bane of Indian politicos–sex scandals. Fingers were never raised on his personal character. He is seen as a perfect Indian ‘grahastha’, loyal to his wife and family. There has never been any talk of his association or proximity with any woman.
Photographs of a smiling Chouhan playing ‘Dandia’ with his wife or immersing Ganesh idol in water or boating in the Tawa dam, splashed on newspaper pages, successfully project him as a loyal family man, with no interest in sexual peccadilloes.
Free from foot-in-the-mouth syndrome
One more quality that has stood Chouhan in good stead is his habit of not putting his foot into his mouth. He carefully refrains from making statements that may land him into trouble. In his public speeches too, he avoids hitting below the belt. Not for him unnecessary aggression or double entrendre
Unlike much-revered Modi and many other politicians, Chouhan is not obstinate. He can and does admit his mistakes, though not in so many words. For instance, when his government decided to allow country liquor shops to sell IMFL in January 2014, drawing sharp criticism, he rolled back the decision saying that “he could not sleep in the night”. Similarly, after announcing awards for policemen involved in an “encounter” with SIMI activists, he backtracked after it came to the fore that the police story was riddled with holes.
Chouhan has launched a string of schemes which have led to cash reaching directly into the pockets of the people.
Ladli Laxmi and Kanyadan are two of them. School-going girls have been given bicycles and thousands of higher secondary students have been handed over money for buying laptops. He announces big-ticket cash awards for achievers in all fields – even if they do not belong to the state.
The chief minister’s generosity is putting an unbearable burden on the state exchequer but it is boosting his personal popularity.
Mastery over art of winning elections
Chouhan has mastered the art of winning elections. Under his leadership, the BJP not only won two Vidhan Sabha and Lok Sabha general elections each in the state but also bye-elections, urban civic body polls and Panchayat elections. In the Lok Sabha elections in 2009, the BJP won 16 of the 29 seats and in 2014, its tally zoomed to 27. In 2008 assembly polls, it won 143 of the 290 seats. In 2013, it annexed 165 seats. The ruling party also won most of the bye-elections in the state (see box for details). Chouhan was the key mascot of the party in the elections. He is known to take elections very seriously, leaving nothing to chance. He makes extensive tours of the election-bound areas, addressing public meetings, mollifying disgruntled elements of his party and making announcements. Even his detractors agree that Chouhan has his finger on the pulse of the people. He knows the art of building rapport with a crowd. A maverick, some would say; a people’s darling, others may counter.
Complete sway over party
Chouhan is the lord of all he surveys in the BJP. Unlike Babulal Gaur, Uma Bharati, Digvijay Singh or even Arjun Singh, Chouhan has virtually no rival in the state BJP. The successive state BJP chiefs did little except playing second fiddle to him and singing praises for him. And when one of them – Prabhat Jha – exhibited initial signs of harbouring bigger ambitions, Chouhan got him promptly replaced with Nandkumar Singh. Another perceived detractor of his Babulal Gaur has been dropped from the cabinet under the 75-plus formula.
When he had begun his term, Chouhan had the feisty Uma Bharati breathing down his neck, who believed that that the chief minister’s chair was hers by right – as she had led the party to victory in the 2003 assembly polls – and that Chouhan was a usurper.
But the challenge from Uma faded away slowly and ended after the 2008 Assembly polls, in which her now defunct party faced a severe drubbing.
Chouhan managed to ensure that Bharati was not given any political role in the state after her re-entry into the BJP. So much so that the BJP did not even allow Uma to contest elections – both Assembly as well as Lok Sabha – from the State. She was also not given any role in campaigning during the Vidhan Sabha and Lok Sabha elections.
Till the rise of Narendra Modi, BJP veteran LK Advani ate out of Chouhan’s hands (he showered praises on Chouhan publicly on more occasions that one, even saying that he was a better Chief Minister than Modi) and party Chief Rajnath Singh rarely bothered to interfere in the state’s affairs.
And now Modi has turned his acolyte, as is evident by the fact that as Prime Minister he has, so far, made eight trips to Madhya Pradesh, by far the highest to any state.
Madhya Pradesh has a fundamentally bi-polar polity with the Congress being the only opposition party. And the Congress is plagued with factionalism, weak leadership and inertia. after the BJP scintillating victory in the urban civic body polls in December 2014, a beaming state chief Nandkumar Singh Chouhan announced that the party was close to achieving its target of building a ‘Congress-mukta’ (Congress-free) state. “The Congress will soon become extinct. It will evaporate into thin air”, he declared.
Organisationally speaking, the MP Congress is in a bad shape. The state office of the party in Bhopal functions like a government office.
There is no sense of dedication among the party personnel. Offices down the line, including the ones at district headquarters, remain non-functional. Office-bearers of the party are nominated. Elections are not held and some district bodies have not been even constituted. The party seemed to be on ventilator support.
It is not that scams did not surface in Shivraj Singh’s regime but somehow he managed to ensure that he was not personally blamed for them. Though the Income Tax raids on a Builder close to him did threaten to soil Chouhan’s image but he swiftly distanced himself from the tainted businessmen and got away with minimal damage. He was given clean chit in the Dumper case by the High Court. Even in Vyapam scam – by far one of the biggest scams in the country if not in the terms of the money involved, then at least in the terms of the persons affected – he is personally not in the dock. One of his ministerial confidantes had to spend months in jail in connection with the scam but Chouhan’s personal image continued to be unsullied. And when a Congress leader linked his wife with the scam, Chouhan dragged him through the courts. He got a defamation suit filed against him and recently spent more than five hours in the witness box of a court in Bhopal, allowing himself to be grilled by the defence counsel. The general perception is that if there is corruption, bureaucracy is to be blamed; if there are crimes, police are guilty; Mukhyamantri to bhale admi hain.
Tight rope walk
Chouhan has also been successfully doing the tight-rope walking that has endeared him to the RSS while at the same time protected him from being branded as a hard-core communal leader. He has performed the balancing act with remarkable finesses. Thus, if he goes for ‘Govardhan parikrama’, he is also present at the Eidgah, sporting a skull cap, embracing the namazis. If the Tirthdarshan train takes you to Badrinath, Vaishodevi, Haridwar and Rameshwaram, it also takes you to Ajmer, Amritsar, Sammed Shikhar, Shravanbelgola and Vailakanni Church. There is little doubt that Chouhan is implementing the RSS agenda with great alacrity but he is making it sure that at least in style–if not in substance–he is seen as a leader who gives equal respect to all religions. To wriggle into the good books of the RSS, he has allowed government employees to attend RSS shakhas and his government has been organising a series of programmes clearly aimed at furthering the Sangh ideology. The Buddhist University, Hindi convention, Atal Bihar Vajpayee Hindi University, Vaicharik Mahakumbh and the recent Lokmanthan are only some examples of projects and programmes initiated at the behest of the RSS. But still, he is not seen as a rabidly communal sanghi.
Accessible and soft-spoken
In personal interaction, Chouhan comes out as an affable, soft-spoken man, not given to arrogance that power seems to infuse into the most humble of men. He earned the sobriquet of ‘paun-paun wale bhaiya’ (Bhaiya, who walks on foot) due to his simplicity and his down-to-earth conduct during his stint as Lok Sabha member from Vidisha. There was hardly a marriage or a ‘Tehernvi’ in his constituency which he missed. Though he maintained a low-profile in the Parliament and was seldom seen and rarely heard on the Lok Sabha Television, he struck deep roots in his constituency.
Even after taking over as chief minister, he continued his interactions with the people. After the recent train accident near Kanpur, he immediately flew to the UP city, visited the accident site and hospitals and arranged medical facilities for the victims from Madhya Pradesh. This when neither the chief minister of UP (where the accident had taken place) nor of Bihar (to which most of the passengers of the train belonged) bothered to do so.
Just see the way he did damage control after an illegally-stored cache of gelatin sticks in the godown of a BJP leader in Petlawad of Jhabua district exploded in September 2015, killing 89 persons. Chouhan flew into the town, only to be greeted by a fuming crowd that aggressively heckled him. However, not the one to give up, he sat on the ground and commenced, what, if you like so, can be dubbed as histrionics. He declared that he had not slept the last night and that he was as grieved by the accident as the families of the victims. Within no time, he managed to defuse the anger of the people.
Chouhan has devised a novel way of interacting with the commoners. He has been holding “Panchayats” of specific sections of the society at his residence. Among others, Panchayats of farmers, industrial workers, agricultural workers, NGOs, Kotwars, Hammals, women domestic workers, barbers, students, Panchayat office-bearers, teachers, fishermen, artisans, lawyers, senior citizens, ‘Pheriwallahs’–the list can go on and on–have been held.
In every Panchayat, around 1000-1200 representatives of the section concerned are invited to the chief minister’s residence. The chief minister plays a genial host. He gives them a patient hearing, invariably announces some sops for them and they are treated to a sumptuous lunch.
The strategy has, no doubt, worked wonders for his image. The participants go back with the satisfaction of being invited by the chief minister, of being heard patiently by him and of enjoying a lunch at his residence. The chief minister, in turn, gets an opportunity to get feedback from the ground level.
While earlier chief ministers had also devised ways to interact directly with the people, most of these interactions were in the nature of “durbars”, where the chief ministers accepted petitions from the people and forwarded them for appropriate action to the departments concerned. It was never a host-guest relationship but a ruler-ruled one.