Centre Court

What threatens the best-laid plans of Shivraj Singh Chouhan?

Shivraj Singh Chouhan has taken pains to demonstrate that his “Madhya Pradesh model” is more inclusive than the “Gujarat model” lauded elsewhere. SANJEV VERMA / HINDUSTAN TIMES / GETTY IMAGES
01 October, 2013

IN THE RUN-UP TO ASSEMBLY ELECTIONS in five states, several sub-plots have emerged to eclipse the grand Hindutva narrative embodied by the Bharatiya Janata Party’s prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi. In Madhya Pradesh, Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s last-ditch endeavour to assist senior BJP leader LK Advani and his supporters in their efforts to halt the Modi juggernaut reveals at least two twists in the tale. One is the in-house creation of an alternative Hindutva brand in the form of the humble Chouhan. The second is the development of a unique political subculture in Madhya Pradesh, a state that shares a long border with Gujarat, but is so unlike its neighour as to impose an entirely different code of conduct on the same set of political players.

On 1 September, Chouhan was pulled out of hectic electioneering by Advani to come to Delhi to speak with RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat, and communicate his reservations about Modi’s prime ministerial candidacy, which was confirmed later in the month by the BJP top brass. The RSS front organisations and the BJP leadership formally met on 7 and 8 September to prepare for the upcoming polls and decide on Modi’s elevation to prime ministerial candidate. Before this, the RSS chief held parleys with individual BJP leaders to make sure that the dissenters—Advani, Sushma Swaraj and Murli Manohar Joshi—fell in line with the Sangh’s decision to install Modi as the BJP’s supreme leader well in time for the state assembly polls.

It will be good for Modi to claim any major 2013 assembly poll victories as his own when he begins his campaign for the 2014 general elections. He made only a token appearance in Karnataka during state elections in May this year, where forecasts for the BJP had warned them of their loss, but he is keen to cast his shadow over the provincial elections scheduled for December this year, since pre-polling indicates that the BJP is poised for success in four out of five states. In fact, an internal poll the Congress conducted as late as July 2013 showed that the BJP has a definite edge in Madhya Pradesh. It would certainly not be smart politics for the Madhya Pradesh chief minister, however, to let Modi take credit for a third-term victory in a state that sends many more MPs to parliament than Gujarat does.

But Chouhan could hardly have made this argument to the RSS chief at the start of September. Instead, he reportedly said that such a move would adversely impact his own prospects in his state. Chouhan has painstakingly cultivated a genial public persona at home, hoping to reach out to minorities. He may even cross the powerful state leader Prabhat Jha to field a token Muslim against the indefatigable Congress MLA from Bhopal (North), Arif Aqeel. Jha has declared the district BJP president, Alok Sharma, to be the BJP candidate from Bhopal (North), but it is believed that Chouhan might reverse this decision.

Chouhan’s style of governance is the closest thing the BJP has to welfarism. He began cycling to work in his khadikurta-pyjama in Bhopal this June, to register his protest against rising petrol prices. He dons the occasional skull cap to convince Muslims, who constitute more than 10 percent of the population in nine districts of the state, that the “Madhya Pradesh model” is different from the majoritarian “Gujarat model”. The polarising Modi narrative will eclipse nuances like these, painstakingly nourished by Chouhan. From Chouhan’s perspective, the RSS’s inevitable promotion for Modi might have worked better if its pronouncement had been deferred until after the assembly elections.

In addition to his own misgivings, Chouhan’s protestations with regard to Modi are most certainly linked to the factional politics currently causing a wide range of conflicts in the saffron quarters. Some of Chouhan’s colleagues have asserted that Modi’s projection will “help” the BJP, which makes it clear that the Gujarat chief minister has already put together a band of followers to counter the Chouhan-Swaraj-Advani lobby in Madhya Pradesh.

One such man is the vociferous BJP MLA from Mhow and cabinet minister for industries and employment, Kailash Vijayvargiya, who told me, “If Modiji is projected, we will increase our seats.” This enthusiasm may not be universally felt within the party, but that should not faze Modi. Given the backlash to Swaraj expressing her reservations about Modi’s leadership to the RSS—which included a stormy, widespread call on social media for Swaraj to quit the BJP—it appears plausible that, as Digvijaya Singh was quick to point out on Facebook, the managing director of the Indian wing of the international lobbying firm Apco Worldwide, Sukanti Ghosh, has joined the Modi camp full time. The implication is that his influence will be designed to hurt doubtful colleagues and adversaries alike.

While he hails Modi, Vijayvargiya does not deny that the Madhya Pradesh chief minister has been successful in appropriating the “aam aadmi” space in a state where the Congress has recently projected Jyotiraditya Scindia, scion of the powerful dynasty of Gwalior, as their possible candidate for the top job. “Our chief minister is a man of the masses,” he told me. “His politics is not conducted from palaces.”

This pits the modest, quiet plebeian Chouhan against the heir to a former royal family. The emergence of a commander in the person of Scindia is good news for the Congress: it has been battling factionalism ever since Digvijaya Singh announced his ten-year sanyaas from politics in 2003, having been humiliated on the hustings by the saffron-clad Uma Bharti. Digvijaya had been mentored by the wily Arjun Singh for a long time before he began his decade-long reign, between 1993 and 2003, as the undisputed leader in the state. But once he migrated to national politics, other powerful satraps—such as Kamal Nath, the party MP from Chhindwara and Union minister for urban development as well as parliamentary affairs; Suresh Pachouri, Rajya Sabha MP; and the young Scindia, himself the MP from Guna and the UPA’s minister of state for power, emerged as potential leaders, and chaos ensued.

The Congress has now sought to put its house in order by anointing Scindia as the party’s election campaign manager, a move seen as a natural precursor to his projection as their chief ministerial candidate. The princely appeal holds sway in the once-royal enclaves of Ujjain, Indore, and Gwalior—and the “Maharaja”, as Scindia likes to be called, recently held two very successful rallies in Morena and Guna. Around Scindia, epithets such as “Shrimant”, “Maharaja”, “Rajasaab” and the like are routinely applied with deference and without a shade of irony, and even the aristocratic charm of Digvijaya Singh, inheritor of the fort of Raghogarh, pales in comparison with the razzle-dazzle of the Gwalior Palace.

Even as Scindia keeps busy with his responsibilities as a union cabinet minister, devoting only his weekends to electioneering in Madhya Pradesh, the BJP duly recognises that his fresh appeal stands in dangerous contrast to the decided fatigue in the saffron camp after 10 long years of single-party rule. The BJP has publicly asserted that Scindia’s anointment is a case of “too little too late”, but privately, they also hope that his unmatched arrogance will eventually shatter the unified peace, brokered with such difficulty, in the faction-ridden Congress state unit.

Already, Scindia’s insolence has rubbed potentially powerful allies the wrong way. According to a source in the Congress party, he phoned Ajay Singh, the leader of the opposition in the state assembly, to dish out instructions, and addressed him by his first name. Ajay Singh, who is older than Scindia, followed his cue and called him “Jyotiraditya” in turn. A few days later, Ajay Singh was shocked to receive a call from Digvijaya Singh, who told him to show courtesy and not misbehave with Scindia. (Ajay Singh happens to be the son of Digvijaya’s former mentor, the late Thakur Arjun Singh, and considers himself beneath such treatment, even at the hands of a member of the Gwalior family.)

Against this bunch of squabbling thakurs are others such as the tribal leader and the state Congress chief Kanti Lal Bhuria, who has been seething at the party high command’s casual dismissal of his ambitions for the top job. The chief minister has been quick to remind the beleaguered Bhuria that the Congress has “ignored tribals in favour of rajas”. That is a significant quip in a state where 20 percent of the population is constituted by the tribes. Ever since Digvijaya’s sanyaas, the BJP has used the limitless resources of the strong RSS network in the state to consolidate their power among the state’s tribal population. It has also helped them to sidetrack political groupings such as the Gondwana Gantantra Party (GGP), which played a critical role in the Congress’s downfall in state elections in 2003.

Since it came to power, the BJP has been frantically mobilising tribals with methods termed “processes of Hinduisation” by Christian missionaries in the Betul, Chhindwara, Jhabua, Jabalpur and other tribal districts. Revivalist religious events such as the “Narmada Samajik Kumbh” have been started on the same lines as the “Shabri Kumbh” in Gujarat—invariably accompanied by rituals of ghar wapasi (homecoming or reconversion) for tribal people who had converted to Christianity. The GGP has been crying hoarse over such “attacks on tribal identity”, but in its years in power, the BJP has simultaneously constructed a Hindu narrative around all its development schemes—the Ladli Laxmi Yojna, the Gokul Gram Yojna, the Jal Abhishek Yojna and so on.

But in spite of Chouhan’s unflinching loyalty to the Hindu cause, and his ability to hold sway over one of the country’s largest states, the RSS does not consider him a worthy opponent to the Gujarat chief minister. For the moment, his treatment as the underdog is helping the Madhya Pradesh chief minister to consolidate his position among the base back home, as a sevak against the royal charge led by the Congress. However, it is clear that a sevak’s complaints will not resonate loudly enough at the national level. For the rest of India to hear, nothing short of a battle cry from the false facade of the Red Fort will suffice.

Correction: 1) An earlier version of this article mistakenly stated that Madhya Pradesh is India's largest state. This has been changed online. 2) Prabhat Jha is no longer the BJP state president.  The Caravan regrets the errors.