Cutting Mama down to size

Diminished in Modi’s shadow, Shivraj seems headed the way of most OBC leaders in the BJP

Prime Minister Narendra Modi being received by the chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, Shivraj Singh Chouhan, on his arrival at Indore, in September 2018. Both politicians were among the non-dominant OBC leaders who began their careers in the RSS before they were deputed to rise through the BJP ranks in the 1990s. Press Information Bureau
15 November, 2023

On 20 October, the Bharatiya Janata Party released a rather extraordinary appeal by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the voters of Madhya Pradesh. It asked them to ensure a BJP victory in the state, which goes to polls on 17 November, by giving direct support to Modi. The appeal carried a picture of Modi at the top. The four-term chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan got a one-line mention in the text for having spearheaded the work the party had done in the state. Another photo foregrounded Modi at the bottom of the page, consigning Chouhan to the rear, along with several BJP leaders, including many from the state.

So categorical has been Chouhan’s relegation to the background that even that one line was seen as a positive. A sympathetic columnist, terming this a lucky break for Chouhan, noted that till this point Modi had not mentioned “Chouhan’s name, much less his achievements, in election meetings in the state.” Even the ticket distribution by the BJP had kept Chouhan waiting, till his name figured on the fourth list.

Before the announcement, Chouhan had gone to his constituents in some desperation, “I want to ask you whether I am running a good government or a bad government. So, should this government move ahead or not? Should Mama”—maternal uncle, the term by which he is often referred to in Madhya Pradesh—become chief minister or not?” The party has chosen not to answer his last question, but voters seem to have framed their own answers to the others.

Even in his constituency of Budhni, where he has overwhelming support, most voters were willing to accept that there was dissatisfaction with the Chouhan government. At the Budhni ghat, I spoke to Pandit Ashish Dubey. He insisted on the “pandit” before his name. Through the state, caste identities are crucial to the vote, but Madhya Pradesh has not witnessed the churn of social movements from below that marks politics in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. The hierarchy of the varna system remains unchallenged here.

Dubey conceded there was mood for change across the state. But he went on to echo what voters across regions and constituencies had repeated: Modi was not the source of their dissatisfaction; he stood above and beyond this mood. “Which is why we have to support the BJP in the state,” Dubey said. “Modiji may remain unchallenged at the centre, but there is a difference in being shored up by the support of ten state governments as opposed to two. We have to ensure his international stature. And how is the work he is doing to come down to us if the state government is not a BJP government?”

A few Muslim voters in the town were the only people I found who disagreed with this larger sentiment towards Modi. Rashid Ali, who retired as a truck driver, told me, “We will all support Chouhan. It is a matter of pride for us that the chief minister is from our constituency. The opponent put up by the Congress is a non-entity.” He was not so sanguine about Modi. “We are all seeing what is happening, par har zulm ka ant hota hai”— but there is an end to every tyranny.

These differing perceptions are a good indicator of the real source of Modi’s appeal. However, in a state where the BJP has found little opportunity to create the perception of an overt Muslim threat, the average voter needs to find a pretext for a preference rooted in religious identity. This is what Modi is so good at providing, through a vast public-relations machinery. 

Across the river from Budhni, in Narmadapuram—which even locals still prefer to call by its erstwhile name, Hoshangabad—in the heart of the market, Manoj Raichandani runs a garment shop. He spoke of how the district has always been a BJP stronghold. “BJP was always ahead in this region but there is some resentment against Mama now. Modi, on the other hand,” he said, “is unchallenged nationally.”

On being pressed, he admitted, “Notebandi”—demonetisation—“has affected our business, anyone in this bazaar will tell you. Even now business has not gone back to what it was under notebandi, but we must rise above our self-interest and take a larger view. For the first time India has such a presence on the international stage.” This sentiment was repeated in settings ranging from remote Adivasi villages to urban settings. The theatre around the G20 Summit, which projected Modi as a vishwaguru, had penetrated every part of the state. Almost every Modi supporter regurgitated the same idea in similar words.

This dichotomy, of resentment against Mama and an adoration of Modi, seems to have formed the basis for the BJP’s strategy in the state. But the decline they have engineered in Chouhan’s stature does not bode well for the party.

No one politician has so unobtrusively dominated the political landscape of Madhya Pradesh as Shivraj Singh Chouhan. He became chief minister in 2005 and is now at the end of his fourth term. He has also been in the Lok Sabha for five terms.

The careers of Modi and Chouhan ran on parallel tracks for a long while before Modi went on to become prime minister. Modi maneuvered himself into the post of chief minister of Gujarat as a backroom player and then became a political success in the wake of 2002 anti-Muslim violence in Gujarat. In contrast, Chouhan had already been in the Lok Sabha when he came back to take over as chief minister in 2005.

They were among the non-dominant OBC leaders who began their careers in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh before they were deputed to rise through the BJP ranks in the 1990s. This list also included figures such as Kalyan Singh, a two-term Uttar Pradesh chief minister, and Uma Bharti, Madhya Pradesh’s chief minister for a year.

Unfortunately for the BJP, Modi’s claim to OBC status has always been a matter of some debate. Unlike the other three, Modi is not rooted in his OBC community. Both Singh and Bharti had felt in the past that they were not given their due. Singh quit the party twice, complaining of humiliation, and Bharti had famously stormed out a press conference alleging members of her own party were working against her.

In the three decades since the emergence of these leaders, the BJP, despite riding on the non-dominant OBC vote, has largely failed to make space for them at the very top. A recent analysis in The Print looked at seven BJP-ruled states and one where the party is a partner in the government— “all states where caste plays a crucial role in politics.” (It included Karnataka, where the government has since changed.) The analysis showed that “despite its much-hyped inclusivity, those calling the shots belong to the upper castes. Or they belong to a dominant caste or community.” It also noted:

Of 123 cabinet ministers in the eight states analysed, including chief ministers, 82 are from upper or dominant castes … Of the eight chief ministers, six are from upper or dominant castes. Only Madhya Pradesh’s Shivraj Singh Chouhan belongs to OBC [non-dominant] ... across the states, home ministry is held by dominant or upper castes … It is similar for other plum portfolios like finance, PWD, revenue, energy, and health.

Modi himself has taken a stance that defends this privilege and goes against the essential logic of social justice. He has accused the opposition of “trying to divide the country in the name of caste.” At a time when the caste census is likely to become a significant factor going into the national elections, the diminishment of Chouhan by his own party through this campaign sends its own message, recapitulating as it does the fate of Kalyan Singh and Uma Bharti.