How does it feel when (BJP leader Lal Krishna) Advani praises your work and says you are prime minister material?
My chest swells with pride when I hear such kind words from Advaniji. He and (former prime minister Atal Bihari) Vajpayeeji have been a friend, mentor and guide to most of us. His words are like amrit (nectar). When he appreciates my work, I believe I have done good and have the mettle to do better. Advaniji is someone who does not look at personal gains or have ulterior motives. He is an ideological messiah for us, who calls a spade a spade.
– From an interview with Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chauhan published in Tehelka on 20 December 2012
MEDIA SHY AND EVER RETICENT, the conversation from which the above quote is excerpted marked Chauhan’s arrival as a dark horse in the BJP’s internal race to the post of the prime minister should the party win next year’s General Election. Ironically, the interview was published on the day another BJP strongman, Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, registered his third back-to-back win in his state’s Assembly polls, making him the frontrunner to lead the BJP to victory in the Lok Sabha elections.
Predictably, Modi’s consolidation has not gone down too well with Advani who dreamt of taking India’s top job until the party’s defeat in the 2009 Lok Sabha polls. Enter Chauhan. Last week, Advani set the cat among the pigeons and sent the news media in a frenzy by not only praising Chauhan but also placing him above Modi in a speech before 20,000 BJP cadres assembled in Gwalior city of Madhya Pradesh.
“I tell Narendrabhai that Gujarat was already an economically healthy state when he became its chief minister and he merely made it better,” Advani told the party’s stunned thousands. “Whereas Madhya Pradesh was a ‘Bimaru’ state when Chauhan became its chief minister. I give him full credit for bringing a total developmental change to it and making it a healthy state.” ‘Bimaru’ is a vintage acronym made from Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh, four of the country’s chronically poorest states.
Once Modi’s mentor and now his biggest roadblock, Advani not only challenged Modi’s claim of bringing development to Gujarat but also made Modi appear unfit for the top job by comparing Chauhan’s humility with that of Vajpayee’s. “Vajpayee (as prime minister) did not have any shortcomings and one of his best qualities is his humility,” Advani continued. “I see the same in Chauhan. He has changed the destiny of Madhya Pradesh with his developmental policies, but is still polite and soft-spoken. He has never allowed arrogance to enter his mind.” Left unsaid: Modi has become arrogant.
Modi felt doubly stung because Advani was hard-selling Chauhan to the same cadres Modi’s supporters claim are begging for the Gujarat chief minister to be named the party’s prime ministerial candidate. Fears have been whipped up that if Modi is not named, the party’s cadres across India would be disillusioned and move away from it. Expectedly, Advani’s statement ruffled his intended target in Gandhinagar, the capital of Gujarat. Frantic phone calls from there forced BJP president Rajnath Singh to call a press conference and repeat his cliched quote: “Modi is India’s most popular leader.” Alarmed supporters of Modi in the party started pushing for him to be formally named as the prime ministerial candidate at a meeting of its national executive at Goa on 7 June.
But party insiders say Advani may already have struck a blow, notwithstanding the fact that the octogenarian agreed on 5 June to Modi being named the BJP’s campaign head. (In delightful posturing, the same day Advani phoned Modi to congratulate him on the BJP’s sweep of two Lok Sabha and four Assembly by-elections in Gujarat. On a visit to New Delhi that day, Modi then drove down to Advani’s house for a photo-op.)
Advani’s push for Chauhan is being variously seen as either a last-ditch attempt to crawl back from the political margins where he now lives or as a masterstroke aimed at halting Modi’s juggernaut to force him to be more accommodating. Is Advani genuinely pitching for Chauhan or using him as a trump card to counter Modi? After all, the BJP already boasts stalwarts such as Arun Jaitley and Sushma Swaraj, the Leaders of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha and the Lok Sabha, respectively, and Rajnath Singh, who hails from Uttar Pradesh, politically the most influential state in India. So why Chauhan? “You never know what is playing on Advani’s mind,” a BJP leader told TEHELKA.
Be that as it may, Advani’s fulsome praise for Chauhan has brought attention to the Madhya Pradesh chief minister who, while in sharp contrast with Modi’s larger- than-life persona, touts credentials in governance and politics that rival Modi’s. Chauhan led the BJP in winning in the Madhya Pradesh Assembly election five years ago, retaining power. The party believes he will repeat the feat at the next election in December.
Chauhan was quick to rule himself out of the race after Advani’s praise this week. But he has no doubt emerged more confident and shed the inhibitions characteristic of those from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the BJP’s ideological parent. In another exclusive interview with this correspondent this week, Chauhan even allowed himself a boast: that Muslims trust him with safeguarding their lives and rights. The obvious dig is at Modi, who is blighted by the sectarian killings of about 2,000 Muslims in 2002 in Gujarat by Hindu zealots linked to the RSS and its affiliates.
Not that 54-year-old Chauhan has been reluctant to peddle Hindutva politics. He banned religious conversions in the state and made the practice of yoga compulsory in schools. Indeed, he has lately appeared more acceptable in the RSS than Modi, who has ruffled many a feather by riding roughshod over those who are not amenable to him.
CHAUHAN GOT a shot in the arm in November 2005 when the BJP named him the third chief minister of its patchy two-year-old government in the state. His selection had followed a volatile reign by the mercurial Uma Bharti and a short and forgettable rule by another party veteran, Babulal Gaur. Chauhan’s clout was already evident at the time of his elevation as the party decided to expel Bharti when she opposed his choice. She could return to the BJP six years later only after making peace with Chauhan. Gaur, too, meekly signed up to be a Cabinet minister after having been chief minister.
Until he became chief minister, Chauhan had been just another soft-spoken RSS worker, carrying little clout with either the RSS or the BJP rank and file. In fact, in the 2003 Assembly election that the BJP went on to win, Chauhan was ordered to stand against the then chief minister, Digvijaya Singh, of the Congress. Unsurprisingly, he had lost.
Compliance, however, paid off as Chauhan was soon made party president and eventually chief minister. An RSS leader once told this reporter that Chauhan was chosen because of his “non-aggressive, non-controversial and compliant” nature. Indeed, a rare moment when Chauhan’s anger flared up occurred in his first term when a BJP legislator in the Assembly called him “chhota Modi” (a smaller version of Modi). Chauhan shot back: “Na main chhota Modi banna chahta hoon na bada Modi (I don’t want to be either a smaller version or a larger version of Modi.)”
Speaking with TEHELKA, Chauhan echoes Advani’s logic. He argues that he started from scratch while Gujarat was a developed state. Industry leaders agree. “We have manpower and land and an industrial revolution was waiting to happen,” Ranjan Virmani, chairman of the Madhya Pradesh chapter of the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII), told TEHELKA. “Chauhan did the needful to bring it in.” Virmani credits Chauhan with increasing the state’s GDP and facilitating the entry of business houses.
S Pal, the CEO of the Vardhman Group, a textile major, says his company has set up two new plants in Madhya Pradesh thanks to Chauhan taking some “intelligent decisions” such as the granting of tax subsidies. “The state has surplus cotton. All he needed was (business) houses like us,” Pal told TEHELKA. “He extended his bit and we did ours.”
According to Virmani, while leaders like Modi adopted trickle-down economics by bringing in mega corporations, Chauhan has advocated inclusive development. He uses terms like “index of happiness” with business chambers, which is unheard of in other states, says Virmani. When he launched a financial assistance scheme for girls from poor families, he insisted he was doing so as a mama — the maternal uncle — fulfilling a duty.
Madhya Pradesh is today one of the country’s fastest growing states with economic growth rate nearing 12 percent. Agricultural output has benefited from, among others, interest-free loans, special bonuses to wheat and rice growers, waivers of electricity dues, and a regular water supply for irrigation. As a result, Madhya Pradesh has recorded the highest growth rate in agriculture, 18 percent higher than Punjab’s.
In the 10 years of BJP rule, Madhya Pradesh has seen both its expenditure and income rise substantially. While expenditure has gone up by more than four times at nearly Rs 92,000 crore, income from tax collections, too, has risen a whopping 500 percent to touch nearly Rs 33,000 crore. Importantly, while Madhya Pradesh had a revenue deficit of nearly Rs 4,500 crore in 2003-04, it now has a surplus of Rs 5,125 crore.
Many schemes that the BJP government launched became popular with the electorate. The Ladli Laxmi Yojana that funded the education of girls from poor families is credited with playing a major role in returning the party to power in 2008. The state government claims that the scheme, launched a year before that election, has benefited half a million girls in a state of 70 million people.
In January, Chauhan launched the ambitious Rs 12,000-crore Atal Jyoti Yojana — named after Vajpayee — to bring round -the- clock electricity to Madhya Pradesh’s 55,000-odd villages by June-end. But by last month, only 17 of the state’s 50 districts had been covered. Barely 20 km from the state capital Bhopal, farmers in Prempura village report seven-hour power cuts every day.
Critics dismiss Chauhan as a “dreamseller”. “Madhya Pradesh has a worse record of malnutrition deaths than even Chhattisgarh and Odisha,” says Sunil bhai, a Bhopal-based activist with Samajwadi Jan Parishad, a political party. “Why doesn’t Chauhan ever talk about that? Or about the displacement from the Narmada dam project?” A bureaucrat defends Chauhan though, saying it would be impractical to “expect him to have a magic wand”. “He is making serious attempts (to bring change),” says the bureaucrat.
And then, despite the claims of supporters such as Virmani of the CII, the fact is that Chauhan has so far failed to attract big investments. The CEO of an auto major, while declining to be named, says Chauhan needs to think like Modi to attract big business. “At the end of the day, Chauhan thinks like the farmer he is,” he says. “A state does not survive on agriculture. It needs big industries, for which you have to give sops to investors. Modi knows how to get them. You need that kind of a man.”
Unlike Modi, Chauhan is not “aggressive enough”. He just does not “connect” with the industrial houses. Other businessmen complain that Chauhan’s coterie has made him fearful of industrialisation, leading him to believe that such a course would alienate the poor from him.
CHAUHAN’S SUPPORTERS say he deserves a shout out to national politics because of his honest image. In 2011, he was given a clean chit over the allegation that his government had favoured a mining company that had leased trucks owned by his wife’s firm. Appearing in 2006, the allegation so unnerved Chauhan that for a while he blocked government advertisements to the newspaper that ran the story.
Despite his protestations, does Chauhan harbour ambitions for a larger role in New Delhi? The answer is yes and no, says Bhopal-based political analyst Girija Shankar, who has seen the chief minister from close quarters. “Who would not want a larger role for himself?” asks Shankar. “But perhaps this is not the right time. I don’t think he is ripe for 2014, although he is one of the best candidates in the BJP.”
A gold medallist in MA who began in politics by heading a students’ union, Chauhan joined the RSS after the then prime minister Indira Gandhi imposed a national Emergency in 1975. And it is his relationship with the RSS, especially with its chief, Mohan Bhagwat, that would play a role in deciding his future. Though Bhagwat has visited Madhya Pradesh most among all BJP-ruled states, that may not be enough to get Chauhan his nod. But insiders believe he remains a favourite.
Another RSS insider believes Chauhan is yet to show the charisma needed to make it to the top. “You can’t see a man as prime minister who goes on national TV sounding intimidated by the prospect of Modi getting upset,” says Shankar. “Chauhan said he is not even No. 2 but No. 3. That shows he is not assertive enough.”
Following Advani’s praise, Chauhan was quick to tell reporters that he was well behind not only Modi but even Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Raman Singh in the party. “He is the type who will lay down the red carpet for those he needs to keep in good humour.”
Reticent he may be, but Chauhan is no stranger to histrionics. When the BJP was in the opposition in Madhya Pradesh, Chauhan once waved a handful of grains telling his public audience that the then chief minister Digvijaya Singh’s misrule was forcing farmers to eat such grains that had no nutritional value. He projected Singh as an upper-caste elitist leading the state to its doom and himself as a man of the masses. Indeed, his village home where he was raised is still a symbol of the low life. That he wears worn-out slippers and hasn’t replaced the upholstery in his house for years is symbolism of his simplicity, too, says Shankar.
Chauhan once told an interviewer he tears up magazines carrying sex surveys as he wants to protect his young sons from such material. He once instructed the police to revoke the passports and driving licences of those who harass women.
For his supporters, his humbleness and geniality are, in fact, an advantage. In their narrative, Chauhan has learned all the lessons from both friends and foes, the most from Digvijaya Singh and, of course, Modi. Chauhan believes that being high-flying led to Singh’s downfall and already bedevils Modi. To call himself “No. 3” is part of a well-crafted image, they say.
Indeed, Chauhan has long had an eye on the national stage, a key reason why he drove his government’s and party’s earlier hard Hindutva over a cliff. From once seeking a ban on cow slaughter, a pet theme of the RSS types, he has now taken to holding community programmes among Muslims, who comprise 6 percent of the state’s population, during the holy month of Ramzan. In this, he is projecting himself virtuous on two counts unlike Modi, who is not acceptable to Muslims and is autocratic.
But come December, and Chauhan may find the crowd in the bus getting bigger. If Raman Singh wins a third term in Chhattisgarh and Vasundhara Raje Scindia, a former chief minister of Rajasthan, manages to bring the party back to power in that state, then not just Modi but Chauhan, too, would find himself facing a lot more competition. Until then, Chauhan fits the mould that Advani seeks to counter his once favoured protégé.