Saffron Santa

MP CM Chouhan doles out goodies to disgruntled voters before the assembly polls

AFTER A TUMULTUOUS YEAR, Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan faces his biggest challenge yet. The BJP stalwart, who has been chief minister for almost 13 years, has been liberally doling out money and concessions, and zealously campaigning across the state because of the anti-incumbency factor in the assembly elections due in December.

Recently, as part of the BJP’s Vikas Yatra, he visited all the districts to tomtom his development initiatives. He has also begun his election special Jan Ashirwad Yatra, visiting all 230 assembly constituencies.

BJP patriarch L.K. Advani, who had batted for Chouhan as the party’s prime ministerial candidate in 2013, called Madhya Pradesh “the laboratory of the BJP in the Hindi heartland.” Keenly nurtured by the RSS, the state has one of party’s best organisational setups. At the helm of its affairs is Chouhan, a blue-eyed boy of the RSS. Often referred to as a ‘model chief minister’, he is widely popular within the party, never getting into confrontations with the leadership or the RSS.

The BJP had captured power in Madhya Pradesh in 2003 under the leadership of the maverick Uma Bharti, thus ending the almost four-decade-old Congress rule in the state.

Chouhan became chief minister in 2005 after Uma Bharti resigned from the post following a court case against her. He steadily built his domain and led the party to victory in the assembly elections in 2008 and 2013. Through his populist policies, he created the image of a mass leader. “He has been credited with converting the image of the BJP from a party for traders and upper castes to a party for farmers and the poor,” said Dr Ashok Kumar Ahirwar, professor of history at Dr Harisingh Gour University, Sagar.

In the current assembly, the BJP has 150 members, while the Congress has 66. Out of 29 seats in the Lok Sabha, the BJP has 26, and the Congress three. All 16 municipal corporations have BJP mayors, and majority of 270 municipalities have BJP chiefs. With the BJP ruling in almost every elected body of the state, the anti-incumbency factor is strong. The Congress has won all four assembly bypolls held in the past ten months. The results have dented Chouhan’s image.

A recent internal survey informed the BJP leadership that 70 per cent of its MLAs, including one-third of ministers, would find it difficult to get re-elected. The survey, coupled with reports from affiliate organisations of the RSS, has forced Chouhan and the BJP to rethink their strategy.

To make matters worse, in the past year, there has been a spate of violence in the state. In June 2017, six farmers were killed in Mandsaur during a demonstration for fair prices for agricultural produce, and in April, eight people were killed during dalit protests.

In order to appease farmers, Chouhan announced the Bhavantar scheme, where farmers are compensated if market prices for a particular crop drop below a fixed price. So far, the government has spent more than Rs 1,450 crore on this scheme.

Chouhan also announced a special bonus of Rs 200 per quintal for wheat and paddy sold in 2017. “This is an outright bribe to angry farmers, as money is being spent on purchases made last year,” said Akshya Hunka, founder of youth organisation Berozgar Sena (Unemployed Army). “In an election year, such benefits to farmers will have a negative impact on other communities.”

These doles, however, are not limited to farmers. As the assembly polls near, Chouhan has become Santa Claus, doling out salary hikes and freebies to teachers, tendu-leaf pickers, anganwadi workers and journalists.

“This is against every norm of democracy,” said Arun Yadav, former state Congress president. “With over Rs 2 lakh crore in debt, the government is bent on emptying the state exchequer to win the assembly elections, which they are sure to lose.” Leader of the opposition Ajay Singh, said, “Such gimmicks will not help. People know they are mere promises as the government does not have any money.”

But Chouhan is unfazed by the criticism. He raised the retirement age of government employees from 60 to 62 years, which benefited some three lakh employees who were close to retirement. “These steps are killing the future of the youth in the state, and we are not getting jobs because of the government’s populist policies,” said Hunka, who organised a hunger strike against raising the retirement age.

Recently, more than 5,197 unauthorised colonies across the state were regularised. “It is unfortunate that the chief minister is meddling with the system of planned urban development, promoting squatters and granting sanctions to houses constructed without proper permissions,” said Dhanesh Dixit, of Bhopal Citizen Forum. Retired engineer Prabhat Nema said, “This decision will make law-abiding citizens feel cheated. There is no point in investing in expensive property in approved colonies, if the government has made it a periodic practice to authorise illegal ones.”

BJP spokesman Rajneesh Agarwal justified these actions. “The government is for the people and decisions are taken in the interest of the public,” he said. “We will not hesitate to take any decisions that make people happy.”

While Chouhan focuses on the poor and marginalised sections through his pre-electoral largesse, the upper castes who are the BJP’s core vote bank are unhappy. The Brahmin leadership is seething, since its share in power has been reduced. In April, when Rakesh Singh replaced Nandkumar Singh Chouhan—both Rajputs—as the state BJP president, there was heartburn among Brahmin leaders who expected the post to go to one of them.

Chouhan, however, is unperturbed. He has the backing of the RSS, and the BJP top brass, too, is throwing its weight behind him after seeing the massive crowds he drew at the Jan Ashirwad Yatra. Some of his schemes have been adopted by other states, and even the Union government.