Shivraj Singh Chouhan: From amenable 'mama' to protective 'bhaiya'

The MP CM is banking on women welfare and a tough-on-crime image

PTI08_27_2023_000153B Striking a chord: Women offering rakshabandhan to Shivraj Singh Chouhan during an event related to the Ladli Behna Awas Yojana in Bhopal on August 27 | PTI

Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan is bracing for a big fight. Two, in fact. The assembly polls are due in December, and if the BJP emerges victorious, there would be another contest within the party for the chief minister’s post. Chouhan is trying to become chief minister for a record fifth time.

“This time, our mandate will be the biggest ever,” says Chouhan. He is in his official residence in Bhopal, overlooking the lake Bada Talab. He has returned after a hectic round of events―the rollout of five Jan Ashirwad Yatra chariots from the BJP headquarters in Bhopal, announcing the availability of meals for the poor at the reduced price of Rs5 (instead of Rs10) under the Deendayal Rasoi Yojana, and addressing a rally on women empowerment, a subject close to his heart. “I only see the eye of the bird,” says Chouhan, quoting Arjuna in the Mahabharat, as he talks about the polls.

At 64, Chouhan is the longest-serving BJP chief minister with 16 years under his belt. Since becoming CM in 2005, Chouhan has been out of power only for around a year, when Kamal Nath of the Congress became chief minister after the 2018 polls. Chouhan returned as CM in March 2020, after engineering a split in the Congress, but by then the BJP’s national leadership was looking at promoting a new line of leaders in the state. In August 2022, Chouhan was dropped from the BJP’s parliamentary board, the party’s highest decision-making body that he had been a member of since 2014. It set off intense speculation that the BJP was keen to promote new leaders in the state.

“I am an ordinary party worker,” Chouhan says, when asked about his national ambitions. “It is up to the party to decide on any role.”

As the elections draw close, the BJP has pitched for collective leadership in the state. “We will decide on the CM after the polls,” Union Home Minister Amit Shah said while visiting the state in August. This generated buzz that likely contenders for the chief ministers’s post were Union Ministers Jyotiradtiya Scindia and Narendra Singh Tomar (who is also the convenor of the party’s election management committee), Union Minister of State Prahlad Singh Patel, BJP general secretary Kailash Vijayvargiya, Madhya Pradesh Home Minister Narottam Mishra and state party president V.D. Sharma.

In changing chief ministers after an assembly polls victory, the BJP has set a precedent in Assam. In 2021, former Congressman Himanta Biswa Sarma replaced Sarbananda Sonowal as Assam chief minister. Sonowal was inducted into the Union cabinet.

Chouhan says the party’s model of collective leadership in the polls is not new; it was tried in Karnataka and Uttar Pradesh. The party is replicating the strategy in Rajasthan, where all state leaders have been told to participate in various yatras, which in the past were solely led by former chief minister Vasundhra Raje. Apparently, state and national leaders will jointly lead the campaign with Prime Minister Narendra Modi as the party’s face.

According to sources, even though 16 years is a long time for the fatigue factor to set in, Chouhan is still the BJP’s best-known face across the state. He has undergone an image makeover. While engaging with voters at rallies, Chouhan now comes across as more energetic. Instead of just delivering speeches on a stage, he connects with people by walking on an extended ramp. He has also been practising ‘bulldozer politics’, a new policy solution that BJP-ruled states have been increasingly adopting to curb crime―demolish houses “illegally built” by the accused.

Once the amenable mama (maternal uncle), Chouhan is now the protective bhaiya (brother) who ensures the welfare of women voters. Chouhan’s schemes for girl children―like Ladli Laxmi, which was launched during his first tenure―have reduced the number of school dropouts and improved health indicators and sex ratio.

The populist promises that helped the Congress win Madhya Pradesh in 2018, Himachal Pradesh in 2022 and Karnataka this year has forced the BJP to rethink its strategy. Chouhan has doubled down on wooing women voters, his most loyal constituency. He has come up with the Ladli Behna Awas Yojana, an Rs80,000-crore housing scheme for women aged between 21 and 60 years. The state has already recorded 1.25 crore registrations under the scheme―more than 66 per cent of the target group population.

Wooing women voters makes electoral sense. They constitute nearly 48 per cent of the state’s population, and their polling percentages have been increasing. In 2018, women recorded a turnout of 74 per cent―up nearly 4 per cent from 2013. Also, women recorded a higher polling percentage than men in more than 40 seats, including 18 seats reserved for tribals.

The BJP and the Congress are competing to offer freebies. Kamal Nath, state Congress chief and the party’s chief minister candidate, has given 11 poll promises including Rs1,500 monthly allowance for women, LPG cylinders for Rs500 each, resumption of farm-loan waivers, reinstatement of the old pension scheme, conducting of caste census, implementing 27 per cent reservation for Other Backward Classes, and free electricity.

Chouhan has been forced to match the offer. He has promised LPG cylinders at a reduced price, and hiked the proposed allowance to women from Rs1,000 to Rs1,250. He has also promised to increase it to Rs3,000 in the future.

Infrastructure development has been a priority for Chouhan. He has built the Mohanpura-Kudanlia dam, which is billed as the country’s first pressurised piped irrigation project. It has helped change the livelihoods of farmers and reduced migration to cities. The government is planning 10 such projects across the state, and highlighting its work on solar cities and global skill parks as its achievements.

The BJP’s big engagement with voters has been through the religious route. The state government has built the Mahakal Lok corridor at the Mahakaleshwar temple in Ujjain, and is constructing a 108ft statue of Adi Shankaracharya at Omkareshwar. Called ‘Statue of Oneness’, the Rs2,100-crore project is on the lines of the Statue of Unity in Gujarat. It seeks to put the state on the world map of Vedanta philosophy. The proposed ‘Hanuman Lok’ in Chhindwara, on the lines of the Mahakal Lok corridor, is another project that the state government has been hard-selling.

The Congress, too, is playing the cultural card. Under Kamal Nath, it organised an event of religious preacher Dhirendra Shastri in Chhindwara.

According to Chouhan, the popularity of preachers and storytellers like Shastri is not a recent phenomenon. “During childhood, we saw several kathavachaks tell stories. I am happy that the tradition is alive and flourishing. Most kathavachaks tell good stories for people’s welfare,” he says.

Interestingly, Chouhan and Ashok Gehlot, his Congress counterpart in Rajasthan, shares a unique electoral strategy―setting up new districts to influence the ground situation. Chouhan has set up four new districts this year, taking the total to 56. In Rajasthan, Gehlot has set up 19 new districts, taking the total to 50.

The BJP has learnt from the Karnataka debacle. It announced 39 candidates even before the poll bugle sounded. More names are likely to be announced to keep competing claims in check and allow candidates a head start in seats the party has never won. Anti-incumbency may prompt the party to drop several sitting MLAs. It has set up special teams that are mapping the electorate and engaging with local influencers. The aim is to micromanage outcomes in 65,000 polling booths across the state.

Chouhan’s rallies have been attracting huge crowds, especially women. Apparently, the response has been so overwhelming that Defence Minister Rajnath Singh recently described Chouhan as the Mahendra Singh Dhoni of politics. “Whatever the start, Dhoni always finishes the game with a victory,” said Rajnath. “Chouhan will also ensure victory.”