A landlord’s son, Digvijay connected with the masses. The saffron party leader, Shivraj banks on his caring image and welfare schemes
The two men who have dominated the politics of Madhya Pradesh for the last two decades — as Chief Ministers — are a study in contrast. Digvijay Singh, currently Congress general secretary, is the product of a privileged though progressive upbringing. Influenced by Mahatma Gandhi, his father, a wealthy Thakur landlord, threw open the family temple to Dalits and donated 5,000 acres of land to the Bhoodan movement. The current incumbent, Shivraj Singh Chouhan, an OBC, was born into a farming family and joined the RSS at the age of 13.
If their social backgrounds and the ideologies of their parties have determined their political philosophies, both men have given it their own stamp. When Mr. Singh became Chief Minister in 1993, it was against the backdrop of the emergence of a more competitive economy in the country and the policies he adopted, as Sudha Pai explains in her book Developmental State and the Dalit Question in Madhya Pradesh: Congress response, “were based on placing human development at the centre of the developmental ideology of the state, using political decentralisation and grassroots participation for development, and deploying strategies of public-private partnership to implement programmes for the weaker sections.” From this, she writes, emerged Mr. Singh’s Dalit Agenda in his second tenure, his “vision to target a section of the population selected as disadvantaged and in need of state assistance”.
If Mr. Singh was the sophisticated “Diggy Raja” who could converse as easily with an uneducated villager as with a development specialist sporting a degree from a foreign university, Mr. Chouhan’s focus on populism has earned him the sobriquet of “Mamaji” from the State’s female population for his popular Ladli Lakshmi Yojna, Kanyadhan Yojna and Janani Suraksha Yojna.
If Mr. Singh has always revelled in dialogue and repartee — even when he is at the receiving end — Mr. Chouhan, journalists in Bhopal concur, believes in monologue. At press conferences he delivers his message — as he did on Thursday when he introduced an entrant to the BJP from the Congress — and then departs without taking questions. The popular view is that the Congress lost elections in 2003 because Mr. Singh’s government failed in improving infrastructure — especially roads and power, sectors that have improved considerably under the BJP though not as much the party boasts of. Roads in the interior remain a traveller’s nightmare and remote areas still don’t have electricity. But equally, Mr. Singh’s Dalit Agenda proved too radical, local observers say. He sought to go beyond populism and his redistributive policies for Dalits and tribals, as Ms. Pai points out, and “questioned the existing political and hierarchical order….(that ) was not supported by his own party colleagues, many of whom were keen to obtain the support of the lower orders, but not at the cost of upsetting the traditional and feudal order.”
Today, the BJP has ensured — with some help from Mr. Singh’s colleagues — that the Congress’s only pan-MP face is reviled and isolated. Of course, his critics say, his penchant for “mischief” has also contributed to this state of affairs.
Mr. Chouhan is the soft face of the BJP, even willing to don a skull cap occasionally to demonstrate his secular credentials. .But if his USP outside the State is his perceived modesty, the gigantic party hoardings from which the Chief Minister gazes down at passers-by as you drive from Bhopal’s spiffy airport into the city hint at another story. In one, he bows reverentially, hands folded, the catchline reading: “Shasak nahin, sewak” (not your ruler but your care giver). But he does not share space on these billboards with any other party leader.
Mr. Chouhan, who took over as Chief Minister on November 29, 2005, political observers here say, has understood the importance of image-building. The BJP is willing to indulge Mr. Chouhan’s self-projection, with over a dozen ministers being investigated for corruption charges by the Lok Ayukta, and many sitting MLAs enjoying unsavoury reputations. At Jaistambh Chowk in Khargone district’s Kasrawad assembly constituency, for instance, local shopkeepers say victory or defeat for the BJP will depend on whether voters will think more of Mr. Chouhan or the local candidate, sitting MLA Atmaram Patel, who has become very unpopular. Today, if the BJP — as the opinion polls suggest — has an edge in Madhya Pradesh, it is because Mr. Chouhan has acquired a larger-than-life image, one not necessarily supported by his governance record. If the Congress is lagging behind, it is primarily because of the lack of unity among its leaders, partymen here admit. The Congress is now seeking to puncture Mr. Chouhan’s record by focusing on his friends and family members who have grown wealthy over the last eight years.