Modi is a leader, I'm a worker, says Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan
If Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi’s supporters are mesmerised by the power and authority he commands, his Madhya Pradesh counterpart seems on a mission to win hearts by placing himself at the opposite end.
There is an eye-catching ordinariness to Shivraj Singh Chouhan. Unflatteringly attired and low-key, he would be indistinguishable from his audience but for the gaggle of officials who dutifully follow him. Yet today, after eight years in office and looking to get a third term, the Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister has turned his understatedness into his USP. ‘Shivraj mama,’ as Mr. Chouhan calls himself, has been drawing incredible crowds on his State-wide Jan Ashirwad rally (rally to take people’s blessings).
I catch up with Mr. Chouhan at the inauguration of Madhya Pradesh’s newest and 51st district, Agar. The start is innocuous enough. The mid-sized audience is restive, and the speeches by sundry Bharatiya Janata Party functionaries are long and dreary. The Chief Minister’s own address is a recitation of what ‘Mama’ has achieved for his nieces and nephews: roads, water and 100 per cent electrification of villages besides dozens of welfare measures for the girl-child, and now also boys. Ladkon ne poocha, Mama, mama, mere liye kya? (the boys asked, ‘uncle, uncle, what do I get’?) He goes on to add that the poor in the State have a better deal than the sops promised in the Food Security Bill, while the aged can ask for anything from full medical reimbursement to supervised pilgrimages.
Once on the yatra bus, it is as if we’ve been hit by a human avalanche. The road is choked with people who are also up on trees and terraces. Hundreds more run after the bus, forming into a large, continuous procession, as the vehicle negotiates its way forward. We have covered a couple of kilometres and yet the crowds have not thinned. Throngs appear from various points, screaming, shouting and throwing marigold flowers through widows. It is also apparent why Mr. Chouhan is stuck on being ‘mama.’ The people chant the endearment, which is also on a score of ‘thank you’ placards.
I am curious about the abundance of marigold flowers. “How does everyone have these flowers?” I ask an official. He says people have bought them, though adds quickly, “look, what matters is the enthusiasm.” It is difficult to disagree with this argument. The flowers may have been supplied but surely no government could have manufactured the broad smiles visible all around us.
Mr. Chouhan sees his rapport with the ordinary citizen as his biggest achievement. “I don’t lecture from the pulpit. I’m there among people. I go into crowds, I’m one of them. And every scheme of mine is drawn up in consultation with them.”
Nobody on the official entourage directly mentions Mr. Modi. But there is repeated emphasis on the “people’s Chief Minister” as opposed to those “who keep their distance.” As Mr. Chouhan says:“I believe that in a democracy, the chief minister is for the people. The system is for people. You cannot be full of arrogance and ego.”
Mr. Chouhan is proud of the fact that Madhya Pradesh has transformed under him from a BIMARU State to a high performing State. “It is among the top States today with the highest agricultural growth in the country.” Naturally, this leads to a question on his national ambitions. “I don’t have national ambitions.” Asked why not, he says: “Modiji is a national leader. I’m a samanya karyakarta [ordinary worker].”
Mr. Chouhan admits to being a devout RSS follower, believing in Hindutva from the core of his heart. Yet he was spotted wearing the skull cap at a recent Eid celebration, where actor Raza Murad criticised Mr. Modi for refusing to wear the cap at an event in Gujarat. According to insiders in Mr. Chouhan’s circle, the move did not go down well with the parent party and the Sangh. Quizzed on this, Mr. Chouhan insists he did nothing wrong.
From the bus window, he spots a gathering of Muslim boys. Waving to them, he says: Aap ki topi, aap ki pagri, sar aankhon par. (I respect and cherish your topi).