Vishnu Deo Sai | Rising above the script

A tribal leader who cut his teeth in the RSS family, Vishnu Deo Sai has remained loyal to BJP and avoided controversies throughout his political journey

Updated - December 24, 2023 12:52 pm IST

Published - December 24, 2023 04:53 am IST

After finishing schooling, going to college was the next logical step for a young tribal man from the Jashpur region of the then undivided Madhya Pradesh in the 1980s, but Vishnu Deo Sai was forced to take over agricultural duties for his family instead. Now 59 years old, for Mr. Sai, this was one of many occasions where he had to abandon a set plan and take unexpected turns. However, each time, he managed to claw his way back in a journey whose latest pit stop is the Office of Chief Minister of Chhattisgarh.

His erstwhile aides and party colleagues recall how Mr. Sai, who hails from a political family in Jashpur, a tribal-dominated district that shares borders with areas of Odisha and Jharkhand having similar demographics, started going to Vanvasi Kalyan Ashrams in his younger days. These Ashrams, now spread across the country, first came up in Jashpur with support from the RSS in 1952. Their prime objective was checking the growing influence of Christian missionaries among the tribes in the region.

He became a village council member in 1990, and the sarpanch of his native village Bagia (unopposed) shortly thereafter. Having displayed his potential and organisational capabilities, Mr. Sai needed a mentor for his continued rise, and he found one in the late Dilip Singh Judev, a prominent member of the Jashpur royal family and a well-known anti-conversion crusader.

The palace, despite wielding considerable influence in Jashpur and the larger Surguja region, could not participate in electoral politics as most Assembly seats in the region and the Raigarh Lok Sabha seat are reserved for members of the ST community. The emergence of Mr. Sai, a tribal leader who had cut his teeth in the RSS family, thus suited the palace’s politics. From Mr. Sai’s perspective, it effectively meant that his rise from a Sarpanch to a BJP candidate in the Assembly polls of 1990 was swift.

“While my father was alive, he had made public statements about his wish to see Mr. Sai as a Chief Minister someday. Mr. Sai had worked among the tribals, displayed good organisational skills and was seen as a mild-mannered down to earth person,” says Prabal Pratap Singh Judev, the son of Dilip Singh Judev, who passed away in 2013.

These views are shared by leaders and workers across ranks within the BJP.

“His behaviour has been his biggest political asset. Whether he is dealing with party workers, or even members of the public in general, he extends the same kind of courtesy to everyone. Such bonds form over a period of time and keep adding to one’s stature and that’s what has happened to him,” says Bharat Singh, a BJP general secretary of Jashpur.

Yet, this has not been a journey without bumps, be it losing the first election in Chhattisgarh [2003], or being dropped as a sitting MP, or being replaced abruptly as the State president of the party. But his unflinching loyalty to the party and restrained responses to controversial issues have contributed to his rise.

EDITORIAL | Change in Chhattisgarh: On the new BJP government and the road ahead

External factor

Another contributing factor, and arguably one that overshadows any personal trait or skill, is external: Mr. Sai is a senior leader from the Surguja region. The BJP won all 14 seats in the northern tribal belt, a clear power-shifting factor. The Congress swept Surguja the last time and senior leaders from both the major parties hold the view that not rewarding T.S. Singh Deo, senior Congress leader and former Deputy CM “suitably”, also led to the Congress’s rout. The BJP has also done well in another tribal region in the State, Bastar, winning eight out of 12 seats. This performance has challenged the perception that tribals are a captive vote bank for the Congress in Central India. Notably, the Congress has done relatively better in the tribal belts of neighbouring Madhya Pradesh, where the overall gulf between the two parties is much wider.

As much as his tribal credentials and affable nature are being hailed, Mr. Sai is also perceived as someone who is less vocal when it comes to core and often contentious issues concerning tribal rights. Recently, when he was asked about issues such as opposition to mining in Hasdeo forests, or locals protesting against security camps in Bastar’s Silger, he responded by not addressing the issue but citing the welfare and development works done by the BJP.

And despite having been a Union Minister of State in the past, Mr. Sai’s administrative abilities will also be open to scrutiny as he and both his deputies — Arun Sao and Vijay Sharma — are first-time MLAs, and he is leading a Cabinet that has leaders who are senior to him. There is also the question of him coming out of the shadows of former CM and now Assembly Speaker, Raman Singh, whose imprint was visible on the candidate selection for the polls, and more recently, on the Cabinet expansion that took place on December 22.

Political commentator P.C. Hota, who has covered the State politics for two decades, says Mr. Sai can be assertive when needed and points out how he managed without an official secretary for the first one week. “Key decisions such as clearing the way for the construction of 18 lakh houses for rural poor were taken in that period. This was in sharp contrast with the previous government when former CM Bhupesh Baghel faced allegations of letting the bureaucracy run the show,” he says.

Shyam Yadav, a former school teacher from Jashpur whose association with Mr. Sai goes back a long way, says the latter can ensure turnarounds in adverse situations. He reminds how, having been denied the opportunity to go to college due to forced circumstances, Mr. Sai ensured that his younger brothers were well-educated and went on to get good government jobs.

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