Newsmaker: Great Survivor

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When Bharatiya Janata Party patriarch Lal Krishna Advani suggested that Madhya Pradesh’s three-time BJP chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan could also be the party's candidate for prime ministership in 2014, it had seemed at once an odd suggestion but then, not an implausible one either. Odd because compared with Narendra Modi’s nationwide appeal, his standing as Hindu Hriday Samrat, and his flowing oratory, Chouhan had seemed dour, nitpicking and too much of a local leader. However, seeing his track record on the electoral front – a five-time MP, before becoming chief minister – and his work in Madhya Pradesh, which was better off than Gujarat at the time for making drinking water available across the state, a lower infant mortality and lower school droupout rate, the suggestion had not seemed implausible.

Chouhan has one another attribute: the ability to ride the tough times and come through without a crease on his immaculately ironed Nehru jacket. His ally in this is actually what many would see as a weakness. It is his retincence to speak more than is necessary. He is more comfortable when amiably reeling off statistics on state government projects than making impassioned submissions of innocence.

Over the last fortnight or so, however, with farmers agitating across the state, he has faced what is perhaps the most tenacious test of his instinct for political survival. The police firing in Mandsaur killed five farmers and erased a chunk of his political capital. Things were spinning out of control, when in an unusual and desperate measure, Chouhan employed a classic Gandhian weapon to bring peace: a fast-unto-death. For a while, and following a visit later to meet the families of the victims, the farmers kept the peace. The violence has, however, returned and farmers resumed their agitation on farm loan waiver and a host of other demands.

As for the ‘fast-unto-death’, though, there are reports that it had not been undertaken in the essential Gandhian way. A tent had been erected for the chief minister and barring the absence of food, from which he kept away because of the fast, he was not much deprived of the everyday comforts that chief ministers are generally used to.

There is work to be done to prevent another flare-up. This means farm loan waiver and higher MSP for farm produce and easy credit. And he has to do everything quickly. All this will drive a hole in the state’s budget as the Union finance minister has been clear that farm loan waivers are the headache of the states and he has no money for that, thank you. Till the clouds blow over and the farmers start making money, Chouhan would do well to keep his fingers crossed. The Indian kisan is a combustible entity and he wastes little time in turning political prospects to ash.

Chouhan’s reputation for walking through political minefields has been built on his handling of the Vyapam scam. The chief minister, at most times, has been equal to the task, sometimes using the convenient tool of an inquiry to buy time, at others tackling the matter politically. But, the scam appears to have a life of its own, emerging at will and unexpectedly to dog him. Late last month, a CAG report said that the auditor had been denied access to Vyapam records in 2015 and 2016, which the Opposition Congress party promised to exploit. It levelled corruption charges and tried to taunt the BJP central leadership to act against the Madhya Pradesh chief minister. Before it could get out of hand, came the farmers’ agitation. There is now another test round the corner: the bypolls in Bandhavgarh and Ater. They will show whether his magic still holds.

For a three-term chief minister, Chouhan has had a fare share of problems to contend with. The farmers’ agitation and the Vyapam scam did not come close to home. But, the so-called dumper scam did, where dumpers or trucks were hired by a company from his wife, Sadhna Singh’s firm. For a while, it seemed that he would be singed by the allegations and the explosive-tipped arrow appeared to have hit home. But, he brazened it out. The matter was eventually thrown out by the courts.

Chouhan’s art of survival goes beyond riding out scams and farmers’ agitations. For a top line state, in the context of the clout it wields nationally, there is a premium attached to the chief ministerial chair. Madhya Pradesh, for sure, has several political heavyweights and Chouhan has had to contend with them. Former chief minister and now Union minister Uma Bharti has been an important factor in state politics and a reminder to Chouhan that for one reason or the other he needs to look over his shoulder. There is perhaps no longer a prospect that she will return to state politics but the firebrand BJP leader’s capacity to challenge and remain a force outside the party apparatus remains undiminished. But that cannot be said of others, like Kailash Vijayvargiya, a powerful and ambitious politician by all accounts against whom Chouhan has had to stay vigilant.

The next big test for Chouhan will be 2018, when he will possibly seek a fourth term. So far he has had a strong hold on state politics. But, 2013, when he last fought for elections, was an altogether different era in the BJP. Modi and Amit Shah were not at the helm of affairs in the BJP. Their rise in national politics could introduce a variable element to Chouhan's future. Besides, there are conspiracy theories that unsolicited suggestions over his candidature for prime ministership in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections and his own assertions that Madhya Pradesh had bettered Gujarat on key human development indices may have robbed him of some brownie points with the top BJP leadership. But, he is no pushover and at the moment the tallest politician in the state.


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