Politics

Decoding Mamaji: What Makes Shivraj Singh Chouhan The Mainstay Of Madhya Pradesh's Politics

Tushar Gupta and Nishtha Anushree

Sep 14, 2023, 02:36 PM | Updated Dec 03, 2023, 10:57 AM IST


Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan.
Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan.
  • As Shivraj Singh Chouhan seeks a fifth term for himself as chief minister, here is a profile of the 'Mamaji' of Madhya Pradesh.
  • In December 2003, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won a landslide verdict in the Madhya Pradesh assembly election, ending the 10-year rule of Congress chief minister Digvijaya Singh that had earned him widespread infamy, especially for his government's abysmal failure in provisioning physical infrastructure. 

    The saffron party won a two-thirds majority with an impressive 42.5 per cent vote share riding on a groundswell generated by a "bijli (electricity), sadak (roads) and paani (water)" themed campaign.

    The BJP was led in that election by Sadhvi Uma Bharti, the charismatic sannyasin who combined grassroots appeal with a firebrand Hindutva image.

    With Uma Bharati's earthy persona adding charm to the allure of "bijli, sadak and paani" — along with anger over issues such as unemployment, poverty, and hunger — the ruling Congress was reduced to just 38 members in the 230-member assembly and its vote share to a mere 31 per cent. 

    Uma Bharti began her chief ministerial tenure in right earnest, but as someone who cut her teeth in agitational politics focussed on cultural and civilisational issues, her temperament for the nitty-gritty and the daily grind of governance was always in doubt.

    As political fate would have it, in August 2004, an arrest warrant was issued against her in the 1994 Hubli Idgah Maidan case, and Uma Bharti stepped down as the chief minister. 

    The late Babulal Gaur, Uma Bharati's choice, replaced her in the post. A party veteran and a long-time legislator, Gaur lacked the gravitas to provide the kind of leadership that the party was looking for, but he was nevertheless elevated to placate Uma Bharati.

    The BJP's national leadership still hoped that Gaur, a maverick politician credited for playing an instrumental role in the beautification of Bhopal city, would steady the ship and get to the task of governance. But the Gaur interregnum turned out to be forgettable.

    With relief on the Hubli case coming from a lower court, an increasingly restive Uma Bharti wanted to regain her mantle, but Gaur defiantly dug in his heels, exacerbating the internal friction in the party.

    By the middle of 2005, the euphoria of the spectacular 2003 electoral triumph had almost evaporated, as dissent, rebellion, and even brawls, caused the party endless embarrassment.

    Enter Shivraj Singh Chouhan

    In November 2005, the BJP high command, in a bid to end the bickering that was debilitating governance in the state, decided to make a fresh start by elevating Shivraj Singh Chouhan, a relatively little-known figure in state politics, to succeed Gaur as the Chief Minister. 

    Shivraj Singh Chouhan taking oath in 2005 (MP Raj Bhawan archives)
    Shivraj Singh Chouhan taking oath in 2005 (MP Raj Bhawan archives)

    Viewed then as a promising second-rung leader in the BJP with demonstrated mettle at the grassroots, his swift rise to the apex of state politics was not wholly a surprise given his proximity to the powerful triumvirate of Atal Bihari Vajpayee-L K Advani-Pramod Mahajan. It was known among party insiders that Chouhan was groomed for a bigger role in Madhya Pradesh.

    Born in Sehore district into a backward caste (Kirar) family with an agricultural background and a gold medallist with a Master's in Philosophy from Barkatullah University, Chouhan came under the ideological influence of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) during the Emergency. 

    Chouhan was also actively involved with student and youth wings of the BJP and held several posts in the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) and the Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha (BJYM). He became state president of the youth wing in 1988, rising later to become its national president.

    Chouhan was no mug with politics, winning his first assembly term at the relatively young age of 31. Chouhan later earned his spurs by winning five consecutive Lok Sabha elections from the Vidisha constituency. His only electoral loss came in the 2003 assembly elections, when he contested against the incumbent chief minister Digvijay Singh from Raghogarh.

    Though he had served the party in several important positions, Chouhan did not have any prior administrative experience when he became the Chief Minister in 2005.

    Even as the announcement was made of his appointment as CM, party workers clashed and threw chairs and tables at each other in public. Chaos reigned. To top it all, Uma Bharti was expelled from the party for "indiscipline".

    Angered over the perceived injustice meted out to her, the fiery sannyasin, launched a padayatra from Bhopal to Ayodhya to protest against the "hijacking of the party by a handful of individuals".

    It was amid such a tumultuous political atmosphere that Chouhan ascended to the top job.

    As a young chief minister — he was 46 when he took office — and one assigned with the arduous task of quelling internal party differences and stopping factional bickering, Chouhan had to hit the ground running and deliver quick results to cement his position.

    Seemingly unfazed by the challenges, Chouhan eased into the job and even began evolving his own 'governance' model. He turned to a slew of welfarist measures and focused on delivering on the party's original promise of "bijli, sadak and paani". 

    A smart and ambitious political operator, Chouhan calculated that by proving his administrative credentials and establishing control over the party apparatus in Madhya Pradesh, he could emerge as a leader in his own right in the state.

    Welfarist Touch And Making Of 'Mama'

    In his first term, Chouhan's low-profile, humble image and his easy accessibility combined with welfare schemes such as the Ladli Laxmi Yojana (under which financial assistance is given to a family at the birth of a girl child) and Kanyadaan Yojana (mass marriages) for girls from poor families endeared him to masses across castes and religions. 

    The Ladli Laxmi Yojana especially helped Chouhan gain immense popularity.

    Woman holding poster for Chouhan saying "thank you, dear brother" (Facebook)
    Woman holding poster for Chouhan saying "thank you, dear brother" (Facebook)

    Launched to create positive thinking about the girl child among the masses, the government-sponsored insurance scheme gave a sum of Rs 1 lakh to the girl child once she attained the age of 21, provided she was not married off before the legal age of marriage. The yojana made a massive difference in slowing down child marriages, improving girls' education and improving their health outcomes. 

    Chouhan also launched another game-changing cash incentive scheme to encourage women to go to hospitals for child delivery. Millions of women availed themselves of the incentive and the percentage of delivery in hospitals increased to 70 from 26. The scheme helped dramatically reduce the maternal mortality rate and infant mortality rate in Madhya Pradesh.

    Another major welfare initiative was promoting education among the girls from the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (SC/ST) community. Under the scheme, SC/ST girl students seeking admission to classes IX were given an incentive of Rs 1,000 and Rs 2,000 for the respective classes.

    (Facebook)
    (Facebook)

    With his signature welfare schemes resonating on the ground and armed with his accessible and affable persona, Chouhan affectionately turned into 'mama' (maternal uncle) in the popular imagination.

    Even his bitter political rivals tend to agree that this enduring image of a benevolent brother/uncle that he enjoys among the masses till this day makes him a formidable pole of Madhya Pradesh politics.

    Delivering On “Bijli, Sadak And Paani". 

    When Madhya Pradesh was bifurcated to create Chhattisgarh in 2000, almost all the power generation assets of the undivided state went to Chhattisgarh. Consequently, Madhya Pradesh faced long urban and rural power cuts from 2000 to 2003.

    Chouhan recognised that this emotive electoral issue from 2003 had to be addressed. He worked on increasing the power generation capacity within the state, tapping not just coal-based mega power plants but also commissioning hydro and renewable projects at scale.

    Between 2009 and 2013, Chouhan worked on signing advance power purchase agreements to be used only for the wheat crop, which has a cycle of 110 days in the winter months. The government asked farmers to pay about 60 per cent of their cost of power, paying the rest in subsidies, but guaranteed daily availability, selling more than three million 'winter connections'. 

    Since farmers had the mechanisation visibility on the back of assured power, they could invest in their farming operations with certainty, and consequently, the area under wheat cultivation rose by two million hectares per year almost every year in this period.

    This power was also used to operate a well-developed canal network to pump water to distant villages, enabling even small-scale farmers to show increased yields.

    Excess power was put to another interesting use in the state. While rest of the country still grappled with the environmental impact of river linking, Madhya Pradesh adopted a simple way to link the mighty Narmada river with Kshipra, a river which is important for the western part of the state. Narmada flows between two mountain ridges, while Kshipra originates on the other side of the northern flank of Narmada. 

    The Chouhan government invested in laying pipelines from Narmada to the origin point of Kshipra, pumping water up the mountain and then letting Kshipra take its normal course. This arrangement is operated reliably only because power availability is not an issue in the state.

    From the 'dark days' of Digvijaya Singh era, Madhya Pradesh turned into a power-surplus state and even used this surplus innovatively to create an agricultural revolution.

    In the early 1990s, if one travelled from Maharashtra, Gujarat or Rajasthan to Madhya Pradesh, one would know that they had entered MP as the ride became bumpy. The Madhya Pradesh roads — or rather, whatever existed of them — were hardly motorable.

    Over the years, Chouhan invested in creating a network of over 80,000 km of all-weather roads across the state. 

    Emerging Triumphant In 2008 Elections

    In the run-up to the 2008 state assembly election, the conventional political wisdom was that Chouhan-led BJP would struggle to return to power. Few political observers even predicted a comfortable majority for the opposition Congress pointing to a vertical split in the BJP vote bank with Uma Bharti's breakaway Bharatiya Janshakti Party (BJS). 

    During the campaign trail, Uma Bharti even proclaimed that her aim was not her party's victory but the defeat of Chouhan government.

    Many BJP leaders too were sceptical of the party's return as they feared Uma Bharti's sway over the voters, with her rallies drawing huge crowds when she crisscrossed the state during the campaign. But Chouhan was confident that he had done enough to ensure the party's return.

    And the verdict did not disappoint him. Chouhan led the BJP back to power, albeit with a slightly reduced majority.

    Despite his government being embroiled in a few controversies, Chouhan's 'untarnished' image and his success in delivering on his promises in the key areas of bijli (electricity), sadak (road) and paani (water) persuaded voters to re-elect him.

    Shivraj Singh Chouhan and Uma Bharti at an event in 2017 (Twitter)
    Shivraj Singh Chouhan and Uma Bharti at an event in 2017 (Twitter)

    In a relatively short span of time, Chouhan emerged as a credible and proven performer acceptable to most people who were still haunted by memories of the bad roads, long power cuts and poor water supply during Congress chief minister Digvijaya Singh's period.

    Madhya Pradesh No Longer A BIMARU State, Thanks To Chouhan's Agriculture Revolution

    Chouhan's biggest success story is in transforming the state's agriculture sector.

    In his first term, he began by focusing on each deficiency area at the input side of Madhya Pradesh's agricultural economy. At the macro level, Chouhan established an 'Agriculture Cabinet', focusing especially on the financials of the sector. This governance structure fixed individual ministerial and bureaucratic responsibility for various initiatives launched by the state government over the next few years. 

    The Chouhan government then started focusing on the financing of the cultivation process. New schemes were launched to provide interest-free loans with liberal principal payment terms for farmers. Chouhan also extended targeted subsidies for various factors of agricultural production, like seeds, fertilisers and farm equipment. 

    The state government worked in parallel to solve the irrigation and water availability problems to risk-proof farmers from the vagaries of monsoons. While the Digvijaya Singh government had launched the 'paani roko' programme in 2002-03 after two successive monsoons failed, the initiative was neither scaled nor funded and as a consequence, local water bodies and traditional storage structures had been rendered unusable by 2006-07.

    Chouhan started clearing the backlog of various stalled irrigation programmes and promoting water harvesting and conservation at the micro level.

    By 2017, Madhya Pradesh could boast of almost 3 million hectares of irrigated land, a three and a half times increase over the previous eight years. 

    The success of the water management programmes of the state was also acknowledged widely. Dewas model — named after the water conservation programme launched in the Dewas district of Madhya Pradesh — epitomised the success story with farmers from Maharashtra and Rajasthan travelling to Dewas to understand micro-irrigation techniques better. 

    The results of this improvement in agrarian infrastructure were visible in 2011-12, when Madhya Pradesh replaced Punjab as the grain bowl of India, producing almost 20 million tonnes of grains. This achievement was recognised by the then United Progressive Alliance government, awarding Chouhan the 'Krishi Karman' award for the year. 

    The Narmadapuram division formed in 2008, comprising the districts of Hoshangabad, Harda and Betul, emerged as the national hub for wheat cultivation, also benefitting from the administrative freedom it got after being recognised as a separate division.

    In the adjoining districts of Raisen and Narsingpur, the government moved farmers from the failing soybean crop to paddy, providing assistance for growing long-grain rice. The productivity of paddy growth in these districts has improved multifold, with several farmers supplying their produce for exports to food processing firms.

    As the basics of the agriculture economy fell into place, the state shifted its focus to new initiatives, which were more technology-intensive and complementary to the pan-Indian agriculture revamp efforts. The government identified almost 900 clusters for promoting organic farming, with each cluster of about 20 hectares being developed as a chemical-free area for high-yield crops.

    The turnaround the Chouhan government scripted on agriculture remains unprecedented, almost comparable to the Green Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. Away from the prying eyes of national media, the government scripted a wonderful and inspiring economic success story.

    The days of Madhya Pradesh being recognised as one of the BIMARU states for its economic 'sickness' and backwardness now seem far back in the past, with the state making giant strides in improving its economic health.

    2013 Victory: Chouhan's Greatest Political Moment Yet

    Unlike in 2008, a third straight victory for the BJP in the 2013 Madhya Pradesh elections was almost a foregone conclusion. The only uncertainty about the outcome being the seat tally that Chouhan could deliver for the party.  

    (Facebook)
    (Facebook)

    In 2013, the BJP won for the third consecutive time in the state with 165 seats thanks to the larger-than-life image of Chouhan in the state political landscape and the Narendra Modi wave that was beginning to sweep national politics.

    The landslide win in 2013 was attributed to the Chouhan government's phenomenal work in agriculture, which transformed the state's fortunes.

    Chouhan's Attempt To Shift Gears And Partial Success

    Chouhan then began his third tenure with the realisation that significant strides made in agriculture in the last few years are necessary to turn the wheel of fortune but not sufficient.

    The economic roadmap ahead for the state was clear. It needed to focus increasingly on promoting specific areas of manufacturing, industry, and services to make that decisive shift away from the laggard pack of landlocked northern states.

    To his credit, Chouhan covered some ground to ensure Madhya Pradesh does not remain a one-trick pony.

    The Chief Minister hosted a series of global investor summits. He travelled across the Indian metros and foreign lands seeking new investments. A new industrial policy for the medium, small and micro enterprises (MSMEs) sector was unveiled. 

    Over the years, Chouhan managed to persuade IT (information technology) service leaders like Tata Consultancy Services and Infosys to evaluate the state as an outsourcing destination. He attempted to position Indore as a fintech hub. 

    The state also invested in some creative marketing campaigns around tourism and backed up these campaigns with customised outreach programmes.

    Yet, this was merely scratching the surface, considering the deeply rooted agrarian identity and mindset within the state.

    To ensure that the share of agriculture, currently around 45 per cent of the gross state domestic product (GSDP), falls below 30 per cent over the next few years, Chouhan understood that industry, manufacturing, and services had to grow at breakneck speed, given that the state would continue to witness strong agriculture growth on the back of the efforts of the last decade.

    He also displayed a special commitment towards urban development to break away from the perception of him being a rural focussed leader. 

    In the Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan, Indore and Bhopal have consistently maintained the top positions for years. During election campaigns, Chouhan has often showcased his government's role in the cleanliness campaign across urban Madhya Pradesh.

    Chouhan also launched metro projects in Indore and Bhopal in his third term. The projects are now nearing completion.

    His concerted efforts to expand his focus beyond agriculture were evidently driven by the recognition that in order to fulfill the aspirations of the state's youth, the service and industrial sectors must also be developed.

    Unlike the unqualified success in ushering in an agricultural revolution, Chouhan could achieve only limited success in industrialisation and building a service sector in the state. Urban infrastructure projects typically have a long gestation period with no immediate benefits.

    Political Challenges And 2018 Verdict

    In his third term, Chouhan also faced several political challenges that slowly began to cast a shadow on an aura of invincibility.

    In June 2017, at least five farmers were killed and several injured in Mandsaur when state police fired on protesters demanding better prices in the drought-ravaged region that was the epicentre of agrarian distress that unfolded that year. 

    Chouhan immediately attempted to resolve the situation by assuring farmers about purchasing onions for Rs 8 per kg and announcing Rs 1,000 crore price stabilisation fund in scenarios where prices destabilise following a bumper crop. However, prolonged farmer agitation queered the pitch for the incumbent government.

    Sensing discontent brewing among the farmers, the opposition Congress promised loan waivers. The party announced that its government would write off the loans within 10 days of assuming power. It also promised doles to unemployed youth.

    The BJP government also faced a challenge of upper caste anger in the 2018 assembly elections over the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Amendment Act. In March 2018, the Supreme Court diluted stringent provisions for arrests under SC/ST Act to ensure there were no false implications. 

    After nationwide protests against the order by SC/ST organisations, the Parliament passed a bill in August 2018 that effectively overturned the SC order.

    While Congress looked set to wrest back power, capitalising on the fatigue factor and anger among a section of traditional BJP voters, the combative Chouhan refused to go down without a fight as he led the BJP campaign from the front.

    Despite predictions of a facile victory for Congress, the election was a close race. The BJP ended up with 109 seats to Congress's 114 — below the majority mark of 116 in the 230-member assembly. On vote share, the ruling BJP polled nearly 0.1 per cent more than the Congress (the Congress polled 40.9 per cent of the vote, marginally behind the BJP's 41 per cent).

    Shivraj Singh Chouhan (L) and Kamal Nath (Facebook)
    Shivraj Singh Chouhan (L) and Kamal Nath (Facebook)

    Even a cursory analysis of the 2018 assembly election verdict will reveal that Congress's loan waiver promise found resonance in the farm belt of Malwa Nimar, a traditional BJP stronghold, where it reduced the saffron party's tally to 28 from 56 and captured 35 of the 66 assembly seats.

    The agitation over the SC/ST Amendment Act was also adroitly exploited by the Congress in the Gwalior-Chambal region, where they make up more than 20 per cent of the population.

    After helming the states for 13 years, Chouhan stepped down, acknowledging the people's mandate, and said that his party would not attempt to form the next government in the state despite the opposition Congress being unable to win a clear majority. 

    BJP's 2019 National Election Win And Chouhan's Comeback in 2020

    The 2019 national election triggered a tectonic change in the state politics.

    The BJP staged a remarkable recovery, winning 28 of the 29 Lok Sabha seats and polling a staggering 58 per cent, while the Congress slumped to 34.5 per cent. Prime Minister Modi's astounding popularity in the state built on Pradhan Mantri Gramin Awas Yojana, the Ujjwala Yojana, and a dozen other welfare programmes targeting the girl child and tribal people created enormous goodwill for the party, and a strong BJP local machinery was able to reap the whirlwind.

    Riven by internal dissension and dwindling popularity over the inability to deliver on promises, the Congress government of Kamal Nath fell in March 2020, when 22 sitting Congress MLAs, led by Jyotiraditya Scindia, defected to the BJP, paving the way for the return of the saffron party to power.

    Shivraj Singh Chouhan and Jyotiraditya Scindia at an event in Gwalior (Facebook)
    Shivraj Singh Chouhan and Jyotiraditya Scindia at an event in Gwalior (Facebook)

    While rumours swirled around the power corridors that the BJP may entrust the chief ministerial role to a new face, it was inevitable that Chouhan would be picked again.

    The government formation in Madhya Pradesh was in the backdrop of the unfolding global Covid-19 pandemic. Chouhan's administrative acumen and crisis management skills were critical to navigating the grave situation.

    Covid Crisis

    Like elsewhere in the country, the state also saw shortages of hospital beds, oxygen and medicine. The Chouhan government came in for criticism but quickly responded with a cohesive relief plan.

    His government launched a series of measures to help the Covid affected, including CM Covid Bal Kalyan Scheme, CM Covid Treatment Scheme, CM Covid-19 Vishesh Anugrah Yojana and CM Covid-19 Yoddha Kalyan Yojana. Chouhan also announced the extension of loan repayment dates for farmers, free rations for three months to public distribution system (PDS) beneficiaries, financial assistance to construction workers and aid to rural and urban street vendors.

    He also led a successful vaccination campaign. On 21 June 2021, the state vaccinated over 16 lakh people in 24 hours. Two days later, the state vaccinated another 11 lakh people.

    In the run-up to the mega vaccination drive, the Chief Minister visited villages, interacting with people one-on-one to encourage them to participate in the programme.

    Even with his efforts focused on Covid crisis management, Chouhan demonstrated his political acumen by leading BJP to victory in 19 of the 28 seats that went to bypoll in the state, helping the party achieve a majority in the assembly. Byelections to 22 of the 28 were to fill vacancies after Congress MLAs loyal to Scindia quit, triggering the fall of the Kamal Nath government.

    2023 Assembly Elections

    The prolonged Covid crisis also meant that Chouhan could not pursue some of the unfinished agenda he set sight on in his third term.

    Sensing another fight on the hands in the upcoming assembly elections, he has made several announcements for women voters, a constituency widely considered as forming his core support base. 

    With freebies proving to be a potent electoral weapon for the Congress in recent Karnataka  assembly elections, Chouhan has attempted to pre-empt any advantage to the opposition by announcing and implementing a slew of welfare measures.

    About 1.25 crore women in the state now receive Rs 1,000 monthly under the Ladli Behan Yojana. This amount will be increased to Rs 1,250 from October. Also, an additional amount of Rs 250 and gas cylinders for Rs 450 were given in the month of Sawan as a Rakhi gift. 

    Chouhan also plans to provide a gas cylinder every month for Rs 450. In May, the BJP government launched a farm loan interest waiver scheme that is expected to benefit over 11 lakh farmers in the state.

    Ace Psephologist Pradeep Gupta recently suggested that BJP has "an edge" in the upcoming Madhya Pradesh assembly elections.

    "Usually, anti-incumbency is seen as a major reason for any government's ouster, and this was the reason why people voted the Congress to power in 2018. However, this time there is not much anti-incumbency," Gupta hinted.

    In the 2023 elections, Chouhan confronts the challenge of combatting the weariness stemming from nearly two decades of uninterrupted rule by the same party in the state, coupled with murmurs suggesting he may be running low on innovative approaches. But Chouhan has defied such predictions in the past and has emerged stronger from every political crisis he has faced.

    Chouhan at a temple in Madhya Pradesh (Facebook)
    Chouhan at a temple in Madhya Pradesh (Facebook)

    Irrespective of the results of the electoral battles down the road, Chouhan has already left an indelible mark in transforming Madhya Pradesh — a process he started almost two decades ago.


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