The Madhya Pradesh chief minister’s yatras have been a mix of political, official and religious engagements.
‘When in doubt, undertake a yatra’. That is the motto of Madhya Pradesh chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan.
From December 2016 to 2017, Chouhan went on five yatras: the Narmada Seva Yatra, the Jan Vishwas Yatra, Madhya Pradesh Vikas Yatra, Kisan Sandesh Yatra and Adivasi Vikas Yatra.
His latest is a 55-day long Jan Ashirwad Yatra atop a remodelled bus-turned-chariot to kick off his “do or die” battle for November 2018 state assembly polls. The BJP has been in power in the state since 2003 and Chouhan holds the distinction of being the longest serving chief minister, ahead of Congress stalwarts like Digvijaya Singh, Arjun Singh, Shyama Charan Shukla and D.P. Mishra.
Tough election ahead
But the upcoming state polls are not going to be easy for Chouhan. A CSDS opinion poll for ABP News in May indicated that the Congress has 15 per cent vote share lead over the ruling BJP. The issues that are likely to work against him include the huge farmers’ unrest and corruption scams such as the multi-crore Vyapam (Madhya Pradesh Vyavsayik Pariksha Mandal in Hindi).
Chouhan wants to leave nothing to chance and picked an auspicious date and time to start his latest yatra. A select band of priests even advised Chouhan to match the date of his yatra with ‘Jagannath Yatra’ in Puri, Odisha.
Chouhan has led dozens of yatras in his 13-year tenure. However, there is a cloud of uncertainty over the exact number of days spent on these yatras. Chouhan’s office and state bureaucracy are unwilling to furnish details because the chief minister’s yatra days have been a mix of political, official and religious engagements.
During some of these yatras, Chouhan often travelled back and forth from Bhopal to yatra destination. He would return to the state capital to preside over a cabinet meeting and then head back to a spot to inaugurate some government project and resume the yatra. Many a times, he would come back to spend the night with his family in the comforts of his 6, Shyamla Hills residence, overlooking the serene Bhopal lake or ‘bada talab’.
Not so pleasant experiences
The only time Chouhan suffered a setback of sorts in his yatras was in July-August 2015 when he was facing intense political heat over Vyapam scam. Chouhan planned to undertake a ‘Swabhiman Yatra’ to convince citizens across the state that he was the actual whistleblower in Vyapam and that he had acted on booking the accused. He even made an announcement about the yatra and said Madhya Pradesh was being defamed. But at an informal level, BJP national president Amit Shah advised him to not go ahead. The plan was quietly shelved.
In July 2017, Chouhan’s party MLAs were told by a hostile group of farmers to stay away from their areas. This was just a month after police firing in Mandsaur had left six farmers dead. The agitated farmers blocked the Kisan Sandesh Yatra, a state-wide campaign that Chouhan had launched.
Chouhan had lost his cool on one occasion when he was holding a road show at Sardarpur tehsil in Dhar district of the state in January. The purported video recording showed Chouhan slapping a young man in a coat who turned out to be chief minister’s security guard. Chouhan, however, later justified his action saying he would not allow anyone to come between him and the masses.
Launch pad for son
Chouhan’s Narmada Yatra last year marked the political emergence of his son Kartikey who was seen escorting spiritual leaders Morari Bapu and Kamal Kishore Nagar and holding a saffron flag. A law graduate from Symbiosis Law School, Pune, he addressed the crowd during his father’s yatra in the presence of several state cabinet ministers, spiritual and religious leaders.
Although most yatras are taken out by the BJP, Chouhan government actively contributes by organising inauguration ceremonies, crop insurance schemes, prizes for meritorious students as part of the yatra action.
Nobody in the state has demanded to know who is paying for these yatras. It’s masked as a clever mix of government and party activities, making it easy to cloud the source of expenses.
Between December 2017 and January 2018, Chouhan undertook Ekatma Yatra, ostensibly, to collect metal for building a 108-foot tall statue of Adi Shankaracharya at Omkareshwar in Khandwa district of Madhya Pradesh. The yatra courted numerous controversies as several district collectors and officials were spotted actively participating in it. As per government service conduct rules, state officials are supposed to stay away from any political or religious yatra.
Connect with voters
Girja Shankar, veteran journalist considered close to the chief minister and his wife, says Chouhan has an insatiable hunger to interact with people on the ground. During the yatras, Chouhan has even left his meals midway because people turned up unexpectedly.
The yatras, says Shankar, give Chouhan a “live” connect with the masses and provide first-hand political feedback. He does not depend on the party to brief him about political workers in a particular constituency or a district. In most cases, Chouhan would know over two dozen influential persons on their first name basis all over the state.
On a larger political canvas, yatras have been an integral part of the BJP’s political journey. Barely five years after the Jan Sangh and its allied organisations regrouped as the Bhartiya Janata Party, it could win only two seats in the 1984 Lok Sabha polls with bigwigs including Atal Bihari Vajpayee losing the election. In 1990, it was the Ayodhya Rath Yatra led by Lal Krishna Advani that helped the BJP tally go up to 119 in 1991 Lok Sabha polls. Another half a dozen yatras between 1991 and 1998 shored up the BJP’s prospects.
Madhya Pradesh isn’t Gujarat
Through his yatras, Chouhan is also trying to emulate Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s success in leading the “Gaurav Yatra,” when he was the chief minister of Gujarat. The Gaurav Yatra was held a few months after February 2002 Godhra train burning and the communal carnage.
Modi, under flak over his failure to check communal violence, had kicked off his yatra with a scathing attack on former Congress president Sonia Gandhi for giving Gujarat a bad name. The Gaurav Yatra was conceived to “re-establish the pride of the Gujarati people”. Modi also took out Vivekananda Yuva Vikas Yatra in 2012, wherein he travelled across Gujarat.
Closer to the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, he toured the country and addressed 185 rallies as part of ‘Bharat Vijay’ rallies.
But Madhya Pradesh is not Gujarat, and Chouhan is not Modi. Unlike Gujarat, the opposition in Madhya Pradesh is a lot more robust and united.
Rasheed Kidwai is an ORF visiting fellow, author and journalist. The views expressed here are his own.
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