New Delhi: On a July afternoon in 2017, a group of Congress workers gathered in Shivpuri to burn the effigy of Narottam Mishra, then the water resources and information & public relations minister of Madhya Pradesh. The Congress demanded Mishra’s removal from the Shivraj Singh Chouhan-led government after the Election Commission disqualified him from the assembly the previous month for allegedly filing the wrong expenditure statement, which didn’t reflect expenses on ‘paid news’ in the 2008 assembly elections.
As Congress workers in Shivpuri poured petrol on the effigy and were about to set it on fire, a 26-year-old woman, Poonam Purohit, lunged for it. She embraced the effigy and wouldn’t let it go. After several minutes of jostling with her, exasperated Congress workers left the scene. As it turned out, Poonam was a cancer patient and Mishra, in his previous capacity as health minister, had facilitated her medical treatment and kept helping her financially.
Four years on, Mishra, who has won all but one assembly election since 1990, continues to make headlines — albeit no longer for playing the Good Samaritan. The Delhi High Court had set aside the EC’s disqualification order, but the matter is sub judice in the Supreme Court.
Nowadays, Mishra, home minister and virtually the number two person in Chouhan’s government, is more in the news for stoking controversies, the latest being his diktat to film-maker Prakash Jha to consider renaming his web series, Aashram, “considering the spirit of the majority society”, after a group of Bajrang Dal activists vandalised Jha’s set in Bhopal and smeared his face with ink.
Mishra announced that film or web-series makers would now have to get their scripts cleared by the district administration in MP, “if there are objectionable scenes that hurt the sentiments of any religion”.
Mishra also asked Dabur to withdraw its advertisement showing a same-sex couple celebrating Karwa Chauth.
In August, when a mob had beaten up a Muslim bangle-seller in Indore, Mishra had sought to justify it, saying that when a man hides his name and religion — as the victim allegedly did — “bitterness” comes in.
So, what has changed Mishra’s image into that of a polarising figure today?
“He believes in zamaana hardliners ka hai aur ab unka time hai (this is the era of hardliners),” said a senior BJP leader.
‘Protector of Hindu religion and culture’
Mishra, who is always clad in kurta-pyjama and wears tilak on his forehead, has been showing an increasing penchant for controversies. He piloted the anti-conversion bill in the MP assembly, and, after its passage, declared that he would oppose “any love that leads to jihad”.
Last November, he ordered action against the web-series A Suitable Boy for a kissing scene in a temple. A few weeks later, he likened Congress president Sonia Gandhi with Kaikeyi from the Ramayana.
Multiple BJP leaders ThePrint spoke to are of the view that Mishra’s projection as a protector of Hindu religion and culture is a well-crafted strategy to please the party brass, and its ideological patron, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). A known Brahmin face of the party in MP, Mishra, 61, does not come from a political family, and made his own way up the ladder. He also didn’t have any ideological grooming in the RSS.
At a time when the party high command is seen to be promoting a new crop of leaders in states and looking beyond Shivraj Chouhan, Mishra may be fancying his chances and is accordingly trying to place himself as a Hindutva proponent, say BJP leaders. He was Chouhan’s confidant at one point of time but now he has moved on to join the inner circles of central leaders such as Amit Shah.
While Chouhan was instrumental in Jyotiraditya Scindia’s defection from the Congress, which led to the fall of the Kamal Nath government, Mishra also played an important role in what’s known as ‘Operation Kamal’ in political circles.
“He made it a point to stay put in a Gurugram hotel with rebel Congress MLAs for 10 days. He was also instrumental in managing logistics and arranging a flight for them to Bhopal,” said a senior BJP leader.
Mishra’s party colleagues, however, admire his ‘grassroots connect’. “He knows the pulse of the people. His residence is one place where you will always see workers sitting around even when he is not present,” said a senior BJP functionary.
However, political commentator and writer Rasheed Kidwai said: “Some of his remarks are blatantly provocative, and the political masters should be taking note of it. He’s an eager person and wants to show that he has arrived. Issues of propriety are no longer weighed in but these statements need to be checked.”
‘Making things difficult for Shivraj Chouhan’
Mishra cut his teeth in politics as a member of the BJP Yuva Morcha, and went on to become a minister in the Babulal Gaur-led government in 2005. He has been part of every government since then, except for a few months in 2008-2009 when he unsuccessfully contested the Lok Sabha elections against Jyotiraditya Scindia in Guna.
“He might not have become the CM after the fall of the Kamal Nath government, but he is making things difficult for Chouhan. At cabinet meetings, he raises a number of queries, much to the visible discomfort of the CM. These instances are quite talked-about in the power corridors,” said a BJP insider.
“Probably, he realised that the absence of an RSS background would go against him whenever there is a change of guard in Bhopal. He is a prominent Brahmin face of the party, but he must take a hardline turn to prove his Hindutva credentials,” the insider added.
Party leaders say when Amit Shah visited Madhya Pradesh for the first time after becoming BJP president in 2017, a lunch was organised for senior editors, and it was Narottam Mishra who hosted it. That, many in the party believe, was an early sign of Mishra’s equation with the party high command.
He hasn’t looked back since. The fact that both Mishra and Scindia were included in the BJP’s national executive this month says a lot about the state home minister’s rising stature in the party hierarchy.
(Edited by Shreyas Sharma)