Bhopal: From threatening to “bury” land mafia to making forced religious conversions illegal, Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan seems to have undergone a complete makeover in terms of his persona and governance style in his fourth term in office.
Chouhan, a soft-spoken man with a moderate image, suddenly seems to have switched tracks to hardline Hindutva, which BJP leaders and political observers say is a deliberate move — a survival tactic in the face of other influential figures in the party such as Jyotiraditya Scindia and Kailash Vijayvargiya.
At a public meeting on 26 December at Babai in Hoshangabad district, Chouhan’s new tone was directed at the land mafia. “Sun lo re… Madhya Pradesh chhod dena, nahin toh zameen mein gaad dunga 10 foot (Mark my words, leave Madhya Pradesh or I will bury you 10 feet under),” he said.
That was the same day Chouhan’s Madhya Pradesh cabinet gave its nod to the anti-conversion ordinance that makes forced religious conversion for marriage a non-bailable offence, similar to the ordinance issued by Yogi Adityanath’s Uttar Pradesh government.
That same week, Shivraj Chouhan said stern action and a law were needed against those who indulge in stone-pelting, after violence was reported from Ujjain, Indore and Mandsaur districts during rallies organised to spread awareness about the donation drive for the Ram Mandir under construction in Ayodhya. Several Hindu Right-wing organisations such as the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) and Bajrang Dal had claimed that stones were pelted at them during the rallies.
“Just like Modi, Shivraj Singh Chouhan is also a brand, albeit to a different degree. Unlike the past 15 years, when he called the shots, this time, he has to take collective decisions as Scindia, (state Home Minister) Narottam Mishra and Kailash Vijayvargiya have to be kept in good humour,” said a senior Congress leader in Madhya Pradesh, who did not want to be named.
“The burden of this has started appearing in his mannerisms. He is known as a soft-spoken, conscientious politician. But he is trying to show his party that he can shed the image of the moderate and become a hardcore Hindutva leader if need be,” the leader said.
What has impacted Chouhan’s behaviour
A number of senior BJP leaders ThePrint spoke to said the nature of the 2018 mandate was different from the past, which is why Chouhan’s actions are different too.
“There is a nature of every mandate, which gets reflected in the action of the leader. In the case of Shivraj Chouhan, despite being in power for 15 years, he was unable to get a clear mandate (the Congress formed the government after winning five more seats than the BJP). This is something that not only stays in the minds of the people, but Shivraj too. He knows he is the CM today because of Scindia (defecting from the Congress and toppling Kamal Nath’s government). This is what is impacting his behaviour; he can’t run away from it,” a senior BJP leader said.
The leader also drew a parallel to Bihar, where Nitish Kumar is serving his fourth term as CM, in alliance with the BJP.
“Both Nitish Kumar and Shivraj Singh Chouhan are passing through a new phase in politics. Kumar is leading a front where his party is in the minority but he is the CM. He will always try to prove himself and justify his chief ministership,” the leader said.
Rahul Verma, political scientist and fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, also mentioned the change of mandate, and said there were three reasons for Chouhan’s different behaviour.
“Shivraj Chouhan does not enjoy the same mandate he had in previous terms, and hence, there is a sense of unease and insecurity. This only got aggravated when in 2020 he was no longer the main contender as rumour mills were abuzz that Scindia and Kailash Vijayvargiya were also being considered (for chief ministership),” Verma said. “So, despite being a three-time CM and a popular leader, Chouhan now seems to be displaying an aggressive Hindutva stance to please the core of the BJP and the RSS. It seems that he believes that if the core is happy, his CMship is safe.”
Another worry for him, according to Verma, is that the popularity graph of Yogi Adityanath is rising rapidly. “Chouhan, who was once in the race for being the PM before Narendra Modi’s name was announced, is now in a situation where even his CM chair is not safe,” he said.
“Though it is far-fetched, some people believe that the change in his behaviour may have been prompted by his desire to still be considered for the PM race in the post-Modi era. However, the most important aspect for me is that politicians often behave like normal human beings. They do sulk when they are unhappy. Chouhan thinks that despite his governance record, voters did not reward him in 2018,” Verma added.
Voters are noticing
When the ThePrint recently visited violence-hit Ujjain, Indore and Mandsaur, voters could also be seen following Chouhan’s change of tack.
“We never used to talk about Hindu-Muslim the way it is happening now. There might have been small incidents, but the way things have changed is unprecedented. As far as Shivraj Singh Chouhan is concerned, he has always been like (former PM Atal Bihari) Vajpayee — moderate and affable. But we are not able to recognise him anymore,” said a Muslim religious leader from Ujjain, who did not wish to be named.
“Chouhan’s language, gestures, and even his policies seem to be designed to appease the majority population. He seems to be under some pressure to prove a point — whether to himself or to his party I can’t say,” the religious leader said.
However, a section of the people ThePrint spoke to are happy with Chouhan’s new image.
“He is talking about making Madhya Pradesh safe and secure. He is taking action against the land mafia. He is not even shying away from taking action against those indulging in ‘love jihad’, which might not be a major issue in Madhya Pradesh now but can spread tentacles here too in future. Sometimes, it is better to get angry too,” said Yogesh Kumar, a resident of Indore.