Bhopal: Shivraj Singh Chouhan used to be one of the few BJP chief ministers who projected a ‘secular’ image — from donning a skullcap to organising iftar parties. The version of Hindutva pushed by his governments between 2005 and 2018 was much more subtle than in other parts of the country.
But within days of winning 19 seats in the Madhya Pradesh assembly by-elections and securing a comfortable majority, Chouhan seems to have embraced hardline Hindutva on some controversial issues. His government has proposed a law providing stringent punishment for ‘love jihad’, initiated legal proceedings against Netflix for showing scenes featuring kissing in a temple in the series A Suitable Boy, and announced a slew of measures to protect the cow.
On 20 November, Chouhan hurriedly called a press conference to slam the People’s Alliance for Gupkar Declaration, a group formed by opposition parties in Jammu and Kashmir, and asked why Sonia Gandhi “kept crying through the night” over the 2008 Batla House encounter in Delhi. This was a marked departure from his usual language and tone, and he also refused to take questions on other issues.
Secularism on his sleeve
Senior Congress leader Chandraprabhash Shekhar accused Chouhan and the BJP of “always playing divisive politics to create tensions between communities”, but the 61-year-old Chouhan has rarely taken aggressive postures. The four-time CM once wore secularism on his sleeve by attending and organising iftar parties at the CM House, and donning a skull cap when most other BJP leaders avoided it.
Chouhan took his secular image so seriously ahead of the 2013 assembly elections that he “adopted” — personally taken charge of — the Bhopal Uttar constituency, which has a substantial Muslim population. The BJP still lost the seat to Congress leader Arif Aqueel, but not without putting up a tough fight.
Chouhan’s promotion of Hindutva was subtle, taking care not to offend other communities. His community initiatives for Hindus didn’t impact his image as a moderate leader. A mere hint of protest or opposition would make him scale down parts that were found objectionable.
But his sudden aggressive Hindutva pitch has set rumours afloat — is he pandering to the BJP’s ideological parent RSS, or sending a signal to the high command?
Chouhan’s agenda not different
Political analyst Girija Shankar told ThePrint that this was Chouhan’s way of showcasing that his agenda is not different to the Centre’s.
“There is a perception that at times he follows a different agenda. He wants to emphasise that he is not only following the core agenda but is seen to be doing so,” Shankar said.
A BJP leader on the condition of anonymity said: “Aggressive Hindutva is our core politics and it’s fruitful (electorally). Some incidents (of ‘love jihad’) have happened recently, and the BJP is exploiting them because people love such emotive issues.”
BJP leader Pankaj Chaturvedi added: “‘Love jihad’ is a serious social issue and needs to be controlled. ‘Love jihad’ follows malafide intention and conspiracy. BJP does not believe in hard or soft Hindutva, but it has a moral duty towards sanatan dharma. There is no political agenda.”
A former BJP spokesperson also said on the condition of anonymity: “Apart from trying to change his soft image, Chouhan is pursuing the core agenda of the party. There’s always pressure from the RSS. It does not necessarily mean that his stock will go up but such steps create mahaul (atmosphere). He wants to remain in the news, or else Scindia might steal the limelight. He wants to send a message that he is not inferior to leaders like Yogi Adityanath.”
While the cow politics is deliberate, other pro-Hindutva measures are either guided by the Centre or are purely accidental, the analyst said, adding that the announcement about the ‘love jihad’ law came in the backdrop of a perception that Chouhan’s government dealt lightly with the protests orchestrated by Congress MLA Arif Masood over French president Emmanuel Macron’s comments on Islam. Bhopal was one of the few places in the country where massive protests were held in late October.
The ‘tallest leader’ again
After comprehensive victories in the 2008 and 2013 assembly elections, Chouhan’s graph was rising in the BJP, but the 2018 assembly results stopped it in its tracks, even though the loss was narrower than what BJP incumbents faced in Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh. The BJP got slightly more votes, but only 109 seats to the Congress’ 114.
When Jyotiraditya Scindia brought down the Congress government in March this year, taking 22 MLAs away from its tally and joining the BJP, Chouhan was not the only contender for the CM’s post. He prevailed over other aspirants, but his position remained shaky given the numbers in the assembly — since late March, Chouhan helmed the government with just 107 members in the House, whose strength kept reducing with resignations and deaths. The BJP’s numbers have now risen to 126 in the full 230-member House.
Analyst Girija Shankar insisted that after the by-elections, “Chouhan is once again the tallest BJP leader in MP”.
During those intervening months, Home Minister Narottam Mishra emerged as an alternate power centre to Chouhan, having been one of the strong contenders for the CM’s chair and then becoming the person who articulated the BJP government’s position on bringing a law against ‘love jihad’ and the need to register an FIR in the A Suitable Boy temple kissing controversy. But Chouhan announced days before that a new legislation on ‘love jihad’ was on the way.
There was also speculation before the by-elections that Chouhan would have to make way for someone else and proceed to the Centre as a minister. But in his public and private conversations, he has always made it clear that he is not comfortable leaving Madhya Pradesh.
However, while Chouhan’s government might now be on a secure footing, he has another power centre to deal with — Scindia — many of whose loyalists are now ministers.