New Delhi: Criticising civil servants, warning police officers, asking people to name corrupt officials at a public rally and then proceeding to suspend them then and there — these hardly sound like things that a chief minister known to be soft-spoken and moderate would do. But that’s the new Shivraj Singh Chouhan Madhya Pradesh is seeing nowadays.
Chouhan, the only chief minister of the BJP’s Vajpayee-Advani era to still be in power, is still popular and capable of delivering seats. But the recent changes made by the party’s central leadership in states from Uttarakhand to Karnataka and now Gujarat, appear to have made Chouhan change his working style and adopt a new kind of optics to beat anti-incumbency.
His latest test is a series of by-elections in Madhya Pradesh — for three assembly seats and the Khandwa Lok Sabha constituency — for which dates have not been announced yet. But it seems like in anticipation of these and other future challenges, Chouhan is out to change his image, from the iftar-attending moderate to a tougher, more hardline leader. He has already started a Jan Darshan Yatra from 12 September to get feedback on development work, primarily in the constituencies where bypolls are slated.
Party insiders say there are several reasons for Chouhan’s transformation, from the nature of the leadership at the top of the party to his own insecurity because of several factions within the MP BJP, led by strong leaders like Kailash Vijayvargiya and Narottam Mishra.
‘Danda lekar nikla hoon’
On Thursday, while attending an event titled ‘Aazadi ka Amrit Mahotsav’ in Bhopal, he accused government officials of presenting a false picture of development. “If you sit inside Mantralaya, you only get a colourful picture. There seems happiness all around. When you actually hit the field, you realise how far the happiness has reached,” he said.
Turning towards Principal Secretary (Industries) Sanjay Shukla, Chouhan said he wasn’t referring to him, but added, “things are only done where the CM focuses”.
Three days before that, at a review meeting with district collectors and commissioners, the CM said whichever officer has taken money under the PM Awas Yojana, “main use chhodunga nahin (I will not spare him)”. He vowed to make random visits to check corruption and see if development targets are being achieved. “If there are complaints, I will suspend him,” he said.
He also warned Damoh’s Superintendent of Police D.R. Tenivaar for the district’s low ranking in policing, and taunted Neemuch SP Suraj Kumar Verma for “not doing anything about gangsters and the mafia”.
But the most surprising incident took place in Niwari over a week ago, when the CM asked the public listening to his speech to name officials involved in corruption in the PM Awas Yojana.
“I am told there are irregularities in PM Awas Yojana. There was a CMO (chief municipal officer)… There are complaints against him. He is hereby suspended with immediate effect,” he said from the dais.
The same day, at another rally in Prithvipur, one of the seats where a bypoll is to be held, he suspended a tehsildar. He also announced a probe by the police’s Economic Offences Wing.
In Tikamgarh too, he suspended an official for corruption, saying, “Ab danda lekar main nikla hoon. Gadbad karne waalon ko chhodunga nahin (Now I have come wielding a stick, won’t spare anyone who is involved in wrongdoing).”
Also, in Raigaon, another bypoll constituency, he pulled up an official for not providing water under the state’s Nal Jal scheme.
Why CM is transforming his image
The upcoming bypolls in Raigaon, Prithvipur, Jobat and the Khandwa parliamentary constituency, which have fallen vacant due to the deaths of the incumbents, will be Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s second litmus test since he became chief minister for the fourth time after Kamal Nath’s Congress government fell in March 2020.
In Chouhan’s first test in November 2020, the BJP won 19 out of 28 seats, thanks to help from former Congress leader Jyotiraditya Scindia, who joined the party with his supporters, necessitating the bypolls.
This time around, Chouhan is not leaving anything to chance by projecting himself as a stronger, no-nonsense leader. Bhopal-based author and political commentator Girija Shankar said this was not unusual.
“This is Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s way of doing politics, to strike a chord with people. This is his USP; he used to do these optics earlier too. The ‘nahin chhodunga’ remark is meant to tighten the bureaucracy, who sometimes take advantage of Shivraj’s humility. It’s all part of his clever politics to send the message to people that ‘look, these corrupt officers are stopping developmental, and I am not part of this coterie’. This is best way to beat anti-incumbency,” he said.
However, Shankar added that the cases of Chouhan and UP CM Yogi Adityanath are different from BJP CMs like Trivendra Singh Rawat, Tirath Singh Rawat (both in Uttarakhand) and Vijay Rupani, who have been replaced recently.
“Both Shivraj and Yogi are mass leaders, unlike these others who were ‘appointee’ CMs. The BJP also needs Lok Sabha seats in 2024 from Madhya Pradesh,” Shankar said.
He is not the only analyst to make the Chouhan-Yogi comparison. Sanjay Kumar, professor at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, pointed out that the second aspect of the MP CM’s new style is aggressive drives against encroachment, mafia, drug operations, and sending a message to the BJP’s core vote base of Hindu nationalists. After Yogi’s UP government brought in an anti-religious-conversion ordinance, so did MP.
Kumar said it’s not a mandate given to Chouhan, but the nature of the leadership in Delhi, which takes decisions quickly and prefers aggressive leaders, has led to insecurity on his part. The expert cited Union minister Nitin Gadkari’s viral video of a speech in Jaipur, where he said no CM knows how long he will last in the chair.
“So, to survive, the first work a CM does it to appease the core constituency of the party,” Kumar said, pointing out that this was what Chouhan was doing.
“Secondly, he knows that as long as he keeps winning and working on the party’s core agenda, there is no threat. But as soon as he starts losing elections, he will be questioned, and the Modi-Shah leadership will not spare him. That is reason he is deploying all resources to win the bypolls and to change his ‘gentle’ image to that of a ‘muscular’ CM,” he added.
Meanwhile, Prabhat Jha, former state president of the BJP, added that it was good to “send a message to officers” if they are not doing their work.
“The entire organisation of the BJP is working to win the bypolls, and the chief minister is making extra efforts through his Jan Darshan Yatra to plug the holes at the ground level.”
(Edited by Shreyas Sharma)