By Swapan Dasgupta
Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan is both an accomplished politician and blessed with a pleasing personality. He has admirers cutting across the political and ideological divide. If the opinion polls are to be believed, his popularity and administrative skills should see the BJP win a third term in this mid-sized state of central India.
However, Shivraj has recently been confronted with a unique problem that, to be fair, is not of his own making. He has become the favourite BJP politician of those who have never supported nor are ever likely to support the party he belongs to. Ever since it has become clear that Nitish Kumar’s departure from the NDA on the question of Narendra Modi does not enjoy the unqualified endorsement of the people of Bihar, Shivraj has become the darling of those who otherwise hate the BJP. L.K. Advani tried hard to fill this unlikely slot but somehow there is growing realisation that his moment to be the proverbial right man in the wrong party has gone. Hence the chattering class’ anointment of Shivraj as the man they would love to oppose.
That the sudden discovery of Shivraj owes considerably to the fear of the Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi is not in any serious doubt. If the projection of Modi was likely to result in a clear electoral sweep for the Congress and its allies—as the likes of Digvijay Singh like to proclaim—there would have been no gratuitous show of concern for the fate of the BJP. Atal Behari Vajpayee was another so-called ‘right man in the wrong party’ but you just have to go through the old newspaper files of the election of 1996 and 1998 to realise that the same class of people who shower Shivraj with flowery compliments were also the ones who warned the country of impending fascism if the BJP somehow managed to come to power. A casual perusal of newpaper files of 1998 files, the time Sonia Gandhi joined politics formally, will reveal a higher intensity of the attack on both Vajpayee and the BJP. Yes, a small section of the old Establishment (mainly retired bureaucrats and military officers) did endorse Vajpayee openly but they were a small minority.
Those who believe that if the BJP re-calibrated its politics to appeal to appeal to the old Establishment (what may better be called the ancien regime) it would acquire greater acceptability are living in a dream world. Yes, there is a definite political objective in broadening the scope of the nationalist umbrella and reaching out to Congress voters who are disgusted with the UPA’s dismal record in government. No election can be won or even closely contested unless a political party acquires the ability to reach out to those who are not its natural supporters. But this is different from being swayed by the syrupy pronouncements of those who have an ulterior motive in projecting their version of the alternative.
Having been out of the power structure for long and having been the objects of social disdain of the Nehruvian Establishment, some BJP leaders have craved social acceptability. They are secretly pleased when the beautiful people whisper “such a good chap, pity he is in the BJP.” Worse, they often indulge in political contortions to reach out to the other side and invariably end up falling between two stools. Advani’s certificate to Mohammed Ali Jinnah was such an exercise and ended up destroying him politically. Nitish Kumar’s anti-Modi grandstanding was also driven by similar compulsions.
Shivraj has so far resisted all such blandishments. He has tried to be nice to everyone and the outcome hasn’t always been wholesome. Advani’s generous praise for him was not entirely innocent; its subtext was tantamount to the disavowal of Modi. Raza Murad, the person Uma Bharti described as a C-grade Bollywood actor wasn’t even that subtle. He took advantage of a Eid gathering where Shivraj was present to declaim against Modi’s national candidature. The occasion was such that it was singularly inappropriate for Shivraj to either protest or respond. Consequently, the CM of MP found himself engulfed in a needless controversy by sheer association.
Perhaps Modi should surprise everyone by suddenly appearing on a public stage with an embroidered skull cap, just as Shivraj did. Would that impress his detractors enough to suddenly hail him as the epitome of “secularism”? Would that result in all the talk of him being a communal ogre abruptly coming to an end? For that matter, will Raza Murad be seen on the streets of Bhopal in November appealing to his co-religionists to vote for the local BJP and ensure another term as Chief Minister for Shivraj? Symbolism has a place in public life but its practice doesn’t necessarily influence election results. A few years ago the CPI(M) formally censured one of its stalwarts in West Bengal for offering puja at the temple in Tarakeshwar. Was there an outcry? Did the party’s godlessness become an election issue, and did the anti-Red forces seize upon that lapse to call the Left Front anti-Hindu? The answers don’t need elaboration.
Sunday Pioneer, August 11, 2013