"Shivraj Singh Chouhan ran the government better than I did," said former chief minister Madhya Pradesh and BJP national vice-president Uma Bharti in Bhopal a few days back.
Shivraj Singh Chouhan, his wife Sadhna and son Kartikeya greet supporters from the balcony of their home in Bhopal. (Praveen Bajpai/ HT photo)
The statement coming from once arch rival of Chouhan (54) whom she had described as 'Bachcha chor' in 2005 for 'usurping the government' she had formed in 2003 may have stemmed from her political compulsions, yet the Sadhvi's words cannot be brushed off as a statement in a bid to patch things up with Chouhan.
However, it's not the Sadhvi alone who is singing paeans for Chouhan. Even LK Advani saw a prime ministerial prospect in him a few years back. About six months ago, Advani compared Chouhan with his supposed beta noire in the party, Narendra Bhai Modi, and dubbed Chouhan as a better chief minister.
"Though Modi's development of Gujarat is impressive, Chouhan managed to turn around a poorer state. Chouhan's lack of arrogance has shades of iconic leader Atal Behari Vajpayee", said Advani addressing BJP workers at Gwalior on June 1.
Chouhan showed a taste for politics in his early days in the village school when he raised his voice for labourers even if that meant going against his own family. He argued the wages paid to the labourers were peanuts in comparison to the harvest the farmers reaped with their labour.
When Chouhan moved to Bhopal for studies, destiny brought him in contact with RSS leaders such as Meghraj Jain, Laxminarayan Sharma, Sunderlal Patwa and Kailash Sarang.
He passed out from Model Higher Secondary School, Bhopal where he became the president of the student union. As a student leader of hardly 17 years of age, he led anti-Emergency movements and was jailed.
"I was taken to Habibganj police station along with other MISA detainees. I was the youngest, but the police beat me with lathis. It has left such a wound that to this day chilly winds cause pain in my legs," Chouhan has said on multiple occasions.
After his release from jail Chouhan joined the RSS as a swayamsevak. He held several posts in Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) and Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha (BJYM).
In 1988 he was nominated the BJYM state president for three years and it proved a turning point in his career. He got a party ticket for the assembly elections from Budhni, his home turf.
He snatched the seat from the Congress with a huge margin in 1990 and attracted the attention of the party's senior leaders.
While campaigning for this contest Chouhan covered a lot of ground on foot that earned him the sobriquet 'paon paon waale bhaiya' (the leader who walked). The method strengthened the BJP's base in the area.
"I was accompanied by just a few party workers. We used to move from one village to another on cycles, bus and on foot, convened meetings of people and tell them about the party's policies and ideology. Sometimes there were only two to three of us talking to people," would what Chouhan often share.
From 1991 to 2005, Chouhan represented Vidisha Lok Sabha seat five times in a row till he was elected as the BJP legislature party leader in place of Uma Bharti's choice and the then chief minister Babulal Gaur on November 28, 2005 to become the third chief minister of the BJP's term from 2003.
As luck would have it the style of functioning of former chief minister Uma Bharti who had led the party to a massive victory against the Congress in 2003 raised many eyebrows in the party.
According to supporters of Uma Bharti, the senior leaders in Delhi didn't approve her style of functioning as she did not agree to fulfill the undue wishes of the party leaders to indulge in wrongdoings that would have benefitted them.
However, Uma Bharti's opponents in the BJP camp maintains in just eight short months she was surrounded by sycophants who indulged in widespread corruption. She also did not listen to the senior party leaders in deciding the government's policy matters.
However, in August 2004 when Uma Bharti stepped out, or was persuaded to step out on the ground of Hubli court's arrest warrant against her, she dug in her heels and didn't allow Shivraj Singh Chouhan to succeed her. Her choice was an ageing and non-controversial Babulal Gaur.
Ironically, Chouhan had already been sent to the state as the state BJP president by the senior party leaders to succeed Uma Bharti. However, he had to wait more than a year till November 2005 for the chief minister's chair due to opposition from her.
"The party had decided to make me the chief minister much earlier but a Behanji put hurdles in my way," Chouhan would say in the first public reception outside Bhopal in Raisen district.
The BJP's victory for the third time in a row, however, didn't come on a platter. The 2013 election was supposed to be a tougher one tougher than the 2008 polls simply because of the anti-incumbency factor, apart from entrenched party leaders who form satraps and factions, that usually works against a party that has ruled the state for 10 successive years.
Chouhan worked on two-pronged strategy right from day one when he became the chief minister. In his first stint of three years as the head of government, he focused on building his image as the mass leader by extensively touring the state and leaving no stones unturned to connect with the people.
He had a natural flair to win over the people with his simplicity, easily projecting him as 'mama' of girls and boys, and brother of married women. He came from a humble background and he immensely exploited this natural flair to portray a 'family bonding' with the common people. Over the years, this approach cemented his image as the leader of the aam aadmi.
Two schemes that endeared him to the masses were Mukhyamantri Kanyadan Yojna, which was an extension of his work he had taken up long back, and Ladli Laxmi scheme, wherein a certain amount of money is deposited in a bank in the name of newborn girl child and she is expected to get about Rs. 1.20 lakh when she turns 21.
Before the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, LK Advani commented in his blog that if BJP was voted to power at the centre he would like to implement the scheme in the entire country.
In another novel initiative Chouhan started calling panchayats of different sections of society beginning with Mahila Panchayat on July 30, 2006 within a year of his taking over. He convened several panchayats at the chief minister's residence itself and threw sumptuous lunches for the common man, but not without sending out the attendant message that 'the chief minister's house which was closed earlier is now open for the common man'.
These and similar measures paid Chouhan dividends in 2008 assembly elections despite a running battle on two fronts - the Congress and Uma Bharti, who had by this time set up and was leading Bharatiya Janshakti.
In the second stint, Chouhan extended the panchayat spree and tried to include every section of society extending the concept to the micro level. He introduced more welfare schemes for farmers, youths, girls, tribals, scheduled castes, unemployed, sportspersons, vendors etc.
On the one hand, while he kept reducing interest rates on short term loans to farmers till it touched 0%, on the other he delivered a master stroke by launching pilgrimage schemes for the elderly. His publicity managers did not lose time in projecting him as an able 'beta' (son) who took the elderly people on pilgrimage without any money being spent from their pockets.
Besides his winner schemes, Chouhan's success can also be traced to some of his personal traits such as his ability to work hard, humility, respect to seniors in the party. The easy access that commoners have to him has bolstered his image of the leader of the common man.
Chouhan has also cultivated a clean image with no controversy dogging his steps in the past two terms. Add to this his surprising ability to sideline party leaders who could pose a challenge to him without getting into nasty public fights.
"The biggest virtue of Shivraj ji is his humility. I have known him for the past three decades and power never went into his head and he continues to remain an ordinary worker of the party," is how BJP election management committee member, Shailendra Sharma, would describe Chouhan, a gold medallist in Masters of Philosophy from Barkatulla University, Bhopal.
"Maathe par barf, muh me shakkar, aur seene me aag (cultivate a cool head, a sweet tongue but pursue your goal aggressively)," he would advise his party workers in internal meetings.
Those words would also describe Chouhan most succinctly.