Village head, MP and now Chhattisgarh CM:Tribal face who wore many hats
The BJP on Sunday picked 59-year-old Vishnu Deo Sai, its former state unit chief, as the next Chief Minister of Chhattisgarh.
It was an appointment foretold. It was November 9, two days after 20 seats in Chhattisgarh had already gone to the polls in the first phase of a crucial two phase election. Union Home Minister Amit Shah found himself in the tribal town of Kunkuri in the deeply forested district of Jashpur, in the north of the state. He spoke of the BJP’s expectations in the first phase, and said that they were already on their way to victory. Then, in minute 13 of his 15 minute speech, Shah began talking about the local Kunkuri candidate. “Mothers, brothers and sisters, Vishnu Dev ji is an experienced worker. He is a leader, he is a parliamentarian, he is a legislator, he has been party president. The BJP has brought in front of you an experienced leader. Make him an MLA, and we will do the work of making him a big man,” Shah said. The partisan crowd in front of him roared. One month and three days later, 59-year-old Vishnu Deo Sai was announced the new Chief Minister of Chhattisgarh.
From the village of Bagiya in the Kansabel region of Jashpur, Sai began his political career at the age of 25 from his village when he became a panch, but his family’s involvement in the Jana Sangh’s politics has been much longer. His grandfather Budhnath Sai was a nominated MLA in then undivided Madhya Pradesh from 1947 to 1952. His father’s elder brother, Narhari Prasad Sai served as an MLA twice fromTapkara constituency as a Jan Sangh member, 1962-67 and 1972-77, and was elected as MP (1977-79) and served as Union minister of state for telecommunications under the Janata Party government that defeated Indira Gandhi in 1977.
Sai’s younger brother Jai Prakash said that Sai completed his schooling from the Loyola School in Kunkuri (a private school), and then traveled to Amibikapur, 150 kilometres away, to study at a government college but quit his education and returned to the village to take care of his mother and two brothers after the demise of his father Kedarnath, a farmer, in 1988. But politics ran in the family, and by 1989, he was a panch, by 1990, an unopposed sarpanch of Bagiya, and in the same year fought and won his first legislative election from the Tapkara seat in the then undivided Madhya Pradesh. He held the seat till 1998, and in 1999 became the member of parliament from Raigarh. In 2006, he became the Chhattisgarh BJP president for the first time, a post he held for three years. In 2009 and 2014, he became the Raigarh member of parliament again. His only electoral losses came in2003 and 2008 assembly elections.
Sai successfully contested and won the Raigarh Lok Sabha seat again in the 2009 elections. In 2014 he secured victory once more, representing the Raigarh constituency. One of the state’s most prominent tribal faces, Sai also served as minister of state for the department of steel in Narendra Modi’s first cabinet between 2014 and 2019, and became the party president for the second time between 2018 and 2022.
In his village of Bagiya, his mother Rajmani Devi said that she wanted her son to “listen to everyone, be there in good and bad times, and help everyone.” “His behaviour and nature will lead him to serve the people of Chhattisgarh. It fills my heart with great joy that my son has become the chief minister. I had four sons, one of them Omprakash died... Vishnudev takes care of everything and everyone,” she said. He was a prominent candidate in the CM post race along with former CM Raman Singh, state party president Arun Sao among others and also enjoys close ties with Raman Singh.
Over his time in politics. Sai has developed a reputation as a man that creates lasting relationships, and was close with both the late Dilip Singh Judev, a stalwart of north Chhattisgarh’s politics, and Chief Minister Raman Singh. With his work with Judev on conversion issues, Sai is said to be close to both the RSS and the Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram, the tribal wing of the Sangh. “He is the biggest BJP leader in north Chhattisgarh after Judeo who led an anti-conversion campaign across the state. After Judeo died, it was Sai who quietly worked among the tribals and gained popularity. He is a great listener, has the ability to make connections with common people, and even when he was an MP, roamed around without any airs and graces,” said Sushant Shukla, the BJP MLA from Beltara said.
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