Computer Baba to Bhaiyyu Maharaj: Madhya Pradesh is the go-to state for ambitious babas
Mantras for success: Meet religious leaders who have positions in government, own Bentleys and copters; sway ministers with the promise of a prayer.more lifestyle Updated: Jun 17, 2018 11:37 IST
Madhya Pradesh is where you go if you are a religious leader with material ambitions. You don’t have to hide who you are. Computer Baba, nicknamed for the fact he always has a laptop on him, also owns a chopper and wants to be an MLA. Bhaiyyu Maharaj was a one-time model with a Mercedes and a following that cut across party lines. Rawatpura Sarkar runs and heads a rash of mainstream educational institutes and has multiple ashrams.
“Politicians in the state are not shy to wear their relationship with spiritual leaders on their sleeves. It is an accepted culture,” says Rasheed Kidwai, writer, political author and visiting fellow at the thinktank, Observer Research Foundation. Which is why not many in Madhya Pradesh were shocked when five godmen were offered minister-of-state-level berths in the state government in April.
Here’s how it went. On March 31, religious leaders in the state announced a Narmada Ghotala Yatra that would “expose the state government’s false claims of conservation of the Narmada river”. On April 3, five spiritual leaders were offered the positions on a committee to conserve the Narmada; on April 4, the march was called off.
It’s not unusual for the lines to blur between church and state in Madhya Pradesh. Going back hundreds of years, this was part of a larger region — present-day MP, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Chhattisgarh — dotted with princely states governed by local royalty, with usually a priest or two on the panel of advisors or in key advisory positions.
- In 1957, the first election after the state of Madhya Pradesh was formed, the Akhil Bharatiya Ram Rajya Parishad, a party formed in 1948 by Swami Karpatri, a Hindu ascetic, won 6 of the 288 Assembly seats. It had earlier won 3 Lok Sabha seats in 1952.
- Guru Agam Dass, a religious leader of the Satnami tradition, was elected to the first Lok Sabha in 1951-52, on a Congress ticket, from Bilaspur in Madhya Pradesh. After his death in 1955, his widow Mini Mata, a religious leader and a Dalit, won the by-election. She also served as general secretary of the state Congress committee.
- Religious leader Pawan Diwan was a Congress MP and was appointed jail minister in 1977. Diwan joined the BJP in 2004. He is known to have said, "I am an ideal saint and an ideal politician".
- In 2003, Uma Bharti, a sanyasin, became the BJP chief minister of Madhya Pradesh. She wore her traditional saffron robe at her swearing in, which was attended by her guru, Sri Vishwesha Theertha Swami of Udupi and about 50 sadhus and sanyasins seated in the first row. Bharti is now union minister for drinking water and sanitation.
- In 2016, Swami Akhileshwaranand Giri was given an MoS-level berth as chairman of the Madhya Pradesh Gau Samvardhan Board. He made headlines soon after, saying the next world war would be fought over the cow. Last week, he was elevated to cabinet rank.
- In April this year, five Hindu religious leaders were offered minister-of-state rank in the BJP-led Madhya Pradesh government. Narmadanand Maharaj, Hariharanand Maharaj, Computer Baba, Bhaiyyu Maharaj and Pandit Yogendra Mahant were appointed to a committee for the conservation of the Narmada river. Hariharanand Maharaj and Bhaiyyu Maharaj declined the posts.
After Independence, religious leaders continued to win positions in government — dating back to the first state and national elections. When they weren’t actually standing for office, they were helping bring in the crowds, addressing rallies, offering advice and performing yagnas for politicians looking for an election win, a good monsoon, the fall of a foe.
Towns like Ujjain, Jabalpur and Bhopal are dotted with the ashrams and compounds of religious leaders who count the state’s most powerful among their disciples and followers. Rawatpura Sarkar has had chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan visit his ashram to perform yagnas. Swami Avdeshanandji Maharaj of Ujjain is known to be close to senior BJP leaders Amit Shah, Rajnath Singh and Chouhan. Politicians, for their part, organise bigger and bigger kathas or readings of scripture, and bhandaras or religious feasts. It’s a closed circuit of power, money and influence, but it’s not that closed to those who know the password.
The biggest change in the past 10 years has been in the everyday influence of godmen over the running of the state government, says Kidwai.
“The kathas and bhandaras have swelled in size with political leaders competing with each other to organize bigger events. It has become one of the primary ways for politicians to reach out to their voter bases,” he adds. “Last year, the government organised a Shankaracharya Yatra.”
Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) spokesperson Govind Malu describes the state-sponsored religious events as a way to “do good for society”. “The BJP leaders enlightened with teachings of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, have been seen to be at the forefront. It is a positive activity; they are not hosting a vulgar dance,” he says.
On the matter of inviting the religious leaders onto the Narmada conservation committee, he adds: “These people are steeped in our culture and their inputs would be really valuable.”
Dipak Tiwari, a political analyst and author of two editions of Rajneetinama Madhya Pradesh (1956-2003 and 2003-2018), points out that the mingling means that the government is spending public money on events that are purely religious. While the state BJP government’s relationship with Babas is the most extensive, the Congress, when in power, appointed and offered tickets to religious leaders too.
“Pawan Diwan, a godman, was a Congress minister in 1977; Mini Mata became a Congress MP in 1955,” he says. An interesting turning point was the day Uma Bharti became BJP chief minister of MP, in 2003. “She was a sanyasin and the front row at her swearing-in was full of ascetics. This marked the beginning of a more direct intervention of religion,” says Tiwari.
“Today, Makhanlal Chaturvedi National University of Journalism and Communication has religious leaders coming in to give sermons. The state culture department organised a festival for Shaivites in Ujjain this January. At best, this defined pattern of legitimising public spending for one religion shows a very narrow agenda.”
A NEW WAVE
As the possibilities grow, the range of babas in Madhya Pradesh is booming too.
In Indore, Radhe Radhe Baba, who moved here from Uttar Pradesh and now heads a temple complex, spends hours in his inner chamber, watching fairly unchanging CCTV footage of the complex and the streets outside. “One never knows what may happen. The population of Muslims is increasing rapidly,” he says. Muslims constitute 7.41% of the population of Indore.
In Ujjain, Yogi Peer Ramnath, head of another 20-acre temple compound, has started a group called Hindu Vahini, “which will defend any attack on the Hindu religion”. A rifle is mounted on the wall of his meeting room.
It’s a potent mix — the desire for visibility, paired with a growing stage and politicians eager to court the religious leader and their followers.