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The Man in The Middle: Can This Man At The Centre Be India’s Dark Horse Ruler?

The pain in his knees, say many people who know him intimately, gives an insight to character traits of Shivraj Singh Chouhan and why he remains singularly low profile even after ruling one of India’s largest and fastest growing states, Madhya Pradesh for eight years.

The injury, they say, gives historical perspective to where Chouhan comes from, and where he wants to go at time of unprecedented political turmoil in India and his own the main national opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

It was 1977. Under emergency rule Congress Prime Minister Indira Gandhi is ruthlessly putting her political opponents behind bars.

In Bhopal, the lake-strewn capital of Madhya Pradesh, a student activist of the anti-Indira Gandhi (then prime minister who declared Emergency) underground movement is arrested.

The police demand that Chouhan, then barely in his 20s, give them the addresses of his close associates and protestors.

He refuses.

Torture follows in prison and Chouhan’s knees are permanently injured. But he refuses.

A college friend, who is now a top bureaucrat in his government, says: “He knew this was his trial by fire, that this would give him stature. And on principle, he would not betray his friends – it was two birds with one stone.”

The chief minister does not deny that this was the defining moment of his early political life. “I was a poor man’s son and I would not betray others like me. They were all poor people. The place from where we sent out pamphlets was a tiny tea stall. If I gave his name, he and his family would be finished,” says Chouhan, now in the middle of his second term as chief minister, who prefers to speak in Hindi, his staccato rushing on as if he is running out of time.

“I have never forgotten this because it shattered my parents who I was very close to and my grandmother who loved me dearly fell ill on hearing the news and died within a few months. She could not take the fact that I had been imprisoned.”

In prison word of the brave activist facing torture spread and Chouhan, who says he has read the Bhagwad Gita since he was a boy and has a larger than life cutout of Swami Vivekananda, the last great seer of modern India, behind his desk, caught the attention of the Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Shyamsevak Sangh (RSS). The door had opened and soon Chouhan was part of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidhyarthi Parishad, the student wing of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and then the BJP itself, which was the ideological offspring of the RSS and was led by many RSS members.

This incident captures a theme that Fortune India heard time and again speaking to bureaucrats, businessmen, students and a wide cross-section of people from Madhya Pradesh and outside the state – Shivraj Singh Chouhan, 52, son of a farmer and MA gold medallist in philosophy, usually has two reasons for doing anything. One immediately apparent, the other emerges with time.

When the first government advertisements in the newspapers started appearing last month talking about Chouhan’s achievements – for the first time since he became chief minister – many saw in this an evidence of his perfected dual strategy.

It is an interesting time for being Shivraj Singh Chouhan. After eight years under the radar, the BJP’s second most successful chief minister might be finally seeking limelight, not the least with a series of well-timed advertisements splashed across national newspapers.

It is a time when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is struggling to find a chief ministerial candidate for the 2014 elections, when it believes it has a great chance of winning back power for the first time in a decade with the ruling Congress Party inundated with corruption and infighting.

Shivraj Singh Chouhan is at a unique position in a unique time. The BJP has a leadership crisis at the top. The party patriarch Lal Krishna Advani is unlikely to get support for a second shot at prime ministership after the party lost the 2009 elections when Advani was projected as the prime ministerial candidate. Others big ticket leaders like Sushma Swaraj and Arun Jaitley are overshadowed by the flamboyant Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi who dominates the BJP and headlines in India and abroad (Modi was on the cover of the March 26 issue of Time magazine).

But Modi has never quite recovered from Hindu-Muslim riots that happened under his watch in 2002 (Time or not, America still won’t give him a visa though thousands of Indian Americans regularly gather to hear him speak on live video), and it is far from clear that he would be accepted by BJP’s political partners without whom the party cannot hope to form the next government, and yet it is highly unlikely that as the single largest opposition party, the BJP would accept a prime ministerial candidate from one of its smaller partners.

At a time like this, Chouhan is being propelled as a successful administrator, an alternative say many of his aides though no one will say so openly, to Narendra Modi. “Everywhere you hear only of Modi,” says a close aide who has recently organized lunches with Chouhan in Delhi with a couple of top editors to help them ‘understand him better’. “As if no one else is doing anything; our chief minister is reticent but we are determined to take him all the way to Delhi.”

Ask the chief minister and there is one answer which could even be two: “I have a lot to do for Madhya Pradesh; there are many tasks ahead in this state. I have no further ambition but I will shirk nothing, if there is a call of duty, I am always ready to fulfill my duty.”

This dreaming has sound political logic and precedence. In the 1990s, after BJP stalwart Lal Krishna Advani led a rath yatra, a chariot ride through the country that ended with volunteers running berserk and bringing down the disputed Babri mosque at Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh, the party rose spectacularly in Parliament winning scores of seats. But when it came to prime ministership, the seat went to Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who was seen as a moderate and non-polarising face compared to the strident pro-Hindu image of Advani. There has always been a section of the BJP which believed that Advani was short changed since it was his work that brought the party to power. Part of this compromise comes because no party wins India outright anymore and most governments are formed by a coalition, a team of national and local political parties. History might yet repeat itself in India. If the BJP wins in 2014, it will partly be because of the charisma of Narendra Modi which has rejuvenated the party cadre after nearly a decade in darkness. But when the time comes to crown a prime minister, it might just be that alliance partners in the coalition demand a softer face. That would well be Shivraj Singh Chouhan.

For even without political reasoning, Madhya Pradesh (MP) under eight years of Chouhan rule is the oft not quoted success story of Indian governance, as much as Modi’s Gujarat has become, not the least due to its own finely tuned marketing efforts, its bell weather.

Once prime among the BIMARU (Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, an acronym of perpetually laggard Indian states) states, MP has recorded one of the highest rates of growth in the last eight years. In 2011, it was a record breaking 10.02 percent. In 2012, it was the fastest growing Indian state.

In 2010-11, its GSDP or gross state domestic product grew by 9%, and the year before it was 9.55%. The state was growing at around 3% (or the much derided Hindu rate of growth) till Chouhan became chief minister in 2004.

In fact, surrounded by deeply indebted states like Uttar Pradesh and Punjab, MP’s net debt as a percentage of GSDP has fallen to 21.7% from 33% in the last six years, while percentage of interest payment as a percentage of revenue receipts has reduced from 15% to 9% in the last six years.

At a time when agricultural growth across India is negligible at best, agriculture in MP grew by 9% last year. In 2009-10, when the state got 35% less rainfall than usual, agrarian growth was still 7.2%. In the same period, industrial growth was one of the highest in India at 10.1%, though from a smaller base since 80% of the people still work in agriculture.

In fact, agriculture is a unique contrarian call that Chouhan has successfully implemented at a time when the mantra in most states is greater industrialisation taking labour off farming. His agriculture production commissioner Madan Mohan Upadhyay explains it best.

“He is a hardcore farmer,” says Upadhyay. “He came in with a pure focus – most people work in agriculture in this state, so growth has to be agriculture driven first and then expand to industry.”

For evidence, Upadhyay points to two of the chief minister’s key programmes: reducing agricultural interest rates from around 12% to the current 1% (thus borrowings have doubled from around Rs. 3,000 crores four years ago to around Rs. 7,500 crores, with a target of Rs. 10,000 crores in the next five years).

Even in farmer suicides, when MP is among the top five states according to the National Crime Record Bureau, though statistics show that numbers of such cases have been falling in the state.

The Bureau records that farmer suicide cases fell by 8% between 2009 and 2010 due to the sharp fall in cases in two states – Madhya Pradesh and Chattisgarh.

In fact, Chouhan’s one percent credit scheme even wins praise from firebrand food activist Devinder Sharma. Sharma, a vitriolic critic of government apathy for agriculture, says: “Madhya Pradesh showed the way for constructive government intervention at a time when the micro-finance institutions were charging anything between 24 to 36 percent.

“It was a huge sigh of relief and showed Chouhan as a pioneer.” But Sharma is quick to caution that Chouhan might not be able to carry on his pro-farmer streak.

“For instance, he talks a lot about regarding the river Narmada as the mother and so on and so forth but has that stopped the river from being ruthlessly dammed? No.”

At the moment, under Chouhan’s watch, crop production has risen from 142 lakh metric tonnes in 2003 to 254 lakh metric tonnes today, crop productivity from 831 kilograms per hectare to 1,223 kilograms per hectare, wheat production from 49.23 lakh metric tonnes to 110 lakh metric tonnes.

He also introduced a bonus of Rs. 100 (the only state to do so) on minimum wheat procurement price set by the central government at Rs. 1,285 per quintal. Between March 15 and May 27 this year, the day Upadhyay was interviewed by Fortune India, wheat procurement was a staggering 76 lakh tonnes from 86 lakh farmers with payments of Rs. 11,000 crores.

But where is all this money coming from? A large part of it from the central government and that, says Rahul Banherjee, is one of Chouhan’s notable failures. Banerjee, a civil engineer from the Indian Institute of Technology at Kharagpur, has worked with the Bhil tribals of Madhya Pradesh for the last 27 years, during which he has also studied governance in the state closely.

He says Shivraj Singh Chouhan is a better administrator than his predecessors, especially the Congress’ Digvijay Singh, but cautions that the state’s problems are far from over. Bannerjee points out for instance that Madhya Pradesh’s own tax collection contributes only around 40% to its annual revenues compared to around 70% for a similar sized like Tamil Nadu (both have around 72 million people).

“This also means that MP’s tax to GSDP ratio is around 8.5% compared to 10% for Tamil Nadu and 17% overall for India. What does this say? This says that such is the rampant corruption in collection of taxes, excise and duties that the state is falling behind and is ever more dependent on central grants.”

Last year 43% of MP’s budget came from central funds and grants.

Some of this stark dependence shows up even in agriculture. This year as MP farmers hauled up a record production of wheat, the state complained that the there was not enough gunny bags for wheat storage that has been released by the central government.

The chief minister says he has playing for the long-haul in agriculture. “If you look at history, the development has always happened first and most expansively at coastal areas with ports like Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Bengal, but we are a landlocked state. So what do we do?

“So focus on agriculture first. Our aim is to become the wheat bowl of the country, why should it only be Punjab? As I keep telling people, take wheat from us, we are centrally located and therefore it is easier to transport to any area in India. We are a natural road transport hub. And if we produce a lot of food, it is a win-win for the whole country because food can be transported to any part quickly from the centre.”

Upadhyay, who was also former health secretary of the state, says he understood the chief minister’s mind when in one of the first meetings Chouhan, the father of two sons, described how in his childhood village he saw women struggling and even dying at childbirth.

From that gruesome experience was born his innovative policy decision to start a Janani Express – a helpline in every district of Madhya Pradesh where any woman about to give birth could call for a government ambulance to fetch her to the nearest hospital.

Chief Secretary R. Parasuram says the chief minister draws his policies deeply from his personal experiences. “This is why you will see him never in denial about female infanticide in MP (and which is why one of the biggest schemes of the government is on female infanticide).”

MP is one of the worst offenders in declining sex ratio. That’s why Chouhan has also started a scheme where he plays father of the bride in mass weddings organised by the state for poor girls who are given Rs. 15,000 when they get married. The chief minister himself gives them away, often at a scale of thousands in one go.

But the impact has been patchy. According to data from the census department, MP’s sex ratio is 930, 10 points lower than the national average, but higher than worst offending states like Punjab and Harayana. In the last ten years, the sex ratio of the state has increased by 11 points but alarmingly the child sex ratio (0 – 6 years) has fallen from 932 in 2001 to 912 in 2011.

The proportion of girl child population sharply declined from 18 in 2001 to 14.4 in 2011. Around 25 districts have shown a fall of around 20 points in the child sex ratio in the last decade.

The chief minister says he has now made this his personal mission. “Most people don’t know that I have nine adopted daughters. Nowadays I tell people, don’t get worried if you have a girl child, your child has an uncle in me. The state will help.”

But all this costs money. Some of that is coming from mining whose revenues have risen from Rs. 614 crores to Rs. 3,111 crores, and also industrial investment which has risen from Rs. 7,395 crores in 2003 to 84,700 last year.

And this is where, slowly, the comparison with Modi comes in. MP’s revenue receipts of Rs. 4,344 in 2010-11 almost mirror Gujarat’s at Rs. 4,948, while MP has a smaller revenue expenditure at Rs. 4,186 compared to Gujarat (Rs. 5,398) in the same year.

Madhya Pradesh in 2010-11 had a higher capital receipt of Rs. 11,088 compared to Gujarat at Rs. 7,442, and their capital expenditure is comparable too with MP at Rs. 11,240 and Gujarat at Rs. 7,048.

It is aiming to match smooth road for smooth road with Gujarat, which has some of the best roads in the country – in 2003, MP had 14,787 kilometres of constructed road. Today it is 73, 245 kilometres, and targets a further 34, 710 kilometres in the remaining two years of Chouhan’s second stint leading the state.

Here’s the punch line: almost unheard of among Indian states, and like Gujarat, MP now has a surplus budget.

And though he has not yet started calling his electorate his ‘god’ like Modi, Chouhan has adopted Modi’s favourite line of referring to all citizens of Madhya Pradesh as his ‘family’. Even the latest ads spell it out below his photo – My State, My Family.

To understand the mind, and indeed the economics, of Shivraj Singh Chouhan is to understand where he falls in the radar of the Rashtriya Syamsevak Sangh, the ideological parent of the BJP and without whose support rise to national levels politics is impossible.

A veteran BJP aide who has been closely associated with BJP leaders Atal Bihari Vajpayee during his tenure as prime minister and Lal Krishna Advani during his 2004 campaign to become prime minister says Chouhan is seen as an increasingly relevant to for many of the issues the party faces, but he is nowhere close to a national leader yet.

The party lacks a tall leader from the Hindi heartland who can deliver economic goals. Basically someone who can show high growth rates, remain grounded in Hindu identity and not alienate the minorities.

Chouhan has potential to be that man because, till now at least, he has kept the minorities happy and showed sterling growth. The aide says that within the RSS Chouhan is seen as someone who could be built to be the next big farmer leader in a country where the majority of people still work in agriculture; the idea is for him to pitch himself as next in line from famous farmer leaders of yore like Chaudhury Charan Singh or Devi Lal.

“He knows that after them there has never been a true farmer leader and so much of India is still about rural votes. So if he has to ever play a national role, his natural strengths are as a farmer leader. Narendra Modi is no farmer leader and even the ones who claim to speak for rural voters like Mamata Banerjee (the West Bengal chief minister) and Mayawati (former chief minister of Uttar Pradesh) are basically city folk.

“He is a true son of soil.”

It will not be easy since Chouhan is at the moment a non-entity in the Delhi scheme of things of the BJP but it helps that unlike Modi, Chouhan has cleverly practiced “non-confrontational Hindutva”. For instance, in replicating government assistance to Hindu pilgrims like given by the central government to Muslim devotees on the Haj to Mecca. “No one can say he has done nothing for the Hindus but it is not anything that causes any conflict.”

But quite like you can never say anything against Modi to almost any Gujarati businessmen, some of Chouhan’s confidence is rubbing off on Indore Inc. At a recent dinner of the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII), Fortune India was cornered by a set of MP CEOs from Indore who insisted that their state was going to beat Gujarat.

“We have everything going for us,” said one.

“Our chief minister is not flashy but that does not mean he is not working,” said another.

Have you seen our roads? – they cried. Our new skill development centres? Our wheat production? Punjab is over! It is us!

Almost everyone at the dinner tells us that they resent Modi taking all the credit for development in India all the time – as if no one, meaning their chief minister, does anything!

It’s a familiar echo in the streets of Madhya Pradesh. Fortune India travelled twice to Bhopal to interview the chief minister because the first time he suddenly fell ill and had to be hospitalised and the interview was cancelled at the last moment.

Word on the street reached quickly and a taxi driver told us: “If Modi would have fallen ill, the whole country would have come to know and his chaps would have ensured that everyone knows that he has fallen ill because he is working too hard.

“Here no one will come to know apart from Bhopal that the poor man (Chouhan) has fallen ill!”

When we finally met the chief minister, during the photo shoot he was visibly shy and smiling awkwardly at striking poses. “Won’t one or two shots do?” he asked.

“It is very important we do this,” quipped his personal secretary Manoj Srivastava, a college contemporary of Chouhan who holds a record in English literature with 80% marks in Bhopal’s Barkatullah University from where Chouhan has his gold medal and said he knew the chief minister briefly since he was “active in politics and I was a star student”, implying a natural bonhomie.

“Narendra Modi gets shoots like these done every week.”

Srivastava, along with Chief Secretary R. Parasuram and Upadhyay, forms the arms and legs of the chief minister, and are the three most important people running the state.

He says Chouhan’s biggest achievement is consistently sweating the small stuff even as he tracks the bigger picture. “It is all in the nuances. See unlike others, you don’t see the chief minister making a noise about the fuel price hike (after the central government raised petrol prices by more than Rs. 7 last month). He will do all he can but he understands the global situation and he understands the subsidy burden. He does not say things just to follow others.”

Parasuram says the mood of the state is: “Our time has come. With a capital C.” He says one of the biggest items on Chouhan’s agenda was building an identity for the state, something that cannot be done with economic success. He points to Madhya Pradesh’s famous Hindustan ka dil dekho television campaign to boost its tourism and the creation of a state song which he says were as crucial as the multiple road shows that Chouhan has done to attract industry.

The number of tourists has increased six-fold between 2004 and 2011. In 2010, at the first global investors meet at Khajuraho, Anil Ambani had not only declared the MP was set to become one of India’s fastest growing regions but also put his money where his mouth is with a Rs. 75,000 crore investment commitment over the next five years, which includes two power plants and the country’s largest private mine.

The state is now jousting with the national environment ministry for clearance of the allocation of coal blocks within the state and the chief minister says that the matter will be sorted soon. “In two years, we will be a power surplus state.”

Ambani is not the only one, Chouhan rattles of a series of names from Hindalco (aluminum plant), Essar and Jaypee (power plants) to Infosys and Wipro (development centres).

Chouhan says he tells industrialists that unlike other competing states with single-window clearances, he has a ‘single table’ clearance policy in MP.

“Sometimes even though they say single window, after the window one has to go to many tables,” smiles Chouhan. “Here there is only one table, my table. And everything is cleared from here, no confusion.” Later an aide says that the chief minister has been working to ensure that industrialists are not harangued by party workers for donations.

Says Chouhan: “Our pitch is simple, we have no land acquisition issues in MP, we are willing to work out the best possible price for land and we will ensure that you have a peaceful secure environment to do business.”

Gautam Kothari, head of a state industry body called the Aydhyogik Sansthan Association (the Association of Industrial Bodies) says while it is true that MP promises unlimited power to industry, pricing that power reasonably is quite another matter. “The government has no control on the pricing of power. The cost of power has gone up by 50% in the last four years. That really hurts competitiveness.” MP is now among the top five states in cost of power, though Chouhan says things will get better in the couple of years when, with the allocation of coal blocks, the state expects to start selling power to its neighbours.

That gives hope to Sushil Prakash, one of the main members of the Rose Society of Madhya Pradesh. But that’s not the only hat he wears. He is also the head of two manufacturing companies, Omega Renk Bearings and SunCarrier Omega, which work closely with European, especially German, firms like Gildesmeister.

Prakash says he wants to tell Chouhan that the world must know about MP (and therefore vehemently supports the next global investor summit in October). “We are too quiet. It does not always work. The first time I told my European partners about MP, no one knew anything but we have so much going for us. Our population density is low, it is an educated population, the crime rate is low in our cities, the roads are good, but how many know?”

He says everyone talks about Gujarat’s 24/7 guaranteed electricity supply for everyone but not many know that the MP government has guaranteed non-stop power to industry.

“Yes, it’s only for industry now, but we getting there, aren’t we?” He does not mean it as a question.

Prakash says he recently converted Stuttgart-based German cable manufacturing major Siegbert Lapp to switch to MP. “He was very keen on Bangalore and when I first told him about MP, he said, but who knows anything about Bhopal apart from the gas tragedy (the 1984 poisonous gas leak from a Union Carbide insecticide factory which killed more than 10,000 people)?

“But when I explained to him and showed him around MP, he came here instead with an investment of Rs. 200 crores, with further plans of Rs. 300 crores.”

Praveen Toshniwal is the chairman of Nivo Controls and also head of CII (western region). He says MP needs a dose of smart sell, if not hard sell.

“We are by nature a quiet state but that needs to change at a time when every state is competing for resources – whether from the central government or from investors.”

But it will take much more than learning how to pose for photos.

(A version of this essay was first published in the Indian edition of the Fortune magazine.)

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