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Why Shivraj Singh Chouhan turned to Mahakaal Maharaj

Clearly, the BJP would like to enter the polls with a leader who can ensure victory. Given Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s penchant for sacking chief ministers overnight and replacing them with non-entities, Chouhan’s detractors are boldly predicting that he will be shown the door before the assembly elections, writes Amrish Herdenia

At the meeting of the Madhya Pradesh cabinet held in Ujjain on 27 September 2022, the chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan ceded his place at the head of the table to Lord Mahakaal, the presiding deity of the temple of Mahakaal in the town about 200 km from the state capital Bhopal. 

A large photo of the Shivalinga housed in the sanctum sanctorum of the temple was placed on the chair normally reserved for the chief minister at cabinet meetings. Chouhan and the state chief secretary sat at the two corners of the table on either side of the photo. 

It was for the first time in the history of the state that the cabinet meeting was held in Ujjain and it was also for the first time that someone other than the chief minister – whether an earthly being or a divine persona – presided over it. “This is Mahakaal Maharaj’s government … all his sevaks have come for a meeting on Mahakaal Maharaj’s soil,” Chouhan said.

The move has raised quite a few eyebrows, with top former bureaucrats from the state, including former chief election commissioner O.P. Rawat and former chief secretary K.S. Sharma, questioning the decision. “Ours is a secular state. It was not the right thing to do. Tomorrow, people belonging to some other faith may also demand from the government to do such a thing. What will it do then?” Sharma asked.

The venue in Ujjain being readied for the cabinet meeting

Badal Saroj, state secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) finds the move objectionable both from the religious and the Constitutional perspectives. “It is an insult to Mahakaal. Reducing a god, who is revered as the lord of the entire creation, to the status of a mere chief minister is nothing short of belittling him. Constitutionally, it is wrong to associate the government with a particular religion, especially in a country which is the home to almost all the religions of the world and to thousands of sects, denominations and seers,” he said. 

“Chouhan is making a desperate attempt to get into the good books of the RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh] and to prove himself a greater Hindu than the Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adiyanath,” Saroj told FORWARD Press.  

Mahakaal, the lord of death and time (both translated as ‘kaal’ in Hindi), is one of the twelve Jyortirlingas in the country and is a form of Shiva. It is a popular venue for Mahamritunjay Yagnas (a ritual that is supposed to vanquish death) for those on deathbed. From top politicians to film and sports celebrities to judges – all have been paying obeisance to the Mahakaal from time to time. 

After coming to power in the state in 2003, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government had declared Ujjain a “Pavitra Nagri” (sacred or holy town), empowering the town administration to prohibit the sale of liquor, meat and eggs. The status also allows various departments to release funds on developing the town.

Earlier this month (6 September), Bollywood actor couple Ranbir Kapoor and Alia Bhatt were prevented from entering the temple by Bajrang Dal activists for Ranbir’s alleged remarks on beef-eating.

Whether the Lord can also stall political demise of governments or individuals is not known but it is fact the Chouhan-led state government is making all efforts to propitiate him.

The government has launched a Mahakaleshwar Temple Corridor project in Ujjain, along the lines of the Kashi Vishwanath Corridor in Varanasi. Prime Minister Narendra Modi will inaugurate the first phase of the project on October 11. The 900-metre corridor will have around 200 statues and murals related to Shiva, Shakti and other Hindu deities. The first phase of the project, worth Rs 351 crore, has been completed. The second phase will cost another Rs 310 crore. At its meeting in Ujjain, the state cabinet decided to name the corridor as “Mahakaal Lok”.

There is little doubt that Chouhan is in urgent need of divine blessings. Under his leadership, the BJP was defeated in the assembly elections in November 2018. It is another matter that the Kamal Nath-led Congress government that was formed subsequently, collapsed in March 2020 after 22 MLAs owing allegiance to Jyotiraditya Scindia walked out of the Congress. The BJP, of course, denied that it had anything to do with the en masse defection but it did go on to reward Jyotiraditya Scindia with a Rajya Sabha nomination and later a berth in the union council of ministers. The defectors resigned their seats and were named as BJP candidates in the by-polls that followed. Those who won were made ministers, those who lost were given positions in state-owned corporations and boards. 

The cabinet meeting in progress with the photo of Mahakaal at the head of the table flanked by Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chauhan and the chief secretary

After taking over the chief minister for the fourth time in March 2020, Chouhan has been diligently trying to project himself as a loyal soldier of the Hindutva brigade and a tough administrator. Some say he is trying to emulate, even surpass, Yogi Adityanath. Like Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, too, now has a law allowing the government to recover the cost of damage to public and private property from those indulging in vandalism during protests. The Prevention of Damage to Public and Private Property and Recovery of Damages Bill was passed by the state assembly in December 2021. Like in the neighbouring state, the homes of alleged criminals are also being bulldozed. Needless to say, the police and the administration are the prosecutor, the judge and the enforcer in all such cases. And that, in turn, means that all the biases generally attributed to governments led by members of the Sangh Parivar, seep into the decision-making process. 

There are other subtle messages, too. The chief minister skipped his customary visit to the Idgah in Bhopal to greet the namazis on Eid in July this year– this when public offering of prayers was allowed after a two-year, pandemic-induced hiatus. In his earlier terms, Chouhan regularly drove to the Idgah on Eid and greeted Muslims with handshakes and embraces as they came out after offering namaz. Similarly, Roza Aftar, a regular fixture at his residence during the month of Ramzan, was also given a go-by this year and so was his courtesy call on the Shahar Quazi. 

Similarly, on Christmas, Chouhan used to visit the residence of the local archbishop and throw a party at the chief minister’s official residence, with prominent Christians in attendance. All this is history now. 

On the other hand, Chouhan does not let go of any opportunity to show what a devout Hindu is. This year on Ganesh Chaturthi, he, accompanied by his wife, went to a market in Bhopal to buy an idol of Ganesha and returned in an open vehicle with the idol, camera crews in tow. He also turned the immersion of the idol at the end of the 10-day festival into a public spectacle. 

But amid all this, and more, the BJP’s performance in the urban civic body elections in the state in July was nothing to write home about. It lost seven of the 16 municipal corporations in the state, all of which they controlled earlier. Even more alarming for the party was the successful entry of the Aam Aadmi Party into the poll arena. AAP managed to win the Singrauli Municipal Corporation and enthused by the success, it is now trying to make further inroads. If that happens, Madhya Pradesh’s essentially bi-polar polity may turn tri-polar, posing a new challenge to the ruling party and to a lesser extent to the defanged Congress. 

Then, in August, Chouhan was dropped from the BJP Parliamentary Board – the highest decision-making body of the party – a post he had been holding since 2013. This triggered speculations that the party’s top leadership wants to cut him to size, prompting Chouhan to clarify that the party has given him so much that “even if it asks me to lay daris [carpets] I will do it”. 

Assembly elections are about a year away. Clearly, the BJP would like to enter the polls with a leader who can ensure victory. Given Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s penchant for sacking chief ministers overnight and replacing them with non-entities (Gujarat is one example that comes to mind), the detractors of Chouhan are boldly predicting that he will be shown the door before the elections. 

Against this backdrop, no wonder, Chouhan is seeking sanctuary in Lord Mahakaal. Whether the Lord obliges him is anybody’s guess.  

(Read the article in Hindi here.)


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About The Author

Amrish Herdenia

Amrish Herdenia is Editor (Translation), Forward Press. He has been the Madhya Pradesh bureau chief for ‘Deccan Herald’, ‘Daily Tribune’, ‘Daily Newstime’ and the weekly ‘Sunday Mail’. He has translated several books, including ‘Gujarat: Behind the Curtain’ by R.B. Sreekumar, former Director General of Police, Gujarat, from the original English to Hindi

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