The ‘sadhu’ road to power in Madhya Pradesh

The love affair of the Central Indian state’s politicians with seers continues. Such fondness for babas suggests the government isn’t interested in a reasoned approach to administration

Getty images
Getty images

Chandarakant Naidu

After leading the BJP to power in Madhya Pradesh in 2003, Uma Bharti had aroused curiosity on how a Sannyasin would administer a state. In 2004, her government organised a seminar on Alternative Strategies for Development. The organisers had got the then President, APJ Abdul Kalam, to inaugurate the seminar. And, for the valedictory session, they had invited Asaram Bapu, the Godman who is a convicted criminal today.

It would be too much to expect the government to promote scientific temper among its people. But such fondness for Babas suggests the government isn’t interested in a reasoned approach to administration but prefers to emote its way out of critical situations. Uma Bharti’s administrative abilities had rarely matched her electoral popularity. No wonder then that she lasted just eight months as Chief Minister.

Seers have been part of political and public discourse for quite some time in the state. Even Congress party chief ministers have allowed Sadhus considerable space in the political domain. Former Chief Minister Arjun Singh was known to be a devotee of Mauni Baba and Digvijay Singh and the new president of the state Congress are quite close to Shankaracharya Swaroopanand who has a shrine near Jabalpur. While these three leaders sought spiritual solace in the company of seers, both Uma Bharti and Shivraj Singh Chouhan have tried to profit from the seers’ hold over gullible followers. Chouhan staged a Narmada Yatra last July to clean Central India’s most holy river.

What is more shocking? The government offering bribe or some ash-smeared Sanyasis losing no time in accepting it?

To hog more limelight, he announced a plan to plant six crore saplings along the river’s banks on July 2, 2017. The event, a 12-hour simultaneous plantation drive in all 24 districts the river traverses through, was intended to be a Guinness World Record. The Guinness representatives deployed at different spots, held back all announcements asking the state government to produce videos of each of the 1.2 lakh plantation sites before the July 1 deadline this year.

The government hasn’t responded yet. The forest department officials are, however, sure they would beat the deadline. The stretch of land should have become the envy of the nation with a massive green cover. However, by January, there were protests after most saplings, planted at a cost of over ₹100 crore, just disappeared into the thin air. In March, some Sanyasis led by Namdeo Tyagi alias Computer Baba and Pandit Yogendra Mahant announced a Ghotala Rathyatra to expose the corruption in Chouhan’s campaign. The yatra was to start on April 1.

The babas demanded enquiry into the disappearance of millions of saplings, the unmitigated unauthorised mining of sand from the Narmada river-bed, closure of factories that allow hazardous effluents to flow into the river and constitution of a committee to supervise the environment conservation efforts. The Sadhus demanded a place in the committee. That perhaps gave the CMO the bright idea to deal with the threat. On April 3 came the announcement from the government according ministerial status to five so-called Sadhus—Computer Baba, Yogendra Mahant, Narmadanand Maharaj, Hariharanand Maharaj and Bhayyu Maharaj.

Computer Baba loves computers and helicopters and his close confidante Yogendra Mahant was earlier with the Congress and had unsuccessfully contested the civic elections thrice. The government has succeeded in turning the attackers into its shield. It remains hard to decide what is more shocking - the government offering bribe; or some ash-smeared Sanyasis losing no time in accepting it. Just as the government allowed itself to be blackmailed, the seers also exposed themselves as mere political touts.

Computer Baba has now demanded a ticket for his confidante for the forthcoming Assembly elections. In a twist in the tale, Bhayyu Maharaj and Narmadanand declined the government’s offer of ministerial status. Bhayyu Maharaj who was one of the interlocutors for the state government to negotiate with Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) chairman Medha Patkar apparently felt he deserved more than MoS status. Hariharanand, who hails from Uttar Pradesh, has a shrine at Amarkantak, the source of the Narmada. He has been a votary of turning the Narmada yatra route into a tourism circuit. He has accepted the MoS status. Now, since their elevation as ministers, the Babas have gone into a proactive mode to back the government’s claims. Computer Baba says he will help the government in proving that the saplings, which have now grown tall, exist.

The Congress has welcomed the two seers’ refusal to accept the ministerial status. More than the Opposition, Shivraj Singh’s own party has been critical of his decision. Former Chief Minister and party veteran Babulal Gaur was sarcastic. He said the Chief Minister had turned the Sadhus into subordinates of the government. He said the Sadhus got all perks without joining the party, contesting any elections or even demanding the ministerial status. This could be the eighth wonder of the world, he quipped. Another party veteran, Raghunandan Sharma, was candid. He said by pleasing a few pliable Sadhus the Shivraj government may have antagonised many others who were conscious of their stature. While pleasing the five, Chouhan may have turned 500 saints against the party.

Madhya Pradesh has 32 ministers (including the Chief Minister) from among its elected members. The BJP has obliged 134 others with ministerial status with an annual cost of over ₹30 crore to the exchequer. The Aam Aadmi Party, which was embarrassed for appointing some parliamentary secretaries, had cited this as an example of the BJP’s double standards.

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