Pilgrims entering Ujjain could be forgiven for mistaking the Simhastha Kumbh for a Madhya Pradesh government event. The smiling Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan, his hands folded in welcome, greets visitors on banners and hoardings on every road leading to the city. The month-long festival concludes on Saturday.

It's just one sign of how the religious congregation, which takes place once in 12 years, has been harnessed to market the chief minister. BJP insiders see the conversion of a religious fair into a virtual government event as indicative of Chouhan’s overall political ambitions.

No expense spared

The Madhya Pradesh government’s expense on Simhastha Kumbh-related advertisements alone reveals the extent of the branding blitzkrieg. State public relations department officials told this reporter that the department spent Rs 600 crore on advertising this event. This is over double the budget for the entire 2004 Kumbh. The expenses this year were on advertisements in print, television, websites, as well as on booklets to attract devotees to the mega event. In most of these advertisements, Chouhan’s face dwarfs the Simhastha 2016 logo. The state’s public relations department put up Chouhan’s hoardings even in far-off Delhi and Mumbai.

During the 2004 Kumbh, the Bharatiya Janata Party government in Madhya Pradesh led by Uma Bharati had earmarked Rs 256 crore for the religious congregation.

In February, state transport minister Bhupendra Singh, who is also in charge of the Simhastha, said that Madhya Pradesh had spent Rs 3,000 crore on preparations for the Kumbh so far, and that the total expenditure could go up to Rs 5,000 crore. He justified the expenditure, saying a large chunk of it was spent to build permanent structures to develop Ujjain into a major pilgrimage centre.

This spending comes even as 41 of the state’s 51 districts are reeling under drought, and lakhs of farmers are still awaiting their share in the relief package that the Chouhan government has announced. It comes even as the state’s debt ballooned to over Rs 1 lakh crore in 2014-'15 from Rs 20,000 crore in 2003, when the BJP first came to power in Madhya Pradesh. In fact, budgets of several state departments have been curtailed to fund the proposed relief package for farmers.

Political ambitions

BJP insiders say the attention given to the Kumbh has political reasons. They say Chouhan aims to emerge as an icon of soft Hindutva in the mould of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, and add that the chief minister sees the Simhastha Kumbh as the perfect launchpad to realise this goal.

They say that Chouhan is acutely conscious of the perception both within and outside his party that he is an inclusive leader. All through his decade-long stint as chief minister, he has been cautious not to antagonise minorities. This is in sharp contrast to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s aggressive Hindutva. However, they add that Chouhan does not want to give the impression that he is pitching to emerge as a more liberal alternative to Modi. His core team, therefore, devised strategies to involve Modi, BJP president Amit Shah and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh chief Mohan Bhagwat in Chouhan’s image-building project at the Kumbh.

For this, three different programmes were chalked out. A three-day-long international symposium – Vaicharik Kumbh – was held in May to discuss the spiritual and environmental messages of the Simhastha. While RSS chief Bhagwat inaugurated the symposium, Prime Minister Modi was its chief guest on the concluding day. The deliberations were held in a village 20 km away from Ujjain, where a special hut was built for Modi to stay in. In all, the conference cost the state exchequer Rs 50 crores.

For Amit Shah, the state unit of the BJP organised a harmony march with sadhus from the scheduled castes. The plan was that Shah would accompany them from one ghat to another and they would all take a holy dip together at the main ghat. The political intent of the programme was to send out a message to Dalits that the BJP believes in equality. This was clearly done keeping the 2017 Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh in mind.

However, the proposed march was scaled down after upper caste seers staged a massive protest against it, saying that it was against Hindu dharma to discriminate against saints on the basis of caste. Though Shah did end up taking a holy dip with some Dalit sadhus, it was at Valmiki ghat, and not the main Ram Ghat. The controversy left the BJP red-faced.

Shah and Chouhan later ate a meal with sadhus of all communities in attendance. The state government also facilitated a community feast with RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat and Dalit scavengers. This comes in the backdrop of Bhagwat’s comments on caste-based reservations that had created controversy last year.

The Simhastha jinx

The RSS has played a large role in organising the fair. Its cadres were involved in preparations and it was Sangh volunteers who invited saints of various akharas and mutts to the Kumbh. A large number of Sangh affiliates were also allotted generous accommodation during the fair.

Chouhan’s willingness to let the Sangh run the show at the government’s expense flummoxed a section of BJP leaders, as well as officers engaged in arrangements for the Kumbh.

“It looks like the chief minister is haunted by the Simhastha jinx and wants the RSS to help him break it”, a senior officer remarked.

The jinx refers to the superstition that Madhya Pradesh chief ministers usually lose their posts shortly after the Simhastha Kumbh is held. Although Chouhan has scoffed at the superstition whenever he is reminded of it, BJP insiders say they believe it weighs heavy on his mind. This is why, they say, the chief minister has been focused on organising the Simhastha since at least 2011.

A senior BJP leader recalled that in 2013, a project worth Rs 430 crore to bring Narmada water from Indore district to Ujjain to augment the Kshipra river’s water level for the Kumbh was executed in record time.

Series of unfortunate events

However, despite the Chouhan’s keenness to ensure that the Kumbh went off smoothly, it was beset with bad news. This included complaints of corruption, administrative mismanagement, mistreatment of pilgrims by security forces, angry sadhus, a large number of thefts, group clashes among sadhus and narcotics seizures in bulk. Seven people also died in a storm that caused chaos at the venue on May 6.

A day before the grand fair was to start on April 22, saints threatened to boycott it. They were unhappy with the accommodation arrangements and minister Bhupendra Singh had to rush to placate them.

The opening day brought more embarrassment to the government. For one, the turnout was far below expectations – the government had claimed 50 lakh devotees were expected to take a holy dip, but barely 5 lakh people actually did. Second, saints of various akharas were roused to anger when they learnt that the district’s top officers had bathed in the Kshipra river before their own ceremonial bath. Three days later, a sadhvi created a spectacle when she got a pit dug up so that she could take Samadhi alive in protest. She was upset that she had not been given facilities at par with her male counterparts, and accused the administration of gender bias. She was arrested on charges of disrupting the peace.

A day later, a group of Naga sadhus, upset at several thefts at the Kumbh, were captured on camera thrashing policemen. A violent clash between two groups of sadhus over an internal akhara election on May 6 also caused the state government acute embarrassment.

While the Simhastha administration said incidents like these were not unusual in a religious fair of this size, it had no satisfactory explanation for the deaths of seven people after a storm on May 6. The storm, which brought rain with it, lasted barely an hour but left destruction in its wake – pandals, tents and temporary toilets were uprooted, sewage pipelines broke and gutter water flowed into the Kshipra. At least 80 people were injured.

Chouhan rushed to the spot a few hours later and was widely covered in the media meeting injured pilgrims in hospital, serving tea to devotees and even helping fix tent poles at the Kumbh site.