Opinion

MP farmers’ stir: How Shivraj Singh Chouhan pulled a fast one (and not for the first time)

In the past, when under fire for the plight of farmers in his state, Chouhan has successfully deflected the blame.

Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s fast to restore peace in violence-hit western Madhya Pradesh – the hub of a farmers agitation to secure fair prices for their produce and loan waivers from the state government – lasted nearly 28 hours, till Sunday afternoon.

Before he started his fast on Saturday, Chouhan said that his penance would continue “till complete calm returned in the state”. However, by then his stated objective had already been achieved. No fresh incidents of violence were reported from curfew-bound Mandsaur town, where five farmers were killed on June 6 when the police fired on them. The rest of the state was also peaceful, and fresh trouble seemed unlikely to erupt as the 10-day long farmers stir had ended that day itself.

Then why did Chouhan sit on an indefinite fast at Bhopal, 350 km away from Mandsaur, the epicentre of the violence?

Gandhian weapon

Two previous fasts that Chouhan has gone on are evidence that no other Bharatiya Janata Party leader understands the usefulness of the Gandhian weapon of fasting better than he does. These fasts allowed him to successfully deflect the fire he faced because of the plight of farmers in his state.

In 2011, two years before Aam Aadmi Party leader Arvind Kejriwal went on a two-week-long fast to protest against alleged inflated water and electricity bills in Delhi, Chouhan started a hunger strike to highlight the United Progressive Alliance-led Union government’s alleged discrimination against Madhya Pradesh’s farmers.

At that time, Chouhan was under tremendous pressure from the main Opposition Congress and farmers’ bodies in the state to provide a relief package to farmers whose crops had been damaged by frost. He needed a way out. Chouhan blamed the plight of farmers on the Centre, and announced a fast against the Manmohan Singh government. The venue was Dussehra maidan, also the site of his latest fast.

However, Chouhan called off his intended indefinite fast within minutes of starting it following an assurance given to him by the prime minister. The week-long build-up to that fast, however, brought him nationwide publicity. It bolstered his image as a pro-farmer chief minister even though he had done little to assuage the woes of farmers.

The same tactic came handy in 2014, when Chouhan started another fast against the Centre on March 5, which was also his birthday. (Significantly, June 10, when he began his latest fast, is his wife Sadhna Singh’s birthday. She fasted with her husband, while their two sons were present at the fast site. Birthdays add to the emotional quotient of such exercises, and Chouhan seems to be well aware of that.) The four-hour-long fast, held two months ahead of the Lok Sabha elections, was part of a state-wide bandh that the BJP had called to protest against the Union government’s alleged indifferent attitude towards Madhya Pradesh’s farmers who had been hit by unseasonal rains and hailstorm. At that time, Chouhan had appealed to the Union government to provide the state with a special package of Rs 5,000 crores to help it deal with the crisis.

Then too, the chief minister succeeded in deflecting onto the Centre the heat he faced regarding the plight of farmers. In the subsequent elections, the BJP won 27 out of 29 parliamentary seats in Madhya Pradesh. Chouhan’s image as the “humble son of a farmer” was built up during campaigning for the polls.

During the farmers' agitation in Bhopal on Sunday. (Photo credit: PTI).
During the farmers' agitation in Bhopal on Sunday. (Photo credit: PTI).

Shifting the blame

Rattled by the violence during the latest farmers’ stir, Chouhan perhaps felt the need to shift the blame again. However, this time Chouhan’s own BJP is heading the Union government, so blaming the Centre was not an option. Instead, the narrative changed from the Centre’s discrimination against farmers to the Congress party’s instigation of farmers as the main cause for the widespread unrest.

The latest fast was carefully scripted. It started on the last day of the 10-day-long stir, when leaders of defiant farmer unions from the state were in New Delhi to chalk out strategies to expand the agitation across the country.

The families of four of the five farmers who had been killed in the Mandsaur police firing were brought to the fasting site, and Chouhan met them late on Saturday evening. Following that meeting, Chouhan told the media that he had assured the grieving family members that those responsible for the police firing would be punished, and that the families had asked him to discontinue his fast.

The Congress described Chouhan’s fast as a “drama”.

“One thing that made me emotional was the number of our children that we lost in these protests,” Chouhan told reporters on Sunday. “Their parents came to meet me and despite such grief befalling upon them, asked me to put an end to the issue.”

But despite meeting the families of the victims of police firing on Saturday, Chouhan ended his fast only the next day, possibly in order to exploit media coverage of his fast to the hilt.

When the farmers’ stir started, Chouhan’s image had taken a severe beating in the media. By giving interviews to assorted news channels during his fast, which were later picked up and published by several news websites, he managed minimise the damage and also succeeded in getting the media to broadcast his emotionally suffused comments on welfare measures that the state has extended to farmers in the last 11-odd years that he has headed the state government.

“The farmers and their issues were in my thoughts and dreams,” he told reporters. “I have always tried doing a lot for farmers, and their problem is ours. They are our own.”

Chouhan also caught the attention of his party leadership. By the time veteran BJP leader Kailash Joshi offered him coconut water with which he broke his fast, senior party leaders including Union minister Thawar Chand Gehlot, state BJP general secretary Kailash Vijayvargiya and Union minister Narendra Singh Tomar had visited him at the site. State BJP president Nand Kumar Singh Chouhan also claimed that Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP president Amit Shah had called on Saturday night to enquire about Chouhan’s health.

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