In the run-up to elections in Madhya Pradesh at the end of the year, the Congress has accused the Bharatiya Janata Party government led by Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan of not delivering on thousands of announcements made in the close to 13 years it has been in power. Chouhan has responded to only two of these announcements – one related to the cow and the other to the deity Ram.

In answer to the Congress’ promise on September 5 to build cow shelters in all 23,000 village panchayats if voted to power, Chouhan on Sunday announced a separate cow ministry as well as more cow sanctuaries in the state.

Similarly, his government announced the revival of its Ram Van Path Gaman project after the Congress brought it up. The BJP government had in 2007 announced a pilgrimage that would trace the route Ram is believed to have taken on his way to 14 years in exile. This route is said to extend from Chitrakoot on the border with Uttar Pradesh to Amarkantak, the origin of the Narmada river on the border with Chhattisgarh. The project was essentially aimed at Hindus in the state’s Vindhya region ahead of Assembly elections in 2008. It was abandoned after the BJP put up a strong performance in this region. It did not speak of the project again, even when the next elections came around in 2013.

Earlier this month, the Congress announced plans to organise a yatra along the exile route. It was to start on September 23 but was postponed after a group of Hindu priests refused to take part in it, citing Patr Paksh – the fortnight preceding the Hindu New Year, which is considered inauspicious for religious work. The Congress now plans to hold the yatra once this period is over.

In its counter to the Congress plan, BJP leader Tapan Bhowmick, who heads the Madhya Pradesh Tourism Development Corporation, told reporters the Central government had pledged Rs 100 crore that would be used to develop the pilgrim route. He added that the state cabinet had earmarked an additional Rs 70 crore for the project.

In the name of the cow

Chouhan’s announcement of a cow ministry was expected after the Congress’ promise to build shelters for the animal. While this move shows the Congress’ tilt towards soft Hindutva, it also brings into sharp focus the state of cows in Madhya Pradesh.

The most glaring example of the state government’s inability to keep its promise to protect the cow is the mismanagement of India’s first cow sanctuary in Susner, a town in Agar district in the Malwa region. Inaugurated by Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh chief Mohan Bhagwat in 2012, the sanctuary started operations in September 2017. Spread across 472 hectares, it was built to accommodate 6,000 stray and abandoned cows in its 24 sheds but its actual capacity is around 4,000 cows. Since February, however, the shelter has stopped accepting cattle because of a shortage of fodder and water.

The cow conservation board that runs the sanctuary has more than 600 registered gaushalas. Its chairman, Akhileshanand Giri, admits there are a total of 1,296 cow shelters in the state and most of them are crumbling, primarily for lack of funds. Citing this paucity of funds, he had urged the chief minister in June to set up a cow ministry. Chouhan has said the proposed ministry will replace the board.

The cow ministry – like the “happiness department” the state government set up in 2016 – is an unsolicited, official set-up the chief minister wants to foist on the people. The happiness ministry has done nothing beyond preparing a questionnaire asking people what makes them happy. However, the BJP thinks the chief minister’s announcement of a cow ministry has effectively countered the Congress’ move.

Discourse between the BJP and Congress in Madhya Pradesh has been reduced to whether Rahul Gandhi is a genuine Shiva bhakt. (Photo credit: via Twitter)

‘Ghoshana machine’ versus ‘Shiva bhakt’

In this atmosphere of religious symbolism that has come to dominate electioneering in Madhya Pradesh, the Congress has given Chouhan room to skirt real issues such as corruption, unemployment, farmer distress and the Vyapam case – an investigation into alleged irregularities in various entrance and recruitment exams conducted by the Madhya Pradesh Professional Examination Board.

Meanwhile, discourse between the BJP and Congress has been reduced to whether Rahul Gandhi is a genuine Shiva bhakt (devotee) following his pilgrimage to Kailash Mansarovar in late August. Life-size posters of the Congress chief pouring holy water on a Shivaling marked the route of his roadshow in Bhopal on September 17, during which Gandhi took the blessings of Hindu priests. He followed up the roadshow with a visit to a Ram temple in Chitrakoot.

During these visits, Gandhi called Chouhan a “ghoshana machine”, referring to his announcements. According to Gandhi’s party colleague Ajay Singh, who is leader of the Opposition in the state, Chouhan has made 21,000 announcements as chief minister but only 386 of these have been implemented.

While silent on the allegation of not keeping election promises, the chief minister picked up on the sobriquet given to him by Gandhi. Addressing BJP workers in Bhopal on September 25 in the presence of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and party president Amit Shah, Chouhan declared, “I am a ghoshana machine like Sachin Tendulkar is a run machine and Rahul Gandhi a fun-machine.”