|SPOT THE CANDIDATE: “Star” Shivraj Singh Chouhan, the Madhya Pradesh chief minister, campaigns for “satellite” Sushma in Vidisha on Tuesday. Picture by Saeed Faruqui
The BJP leadership never misses an opportunity to mock at Manmohan Singh — or Maunmohan Singh as Modi insists on calling him — for his silence during the most raucous election campaign this country has witnessed. But if there is one person whose silence, whose absence from the national stage is a lot more intriguing than that of the outgoing Prime Minister, it is that of outgoing leader of Opposition Sushma Swaraj.
Singh, to be fair, was never known for working the crowds, never attempted to be a mass leader. Sushma, on the other hand, figures in the top ranks of fiery orators and as leader of Opposition in the Lok Sabha — a “shadow Prime Minister” under the Westminster model — is a leading light of the BJP.
Of course, with the BJP conducting a presidential style campaign this election revolving around the larger-than-life persona of Modi, Westminster model niceties have little place in the party’s strategy. But even in this Modi-centric election, other BJP leaders have occasionally managed to make their presence felt.
Arun Jaitley is always in the news — he writes a daily blog and some TV channel or another covers his Amritsar campaign with devoted diligence. Rajnath Singh manages to get a bit of the spotlight by meeting sundry clerics in Lucknow. L.K. Advani and M.M. Joshi, too, are in and out of the headlines for whatever they say or do not say in praise of Modi. Even a Nitin Gadkari manages to get in to prime-time TV shows in this long-drawn-out poll season.
But Sushma is nowhere to be seen. She gives no interviews, refuses to take journalists on her campaign trail, has rarely stepped out of Vidisha to campaign for anyone else — and has come to regret the two occasions when she did speak out.
The first was when she told reporters in Vidisha on March 23 that she was “personally saddened” by the decision not to give Jaswant Singh a party ticket and that “this was one issue that was not discussed at the party’s central election committee”. The second was when she gave a tongue-lashing to local leaders at Shivpuri for not receiving her at the helipad when she had come to campaign for a party candidate.
No one quite knows the real reason behind Sushma’s strange silence but as we travel around Vidisha — the town is barely 50km from Bhopal, a little beyond the famous Buddhist shrine of Sanchi but the Lok Sabha constituency itself is massive and predominantly rural — several theories abound.
Local reporters tell us that she has, in an unguarded moment, confessed that “mere mooh mein tape laga hua hain” (my mouth is taped) but it was not clear if she was referring to a gag order from above or a self-imposed silence.
Sushma is known for speaking her mind. Since she isn’t exactly a Modi acolyte, she may have decided to keep quiet for the moment, a sullen silence preferable to hypocritical hosannas.
It could also be tactical. Just in case Modi’s dream of becoming India’s next Prime Minister does not come to bear, Sushma would emerge as the one leader who kept her distance and dignity alive — by not doing a Jaswant Singh and leaving the party, but not doing an Advaniesque somersault either.
But theories apart, the more likely reason we have seen and heard so little of Sushma on the “national scene” so far is that she has been completely grounded in Vidisha.
That might sound surprising because Vidisha has long been a BJP bastion. The Congress has won this seat only twice — in 1980 and 1984. The Lok Sabha constituency spans eight Assembly segments spread over as many as four districts — Vidisha, Raisen, Sehore and Dewas.
In the Assembly elections less than six months ago, the BJP won six of the eight segments that include Budhni — chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s own seat. The chief minister, in fact, contested from both Vidisha and Budhni, winning Vidisha by a margin of over 17,000 votes and Budhni by 85,000 votes.
On the face of it, therefore, Vidisha should be a cakewalk for Sushma — just like it was in 2009 when she won by a margin of 3.75 lakh votes. But there is a crucial difference between then and now.
In 2009, it was a cakewalk like no other because the Congress candidate, Raj Kumar Patel, failed to complete the nomination procedures and his candidature was rejected.
This time, the Congress candidate, Lakshman Singh, is much more formidable — not least because he is the younger brother of former chief minister and Congress heavyweight Digvijaya Singh.
But it is not Lakshman Singh’s clout but Sushma’s deep unpopularity among the voters of Vidisha, we discover, that has made this election a tough battle for her.
Be it shopkeepers in Vidisha town or villagers we meet on the ramshackle roads between Vidisha and Raisen, there is palpable anger against their “VIP MP” who, they insist, was completely inaccessible during her entire term.
The BJP has brought out glossy pamphlets detailing the many schemes and projects Sushma has brought to Vidisha. But they seem to have made little difference on the ground.
The overwhelming sentiment is that Sushma was a distant figure who seldom visited her constituency and was never available for the small things her constituents need an MP for. That she was a national leader of eminence and one of the most effective speakers in the Lok Sabha cuts little ice with the ordinary voter.
Even BJP supporters confess that on her own, Sushma would find it tough this time but she has the “Modi factor” and the “Shivraj factor” working in her favour.
Sushma seems to be well aware of this. Initially, she never took Modi’s name but now she seeks votes in the name of “Modiji ka netritva (Modi’s leadership)”, “Shivrajji ka lokpriyata (Shivraj’s popularity)” and “Congress ki janvirodhi nitiyon ke khilaf” (against the Congress’s anti-people policies.)
While the “Modi factor” is important in charging up the BJP-RSS cadres, it is the Shivraj factor that appears to be far more crucial for Sushma. For Shivraj too, a handsome victory for Sushma is essential to prove that he remains numero uno in this election, at least in Madhya Pradesh. That is why the chief minister has exhorted party leaders to join the campaign in Vidisha.
Since Vidisha votes on April 24, several ministers and MLAs have descended on this constituency after completing the campaign in seats which went to polls on April 10 and 17.
But if the voices of discontent we heard in villages such as Sothia and Alamkheda in Raisen district are anything to go by, even the Shivraj factor may not deliver the “four-lakh (victory) margin” Sushma is hoping for.
In Sothia, Bhag Chand Selawat leads a chorus of farmers in attacking the government. “We lost our entire soya bean crop last year and only voted for Shivraj because he had promised us Rs 8,200 per hectare as compensation. We never got that. And in February this year, all our crops were damaged by hailstorms. We have yet to get a paisa in compensation.”
The “compensation” issue has created a wave of anger among small and marginal farmers in rural Vidisha. Shivraj is working overtime to offset this anger, which coupled with Sushma’s unpopularity, has made this battle much tougher than either had envisaged.
That Sushma is utterly dependent on Shivraj’s campaigning skills become apparent when we attend a rally at Raisen late on Sunday evening. The Dussehra Maidan where the rally is being held is less than half full and has a lacklustre air about it. The mood doesn’t lift even after Sushma arrives and local leaders raise lusty slogans in favour of the “eminent parliamentarian”. Sushma sits quietly on stage for a full hour before Shivraj arrives.
Immediately, there is a distinct change in the atmosphere. Astute politician that she is, Sushma keeps her speech short and pithy, and waits for Shivraj to take over.
He delivers a fiery oration, lashing out at the Congress, the Nehru-Gandhi family and “jeejaji” (Robert Vadra) in the same no-holds-barred way as Modi. In Vidisha, at least, he is the star; Sushma a mere satellite.
When we manage to catch up with her after the rally, Sushma repeats what she has told others — she has nothing to say right now. After April 24, she will be back in Delhi.
Will she end her silence then? She smiles and moves away. That could be a yes, or a no, or a maybe.
Vidisha votes on April 24