Former Madhya Pradesh chief minister Raman Singh is known to start his day after 11 am, but this Sunday, he makes an exception. He leaves his residence in Rajnandgaon, from where he is contesting the coming Assembly elections, at 10.30 am to watch Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Mann Ki Baat at Sindhu Bhawan, which is run by the local Sindhi community.
After the PM’s radio show is over, a long queue of notables of the Sindhi community forms to garland Singh at a hall on the first floor. A stoic Raman Singh stands straight, mechanically bowing his head to be garlanded, then removing the garlands and placing them on a table in a heap. Later, he presents shawls to those present, again without a hint of an expression.
The longest-serving CM of Chhattisgarh, who spent three terms in power from 2003 to 2018, only to disappear from public sight after the 2018 trouncing, seems a little disconcerted at this sudden return to spotlight. Struggling to come up with a face in its own ranks to take on Congress CM Bhupesh Baghel, the BJP has dropped hints of turning back to Singh.
The fadeout of the past five years had been abrupt for Singh, 71, given his popularity while in power, earning him the fond moniker of “chaaur wale baba” for supplying cheap rice to the poor at Rs 2-3 a kg. On a recent late-night flight from Raipur to Delhi, passengers struggled to place Singh as he stood mobbed by journalists, and was received by NSG commandos. Told that this was Singh, a passenger’s eyes widened: “The poorva mukhyamantri (the former CM)?”
Singh’s perceptible lack of enthusiasm is striking given that Rajnandgaon is set to vote in less than a week, one of 20 Assembly seats slotted for Chhattisgarh first phase polling on November 7. The constituency known for its rich Marwari and Sindhi community is Singh’s bastion, won thrice by him.
At Sindhu Bhawan, the BJP leader patiently, but impassively, fields questions from the local TV media, only seeming ruffled once when asked for an exclusive byte. But he quickly regains his composure.
This time, Singh is facing the Congress’s Girish Devangan, who is chairman of Chhattisgarh Mining Corporation and known in party circles as a friend of CM Baghel. Devangan belongs to the OBC weaving community, which has a significant presence in Rajnandgaon. While Devangan’s candidature fits with the Congress’s caste pitch, the BJP is fighting accusations of having ignored the community in its list.
Devangan has been on the Enforcement Directorate’s (ED’s) radar over the coal mines scam. The limelight that has followed the Congress’s ticket to him may come to his rescue if the ED swoops down now.
Yet, very few think Devangan poses any challenge to Singh.
Speaking to The Indian Express after the engagement at Sindhi Bhawan, Singh raises the BJP’s corruption charges against the Congress, claiming that the amount is in the range of Rs 15,000 crore, but doesn’t refer to Devangan.
To many, it is a sign that Singh doesn’t want to be pigeonholed as a local leader, and has his eyes on the state as a whole.
On the Congress’s pitch for a caste census, Singh asks why the party and CM Baghel had raised it now, after decades in power. “When they are in power, they don’t remember caste census. When the model code of conduct comes into play, they start talking big. It should be done on a scientific basis and we will do something later,” he says.
On Baghel’s claim that the Congress is fostering a distinctive “Chhattisgarhia identity”, Singh says it was under former BJP prime minister Atal Bihar Vajpayee that the state had been carved out of Madhya Pradesh. The Congress claims are hollow, he says, giving the example of the three nominated to the Rajya Sabha from the state recently. “The Congress could not find a single Chhattisgarhia. They found one person from Bihar, one from Karnataka and one from UP. This is Bhupesh’s love for Chhattisgarh.”
At Sindhu Bhawan, a group of people approaches Singh about a train that now leaves Raipur at about 5 am, making daily travel difficult. The Congress has been raising changes in train schedules and cancellations in the state. Singh looks carefully at their complaint, then hands it to his staff to forward it to the authorities.
As the young men and women touch his feet before leaving, Singh barely registers the same.
As his convoy leaves after the meet-and-greet lasting around half-an-hour, a local comments on the “good” done by Singh, particularly the well-kept road in Rajnandgaon. “The commute is easy. Dr Saheb (Singh is a homeopathic doctor) made a good road as CM,” he says.
But, do they want him to take over again? “Nahin. Achha kaam kiye par bahot saal ho gaya inko (No. He did good work but he was in power for very long),” says a bystander.
Cricket World Cup: Why India is not in the semifinals yet despite winning six out of six games
‘Ghatiya harkat’, ‘Pathetic’: Pakistan cricket legends livid as Pakistan news channel airs Babar Azam’s purported WhatsApp chats
So, if Singh seems detached, the sentiment appears matched by the public, who don’t hold any hard feelings but no nostalgia either. There is little or no discussion about him in the villages and towns here, unless people are asked specifically about the BJP leader.
The former CM appears animated only in Kawardha, his hometown. A house, built by him in the 1980s when he was a councillor, still houses a ‘Raman Medical Store’, now run by his younger brother Anand Singh.
But the despondency settles again, when Singh is asked the million-dollar CM question. “The decision on chief ministership will be taken after the elections, by the party legislators. The BJP is not going into the polls with a chief ministerial face,” he says.