POLITICS
12/11/2018 9:46 AM IST | Updated 12/11/2018 11:16 AM IST

How BJP’s Raman Singh Went From Ayurvedic Doctor To Three-Time Chief Minister Of Chhattisgarh

Raman Singh said he was like Muflis, a variation in popular card game, teen patti, where the player with the weakest cards wins.

Hindustan Times via Getty Images
Raman Singh in a file photo.

RAIPUR, Chhattisgarh — In the winter of 2003, Raman Singh was a little known minister of state in Atal Bihari Vajpayee's government in Delhi, when Dilip Singh Judeo, the erstwhile king of Jashpur, and the BJP's most visible leader from Chhattisgarh, was caught accepting a bribe on camera from a man purportedly representing an Australian mining company.

Fifteen years later, the alleged bribe — Rs 9 lakh — appears almost laughably small, but the allegations derailed Judeo's political career, and offered an opening to Singh.

A cabinet minister in the current state government said Singh was chosen to lead a predominantly tribal state as a compromise, as the BJP leadership, both at the centre and state, thought he would not be a threat.

Fifteen years later, he remains Chief Minister of Chhattisgarh — still mostly anonymous, and largely unknown, and still seen as mostly unthreatening and lacking ambition, despite ruling over Chhattisgarh for almost as long as the state has been in existence.

ALSO READ: In Chhattisgarh Election Rally, PM Modi Says Congress Supports 'Urban Maoists'

In the intervening years, Chhattisgarh has witnessed horrific mass-scale, state-sponsored violence in the form of the Salva Judum, extrajudicial killings under the guise of tackling the Maoist insurgency, the widespread acquisition of tribal lands and precious forest cover by corporate mining interests, farmer suicides, and the creation of class of fixers and wheeler-dealers who have acquired great wealth in the name of developing state where most of the population is poor, impoverished, and Adivasi.

Singh's son Abhishek, now an MP from Rajnandgaon, was accused of holding undeclared, offshore assets when his name appeared in the Panama papers.

"How do you think someone like Raman Singh has kept his cabinet under control and never allowed anyone else in the BJP to grow bigger than him?"

Yet none of this seems to have made much difference to Singh's career. Much like Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Singh has remained untouched by the chaos, corruption and violence he has overseen. Instead, he has continued to burnish his carefully cultivated public image as a quiet, unambitious, and honest politician in a state largely forgotten by the national media.

Meanwhile, almost every minister in his cabinet — Brijmohan Agrawal, Ajay Chandrakar, Rajesh Munat, Amar Agrwal, Kedar Kashyap — has faced allegations of corruption and high handedness.

A BJP insider said the allegations against the ministers were planned and plotted from the CM house.

"How do you think someone like Raman Singh has kept his cabinet under control and never allowed anyone else in the BJP to grow bigger than him?" the BJP leader contended.

"You cannot say that he is not involved in the decision-making process. He has created a perception the bureaucratic coterie around him takes all the decisions but that's not true," said a BJP minister and member of Singh's own cabinet. "Things move only when he gives a green signal. He would never see in your eyes when you talk to him and he would wipe his face every now and then."

Now as Chhattisgarh goes to polls once more, despite the disarray amongst the opposition Congress party, the election seems to be a tough fight between the BJP and the Congress.

In 2013 assembly elections, the BJP retained power only with a lead of 0.7 percent vote share. Singh is — once more — dogged by rumours that he might be replaced as Chief Minister even if he wins. But as always, his supporters appear confident that Chhattisgarh's Chief Minister by default will prevail once more.

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NEW DELHI, INDIA - NOVEMBER 3: Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Raman Singh during the inauguration of World Food India Conference at Vigyan Bhavan on November 3, 2017 in New Delhi, India. (Photo by Mohd Zakir/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

From an Ayurvedic Doctor to Chief Minister

The son of a lawyer from Kawardha town in the then undivided Madhya Pradesh state, Singh completed his graduation in Ayurvedic medicine and surgery from a college in Raipur. But his family's lower-middle class background did not leave him with much options and he had to go back to Kawardha.

He set up a temporary clinic in Thakurpara area of Kawardha and began practice as an Ayurvedic doctor.

"He has always been a soft-spoken, humble person. He would take any fees offered by his patients and at times treated poor patients without any charge," said Singh's close friend Sureshchand Chopda from Kawardha.

After a few years' of independent working, financial constraints forced Singh to work under Dr. A.K Srivastava in his clinic in Kawardha.

According to Chopda, his "soft spoken and affable" friend did not have a taste for politics, but his father was a member of the Jan Sangh, the BJP's forerunner, and in 1977 Singh joined the party's youth wing.

"I don't think he even thought he would join politics and achieve success," Chopda said.

Singh was elected to the Kawardha municipal local body twice in early 1980s and then won an assembly seat in then undivided Madhya Pradesh on the BJP's ticket. He was re-elected as an MLA in 1993, however, he continued to remain a small time leader from not so politically important area of the state.

In 1998 assembly elections, the scion of Kawardha royal family Yogeswhar Raj Singh defeated him, but the following year, he managed to get the BJP's ticket to contest from Rajnandgaon Lok Sabha seat, just as he appeared headed for political oblivion.

"Nobody was ready to support him in any way. He was also facing financial crunch as nobody wanted to bet on a losing horse."

But he was faced with an uphill task as he was pitted against Congress heavyweight Motilal Vora.

An editor of a Hindi newspaper in Raipur said that Singh was given ticket because no other BJP leader wanted to risk contesting against Vohra from Rajnandgaon.

"Nobody was ready to support him in any way. He was also facing financial crunch as nobody wanted to bet on a losing horse," Chopda recollects.

But Singh managed to achieve the unthinkable and defeated Vohra.

By this time the then BJP leadership had decided to carve out a separate state of Chhattisgarh from Madhya Pradesh and as the part of a plan to develop new leadership in the state Singh was made a minister of state in the Vajpayee cabinet.

Raipur MP Ramesh Bais and Dilip Singh Judeo from Chhattisgarh were also inducted in the union cabinet.

In 2003, Ramesh Bais was asked go to the state to prepare for the upcoming election.

Bais refused and the responsibility fell on Singh's shoulders, not because he wanted it but because he could not say no and lacked the stature to do so.

He was made the state BJP president and the party won the election in 2003 but Singh was not the first choice for the chief ministerial post which was expected to go to Judeo — only for him to ruled out by corruption allegations.

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NEW DELHI, INDIA - AUGUST 28: Chief Minister of Chhattisgarh Raman Singh arrives for the BJP Chief Ministers' Council Meeting at party office, on August 28, 2018 in New Delhi, India. The Council Meeting has been an annual affair since 2014 after Modi took over as Prime Minister. (Photo by Sonu Mehta/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

A Muflis who became the king

Singh boasts the state economy has grown at over 8 percent under his watch, his agriculture minister Brijmohan Agarwal claims that no farmer has committed suicide in the state under the BJP rule, and the government expends significant effort in managing the press.

According to the National Crime Records Bureau, the state ranked fourth among the states with the highest number of farmers' suicides in 2014 with 443 killing themselves within a span of a year.

In a written reply in Chhattisgarh assembly in December 2017, the state home minister Ramsevak Paikara said 1,344 farmers killed themselves in Chhattisgarh in just two years between 2015 to 2017.

The state government had imposed curfew in 10 districts of Chhattisgarh in September 2017 when almost all the farmers' groups launched a state-wide stir.

Most of these protesting farmers' demands included bonus for paddy crop, proper minimum support price for crops, loan waiver. Surprisingly, most of these demands were a part of the BJP's manifesto in 2013 assembly election in the state.

The state government's publicity department works overtime to deny farmers' suicide in the state.

Singh's lack of mass political support and stature made him depend on bureaucracy more than his cabinet.

Whenever a farmer's suicide is reported, the state publicity department issues a press note delinking the suicide from agrarian reasons and blames it on personal or family problems or additions.

Singh's tenure has also witnessed continuous bloodshed in southern part of the state.

Thousands of tribals were killed and displaced when Singh gave a free hand and encouraged Salwa Judum, an anti-Maoist militia.

In an interview with this reporter in 2014, Singh had termed Salwa Judum a "people's spontaneous movement" even after the militia was termed as outlawed by the apex court.

Singh has cultivated an image as "Chavur wale Baba" (Rice distributor) after he promised to provide rice at Rs. 1 to over 42,000 families of Chhattisgarh in 2013.

Earlier this week, union external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj termed Chhattisgarh's Public Distribution System as one of the best in the world. But in 2015, the state's anti-corruption department began a probe in the alleged irregularities in the state's PDS system and came across a dairy which pointed towards alleged kickbacks paid to the chief minister's wife, sister in law, and a personal assistant.

The opposition Congress put the PDS scam figure at Rs. 36,000 crore.

But there has been no headway in the investigation till date and the CM dismissed the allegations calling it a figment of imagination of the Congress.

In 2013, a convoy of the main opposition party the Congress was attacked by the Maoists in Bastar region of the state which eliminated almost the entire state leadership of the Congress including its state unit president Nandkumar Patel, former union minister V.C. Shukla and former leader of opposition in the state assembly Mahendra Karma.

If Karma and Patel's sons are to be believed, an attack of this scale is not possible without complicity of someone in the establishment.

Karma's younger son Deepak told this reporter in 2015 that he had made desperate calls to senior police officials and bureaucrats within minutes of the attack but no policeman reached the spot for over three hours after the attack.

"Had they even sent a helicopter to the spot, it would have scared the Maoists away and saved many lives," Deepak had contended.

Many officers, part of anti-Maoist operations, in the state believe that it was impractical for the security agencies to not have any hints of such large Maoist formation moving hardly 50 kilometres from the district headquarters of Bastar region.

But Singh again managed to divert the blame, this time on Ajit Jogi who was a part of the Congress convoy but he traveled back by helicopter due to his physical disability.

Singh's lack of mass political support and stature made him depend on bureaucracy more than his cabinet.

During his 15 years' rule, the state has become a bureaucratic state, where bureaucrats have assumed more significance than even the chief minister.

"The R in Raman Singh is silent. The state is actually ruled by Aman Singh and company," says a powerful minister in the Raman cabinet.

Aman Singh, who is not even an IAS officer, has been the principal secretary to the CM and his close advisor on all matters since long.

Aman Singh heads a coterie of a select few bureaucrats who are perceived to be running the state.

"The CM has given so much freedom to these bureaucrats that they do not even listen to the ministers. There have been instances when senior ministers had been made to apologise to bureaucrats like Aman Singh who don't even belong to IAS cadre. Because of the CM's soft personality, these bureaucrats led by Aman Singh have become the actual rulers of the state without any constitutional mandate," claimed an editor of a Hindi daily in Raipur.

A senior bureaucrat pointed out that the Chief Minister's presumed weakness has resulted in an arrogant bureaucracy.

BJP president Amit Shah released the party's manifesto on Saturday and credited Singh for "almost eliminating" the Maoist insurgency in the state.

"The CM never confronts even the class II officials who indulge in casual behaviour even in his presence. All the departments, including the police department, are faction ridden now which has weakened the overall governance. Almost every senior bureaucrat considers himself a king and the blame goes to the CM as he never stood up to them. This happened because he completely depends on them or lacks a personality to assert himself," the bureaucrat told HuffPost India requesting anonymity.

Even after 15 years of Raman Singh's rule, the injured security personnel in Maoist insurgency hit southern part of the state have to be airlifted to Raipur as the none of the seven districts in this region have a health care centre to deal with such cases.

BJP president Amit Shah released the party's manifesto on Saturday and credited Singh for "almost eliminating" the Maoist insurgency in the state.

The Congress termed the BJP president's claim as "imaginary and far from the truth" rightly so because the state witnessed three Maoist attacks in last two weeks killing 10 people including a Doordarshan cameraman.

More than 12,000 people have lost their lives in the Maoist conflict in the state in last 20 years and thousands of tribals were displaced during Salwa Judum. The reports of torture and fake encounters of tribals in Maoist insurgency hit areas of the state are a routine, and Singh's administration has often used the draconian Chhattisgarh Security Act to threaten the reporters reporting on human rights violation in Bastar.

As Chhattisgarh goes to polls once more, Singh's position appears precarious — but then it always has. When Singh lost the assembly elections in 1998, he decided to contest the Lok Sabha elections. His friends wondered if he would get a party ticket at all, but he did — and won.

" I once asked him how a simple man like him would survive and succeed in politics," his childhood friend Chopda said. Singh told him he was like Muflis, a variation in popular card game, teen patti, where the player with the weakest cards wins.