My interview with Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Raman Singh

Posted on: December 6, 2011

‘These jholawallahs have the habit of stirring up issues’
Social activists feel he has violated human rights. But Chhattisgarh chief minister Raman Singh says that he has turned around the state and set it on the path of industrialisation
Chief minister Raman Singh is smiling at the world. He is beaming from huge billboards, showcasing development in Chhattisgarh, lining the roads of its capital, Raipur. The smile, his associates tell me, is the chief minister’s calling card. So I am not surprised when he counters a question on the growing menace of Naxalism — when I meet him later in his office — with a broad smile.

“Around 99.9 per cent of the state is under our control. The Naxal situation has improved in the past seven years and is getting better by the day,” says Singh, smiling confidently. “Abujhmad — a 4,000-sq-km area in Bastar — is the only place which is partially under the control of the Naxalites. We will soon conquer that too.”

Singh, 59, is serving his second term as the state’s chief minister. Some eight years ago, he was a quiet minister at the Centre. Today, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader is seldom out of the news — rated as a successful administrator by his admirers and berated as a violator of human rights by his critics.

An astute politician, Singh, however, stresses that he never thought he would occupy the chief minister’s seat. “Politics was never in my nature. I came into politics by default,” he says, dressed in a neta’s typical garb of a white kurta-pyjama.

It was during the Emergency in 1975 that Singh decided to join socialist leader Jaya Prakash Narayan’s movement. He became a member of the students’ wing of the Jan Sangh, which later transformed into the BJP. “The president of the wing did not attend an important meeting, so I was asked to replace him,” he recalls.

Born to an advocate father and a homemaker mother, Singh grew up in various towns in Chhattisgarh. He studied science in a government college outside Raipur, and then became an Ayurveda doctor. But he continued to hone his interest in politics. He was elected municipal councillor from Kawardha, 140km from Raipur, in 1983. He also represented the town in the Assembly from 1990 to 1998. In 1999, he was elected to the Lok Sabha from Rajnandgaon, defeating veteran Congress leader Motilal Vohra, and was appointed minister of state for commerce and industries in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government at the Centre.

Singh says he became chief minister too by default. During the 2003 state Assembly elections, Singh was chosen as the chief minister at the last moment after former Union minister Dilip Singh Judeo — then the only BJP leader in Chhattisgarh with a statewide appeal — was caught on camera in a cash scam just weeks before the poll.

“I never thought that my involvement in politics would be for such a long period. I had never even dreamt that I would become a chief minister,” he says.

But Singh attributes his success to an old bond with the poor. “I started connecting with the poorest of the poor when I used to practise as a doctor because I had the opportunity to serve them,” he says.

His critics, however, hold that he is far removed from the poor these days. Villagers in places such as Janjgir Champa and Chhurikala, who have been protesting against government moves to acquire land for setting up industries, think he has little time for them. There have been accusations of government high-handedness. Singh’s party has been vocal on the issue of Nandigram in West Bengal — where police fired at protesting villagers. But hasn’t his government also trampled on the rights of Chhattisgarh’s villagers?

“There has been no police firing on villagers unlike in Nandigram. Some rare incidents of protests have happened. But we have increased the compensation package from Rs 70,000 to Rs 10 lakh per acre of land,” he says.

Clearly, Singh’s eyes are focused on industry, as land makes way for factories. Singh has signed 108 memoranda of understanding with industrialists, mostly for setting up power plants.

The industry bug bit him during his stint at the Centre. That was when he also learnt to hone his presentation skills — essential for wooing industrialists. “I learnt how to make my case stronger when placed before anyone — whether the Planning Commission or the Prime Minister,” says Singh.

He is doing that right now, even as he speaks. Every 15 minutes or so, he tells me how all is well in Chhattisgarh. “There is zero problem in my state. Industrialisation has developed our villages, as schools, hospitals and sports complexes get built around them. Jobs have been created for the villagers too. I am not worried about anything,” he asserts, his voice going up a few notches.

He takes a break to answer a call, while I look at the room we’ve been sitting in. It’s sparsely furnished with a wooden sofa set, a couple of chairs and a table. A huge plasma television set, however, is strategically placed facing the chief minister, who now resumes his speech. “I have changed the face of the villages with welfare schemes,” he continues.

I remind him that the Supreme Court appointed food commissioner, Harsh Mander, recently said in a report that people in three villages in Bastar — Tadmetla, Morpalli and Timmapuram — were “forced to live in a starvation-like situation.” They had been denied basic welfare schemes such as the public distribution scheme, pension and the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme.

“Tadmetla is the only village which is not fully covered by government schemes. It is badly affected by Naxalites who stop us from going there. But I still visit these places against all odds,” he says.

The villages were recently in the news when activists claimed that three people had been killed, five women raped and 300 houses burnt by some 200 members of the Salwa Judum (vigilante groups armed by the state) and 150 special police officers (SPOs). But Singh dismisses the allegations. “The Naxals attacked these villages, not the SPOs,” he says.

In fact, he even denies the existence of the Salwa Judum. “Villagers who fear Naxal attacks have been given protection in our relief camps. There might be one or two armed persons in these camps but we have not provided them with arms,” says Singh.

I point out that social anthropologist Nandini Sundar — recipient of the 2010 Infosys award for social sciences — had in her petition to the Supreme Court alleged that the Salwa Judum was responsible for 537 murders, 99 rapes and 103 acts of arson in Bastar since the civil militia movement started in 2005. Singh is not convinced. “In these relief camps, we provide basic amenities to people who have been robbed of everything by the Naxals. How can these people be charged with such heinous crimes,” he retorts.

Singh, clearly, has quite a low opinion of social activists. “These jholawallahs have the habit of stirring up issues,” he says.

Not surprisingly, many social activists allege ill-treatment by the administration. Some have fled the state, and some have been jailed. The most prominent prison inmate was paediatrician and social activist Binayak Sen, who was charged with sedition and conspiracy against the state and sentenced to life imprisonment by the Raipur additional district and sessions court last December. The Supreme Court granted bail to Sen in April.

Sen’s imprisonment was condemned by politicians, professionals and activists from across the country and the world, but Singh doesn’t believe the state erred in rounding up the doctor. “I don’t think Sen has done any good to people here. There were no protests in my state. He must have treated people in Delhi and London, or perhaps he treated Sanyal whom he visited several times in jail,” he says, referring to jailed Naxal leader Narayan Sanyal.

He is not smiling very often now. His eyes keep darting towards principal secretary N. Baijendra Kumar, who is sitting next to him. Besides Kumar, Singh has called in his other trusted lieutenants — state energy secretary Aman Kumar Singh and his special secretary Subodh Singh — to sit through the interview. They take notes from time to time, and also nod in approval every now and then.

Singh likes his disciplined aides, being quite a disciplined man himself. He learnt the rigours of discipline at the shakhas or training camps of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which he joined as a youngster. Recently, he courted controversy after he asked his officers to join RSS shakhas. But Singh denies that now. “How can I ask someone to go or not to go to a shakha? It is a personal choice that one has to make,” he says with a frown.

The frown seems to indicate that my time is up. As I leave, I spot some books on Singh’s table. “I like reading everything from fiction to non-fiction,” he says, but can’t offhand recall the name of the last book that he read.

He remembers his favourite Hindi songs more easily. “I love listening to this song —Wahan kaun hai tera, musaafir, jayega kahan,” he says, referring to a song composed and sung by Sachin Dev Burman. Now the chief minister’s smile is back. “Who’s there for you, traveller, where will you go,” is the opening line of the song in the film Guide.

As far as Raman Singh is concerned, he is not going anywhere — not yet, in any case. He’s got reason to smile.


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