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Air of victory around Narendra Modi even as Shivraj Singh Chouhan emerges as quiet alternative

Thursday, 19 December 2013 - 6:52pm IST | Place: New Delhi | Agency: ANI

As he strides from one jam-packed rally to the next, an air of victory surrounds Gujarat Chief Minister and BJP prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi, but there seems to be a quiet alternative emerging to lead the country in the form of Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan.

Modi is unquestionably the man to beat as the ruling Congress party, led by the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, stumbles towards a vote that opinion polls show it will lose

Modi's BJP is tipped to win the election, but it may not get an outright majority, and he may be unacceptable to potential coalition partners

Ever since the communal riots in Gujarat in February 2002, Modi has been unable to shake off allegations that he carries a deep-seated bias against Muslims, a community that makes up 13 percent of India’s population

Shivraj Singh Chouhan, a soft spoken and unassuming leader of the centre-right BJP, could be a more acceptable figure for would-be coalition allies

This month, Chouhan notched up a thumping election victory in Madhya Pradesh, a sprawling central state with a population larger than that of France, becoming its chief minister for a third consecutive time

“No, I don’t think there is any question of challenging Shivraj Singh to Narendra Modi because both the leaders and their support base is different. Modi is already a declared candidate of prime minister in BJP, so, I don’t think there is any clash between these two leaders. Shivraj Singh is a purely state leader and he has proved that he is very popular and mass based leader of BJP in Madhya Pradesh,” said a political consultant with close ties to the Madhya Pradesh administration, Girija Shankar

The Congress party did something similar after elections 10 years ago - after wresting power from the BJP, its leader, Italian-born Sonia Gandhi, declined the prime ministership. By naming unassuming technocrat Manmohan Singh as prime minister, she denied the opposition any chance of using her foreign roots to attack the government

A farmer-turned-politician, Chouhan is similarly far less divisive than Modi

There are other BJP leaders waiting in the wings for the premiership, if minor parties that are expected to hold the key to power after the election insist on a prime minister other than Modi as the price for their support

Among them are Lal Krishna Advani, a veteran of the party who is still seen as a contender despite his 86 years, as well as former government ministers Sushma Swaraj and Arun Jaitley. All three are virtually household names across India, and Chouhan - a former parliament backbencher - has a far lower profile

Chouhan has long been an outsider among the political elite of New Delhi. When he was first elected to parliament in 1991, he didn't have a sweater to ward against the capital's winter chill, recalls a former associate Anurag Pateriya, who picked up a cheap one from a street market before they boarded the train

Chouhan declined requests to be interviewed for this report

Swimming below the national radar, he has transformed Madhya Pradesh from a poverty-blighted backwater, unleashing average annual economic growth of 10 percent over the past five years on the back of an unprecedented agriculture boom

The explosion in farm output - agricultural growth in the state was 18 percent last year, the country's highest - has been fed by interest-free loans to farmers, a trebling of irrigation cover and a dramatic improvement in electricity supplies

Out on a modern four-lane highway from the state capital Bhopal to the commercial city of Indore, the rural prosperity is hard to miss. Fields upon fields of soybeans, mustard and wheat stretch out, broken only by factories starting to come up on cleared land

Children in uniforms scurry to school on bicycles provided by the state government, pedaling along new roads that are linked to remote villages. They will all be given a free lunch

Nearby, expectant and new mothers collect free packets of soya, a mixture of rice and lentils and sweets, a Chouhan initiative to lift the state's infant and maternal mortality rates up to the national average

“The government funded centre provides food of high nutritional value to children. The small children are given packets of food for six days and we provide readymade food to children aged between three to six years. The expecting mothers are given collected packets which last for six days,” said Pushpa Vaishno, a worker at a government-funded centre

Chouhan has also introduced tax-friendly policies to attract industry to his state. Along the state highway, Indian firm Deepak Fasteners is building Asia's largest plant to manufacture specialised nuts and bolts for car engines and aircraft. The first phase of the project is expected to cost some $38 million

“There is a single industry of Fastner which is making all grade of fasteners, so, we don’t have any single competitor for this size of plant as well as manufacturing capabilities and the advanced technology. So, this is one of the biggest for the fasteners industry in Asia,” said senior official of the Indian firm Deepak Fasteners

Madhya Pradesh may still lag behind "vibrant" Gujarat, the neighbouring state run by Modi and a darling of investors

But unlike his more famous colleague, Chouhan has walked a fine line between a secular image and sticking to the BJP's Hindu nationalist roots

As assistants scurried about the chief minister's imposing colonial-era bungalow before his inauguration last week, Chouhan told them that a congregation of Islamic scholars was important for everyone, said a top aide, who asked not to be identified

“We will win the Lok Sabha elections like we won the assembly polls in Madhya Pradesh,” said BJP leader Syed Shahnawaz Hussain

That inclusive approach has won Chouhan support from a fair sprinkling of Muslims, who have traditionally shunned his party

For now, Modi is on a roll, tapping into public anger with the Congress Party after years of corruption scandals, stubborn inflation and dwindling economic growth

But, privately, party leaders concede that the BJP may not be able to form a government with Modi as prime minister if it wins less than 180 of the 543 elected seats in the lower house of parliament. If it falls short of that number, it might have to ditch him and find another candidate

To rule, a party needs the support of 272 members. Opinion polls so far have forecast the BJP will win around 160 seats, which means it may need to join hands with a cluster of smaller parties to reach the halfway mark

The BJP will need support from regional parties in the south and east that may be reluctant to associate themselves with the polarising Modi, fearing a backlash from Muslims in their states. One ally in the heartland state of Bihar cut ties with the BJP this year after Modi was elevated to a national role, and the party has yet to find a substitute

For the moment, Chouhan's camp is quietly biding its time.

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