Rarely have Hindu religious figures threatened an agitation against the BJP government led by Shivraj Singh Chouhan to expose alleged corruption and highlight its failure to stop cow slaughter in Madhya Pradesh, particularly in a poll year.
Barely a month ago, a group of religious figures led by Namdev Tyagi (53), popularly known as Computer Baba, and Pandit Yogendra Mahant (55) threatened to do precisely that when they announced a 45-day Narmada Ghotala Yatra starting April 1 from Indore to Bhopal. They alleged corruption in the planting of saplings along the Narmada.
Then they got a call from the Chief Minister’s Office and were told to attend an emergency meeting in Bhopal on March 31. When the meeting ended, they had called off the proposed yatra giving no reason while the government formed a committee, which included both religious figures, to start a tree plantation, conservation and cleanliness campaign in MP, particularly along the Narmada.
And on Tuesday, the MP government announced that Computer Baba and Yogendra Mahant were being granted the status of minister of state (MoS) along with Bhaiyyuji Maharaj, an Indore-based spiritual leader who counts leading politicians across party lines as his devotees, and two relatively low profile religious figures Swami Hariharanandji Saraswati and Narmadanandji. The Opposition Congress has termed the move a “deal”.
MoS status to those not elected, including religious figures, is not uncommon in MP, but this marks the first such move to accord it to five religious figures. The chairman of the executive council of the state cow conservation board Mahamandleshwar Swami Akhileshwaranand Giri enjoys the status as did the body’s vice-chairman Swami Ganeshanand, whose term ended recently. While CM Chouhan chose not to comment on his own decision Wednesday, Computer Baba and Yogendra Mahant had changed tack and said they supported the government and would do their utmost for the Narmada, calling it a lifeline. The other three religious figures were not even aware of being granted MoS status.
MoS status earns beneficiaries like Swami Akhileshwaranand a government vehicle with a limited quota of diesel, house rent up to Rs 20,000 including electricity charges, a monthly salary of Rs 15,000, staff and honorarium so little that he has never spent it. The entitlements of the new MoS beneficiaries are yet to be announced.
“Hamari sarkar hai bhagwa sarkar hai hamare Shivraj hai ye santoki sarkar hai (it’s our government, a saffron government, Shivraj is ours and it is a government of saints),’’ said Computer Baba, whose followers believe he has a “computer-like memory”. An adversary till four days ago, he had accused Chouhan of not just destroying the Narmada but also held him accountable for failing to stop cow slaughter.
Also known as “helicopter baba’’ because he occasionally travels in choppers rented by devotees, Computer Baba, born Namdev Tyagi, made light of his new status saying it would only help him do his job better because he will need security and portability to work round the clock.
“I don’t own a helicopter, devotees arrange it from time to time,’’ he said on Wednesday. “The government always had faith in saints.’’
A member of the Digambar akhara, he was initiated more than two decades ago by Mahant Ramsantosh Das Tyagi in Ayodhya. Computer Baba now claims to run 16 ashrams across MP with its headquarters in Gomatgiri in Indore.
Pt Yogendra Mahant, the convener of the yatra that never was, admitted that he was with the Congress once but has not been associated with any party for the last few years. Asked about his turnaround, he said there was no scope for the yatra because the CM had addressed all concerns.
“Why would a government be willing to get blackmailed if it was doing its job,’’ he said on the Congress’s allegations that the religious figures “blackmailed” a weak government into getting plum posts. He said the status was needed because the job will require him to be on the road.
Bhaiyyuji Maharaj, born Uday Singh Deshmukh, is a former model and worked as a marketing executive before he found his calling in religion. The 49-year-old is a favourite among politicians who often call on him for advice. “I will not use the facilities that come with the MoS status. I have not been informed about it officially yet. I am already working in water and river conservation,’’ he said.
Swami Hariharanand Saraswati runs a sprawling ashram in Amarkantak, the source of the Narmada. The 50-year-old taught Sanskrit in Rajasthan till his initiation by Sharadanand Saraswati in 2007. According to his aide Yogendra Dubey, Saraswati was in Mainpuri in MP and was not aware of the developments. He had attended the inaugural event of the Narmada Seva Yatra by Chouhan in December 2016.