There are multiple aspects of Sadhna Singh Chouhan’s persona that make her eminently more engaging than the wives of other politicians. The facet she most essays for as a public figure is that of a grhinee(housewife), who appropriately follows her husband, Shivraj Singh Chouhan, Madhya Pradesh chief minister, and unfailingly observes karvachauth when women fast and pray for their spouse’s longevity. Although the mama (uncle) appellation sits firmly on Chouhan as he fights for a fourth term as CM, Sadhna is more comfortable being addressed as bahu (daughter-in-law) or bhabhi (sister-in-law) than mami or aunt. Notwithstanding her adopted public relationships, to most people in MP, Sadhna is the eminence grise, the go-to person without showing up as one because she has others to do the job.
Yet, a non-political source close to the Chouhans insisted Sadhna — Kokila to family and friends — was “misunderstood”. “She doesn’t dictate anything to the CM. At times, it takes two days for her to have a proper conversation with her spouse. The CM never discusses political and administrative matters with her. But at home, she’s the boss because she manages a huge staff,” the source said.
The spin-offs from the exemplary patni (wife) strand in the Sadhna narratives are legion: She recently queued up with the hoi-polloi to renew her driving licence at a transport office behind a ghunghator veil and dark glasses to avoid being recognised; she shops for kitchen provisions; prays for four hours daily at a private Ganapati shrine constructed inside the CM’s bungalow; and unfailingly attended the parent-teacher meetings when her sons, Kartikeya and Kunal, were at school. “Haan (yes), whenever I need a sari fall, I walk into Priyanka shop at New Market (in Bhopal) and buy flowers, vegetables and fruits daily from Vithal Market,” Sadhna told Business Standard, while on a campaign walkabout at Rehati village in Budni, the CM’s Assembly constituency.
Sadhna is a tireless campaigner who confines herself to Budni with her older son, Kartikeya. What’s spoken of in Bhopal, albeit sotto voce, is that it was Sadhna who pushed Kartikeya into politics. “She wanted a ticket for him but her husband said ‘no’,” a source said, adding, “It was one of the rare moments when he said ‘no’ to Sadhna.” Anti-incumbency, which is troubling the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) this time, forced Kartikeya to step back, especially after a video — showing him and his mother besieged by irate Budni villagers demanding water — went viral.
Whatever be her public image, Sadhna is as political as her husband, knowing what nerve to tap in the voters. As she wended her way through Rehati’s lanes — draped in a blue crepe silk sari, withpallav tethered to her waist to keep the head covered — she pointedly sought out girls as “advertisements” to showcase “Mamaji’s” signature Ladli Laxmi scheme. “I am not into politics,” she asserted, even as her response to a question on whether a fourth term for Chouhan could post a milestone in the state politics was a smile. “I believe Jyoti Basu’s the only other CM to win elections serially,”she said, forgetting that in neighbouring Chhattisgarh, Chouhan’s peer Raman Singh was aspiring likewise to win a fourth term.
In 2010, she was appointed vice-president of the MP BJP’s Mahila Morcha (women’s wing). In 2018, she became national president of the Kirar or Kirad-Rajput Samaj. The Kirars constitute a backward sub-caste that was not well known until Chouhan’s success. In April 2018, Sadhna addressed the Kirars in Bhopal from where she proclaimed she was a daughter of Maharashtra, a bahu of MP and owed the honour bestowed on her to Rajasthan. Apart from MP, the Kirars count in Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan.
Sadhna was born and raised in Maharashtra’s Gondhia, as a result of which she speaks Marathi fluently. Chouhan was determined to remain an unmarried Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sanghpracharak until his younger sister found a match in Sadhna, arranged a meeting and overturned her brother’s decision. They married in May 1992 at a community centre in Bhopal.
Sadhna’s never remained distant from controversy. From the “dumper” scam to her alleged patronage to the mining cartel and later “Vyapam”, which entangled and singed the Chouhan dispensation for irregularities committed by the MP Professional Examination Board, she pretty much figured everywhere. When the “dumper” scam was flagged by the Opposition before the 2008 elections, Chouhan wanted Sadhna to stay aloof from his campaign. A well-wisher said, “I advised him not to do that because that would mean an admission of her guilt. He listened to me and she is by his side most of the time.”
Sadhna and her brother, Sanjay Singh Masani, allegedly worked as a duo at the CM’s residence with Chouhan’s cherry-picked bureaucrats. “India’s top industrialists ate out of their hands,” a Bhopal observer said. At the acme of his power, Masani, a civil construction contractor, got his hands into everything lucrative: Mining, Vyapam, films (he portrayed a cameo in Padman) and, tobacco.
Masani staged a coup de maitre when he joined the Congress just before the polls and was gifted a ticket from Waraseoni. Those close to MP’s first family say Masani would not have done it without her consent. The grapevine has it that the Chouhans have “bought insurance” in case the elections spring a nasty surprise for them.
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