Narottam Mishra: Guardian of offended sensibilities

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Narottam Mishra: Guardian of offended sensibilities

He may be the home minister of Madhya Pradesh, but that does not stop 61-year-old Narottam Mishra from taking up issues that could hurt ‘Hindu sensibilities’ anywhere in the country. With a standing of 30 years in state politics, Mishra has succeeded in compelling ‘offenders’ to back down, earning a cult following in the bargain. He is placing himself as a principal challenger to Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan, and many see his zeal as nothing more than an attempt to reinvent himself politically.

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Amazon is only the latest target of the minister’s ire. On January 25, Mishra directed the Madhya Pradesh director general of police to file an FIR against the e-commerce giant for allegedly selling a shoe with the Indian flag on it. “It has come to my attention that Amazon online platform had been using the national flag to sell its products…. Prima facie it seems to be a matter of violation of the flag code, which is hurtful. Insulting the country will not be tolerated at any cost,” he tweeted. This is not even the first time that Mishra has acted against Amazon. In November 2021, a case was registered in Bhind against Amazon officials after it was found that marijuana was being sold on the online platform under the guise of selling stevia.

Political observers in the state attribute Mishra’s newfound tendency to air an opinion on everything to his desire to stay in the news and to use the “Yogi [Adityanath] template” of taking a controversial, hardline stand to earn political dividends.

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A little while ago, Mishra had threatened actress Sunny Leone with legal consequences over her latest video appearance for the song, Madhuban Mein Radhika Nache. “I am warning Sharib and Toshi (the singers) and Sunny Leone,” he said on December 26 in Bhopal. “I am consulting legal experts and if they don’t apologise and remove the song in three days, they will face legal consequences.” Unwilling to feed the controversy, the producers agreed to change the song’s title and lyrics, handing Mishra another victory in his cultural policing endeavours. Last October, it was a Dabur advertisement featuring a lesbian couple that got Mishra riled. Around the same time, members of a right-wing Hindu group vandalised the sets of Prakash Jha’s Aashram 3, the popular web series that was being shot in Bhopal. The home minister termed the attack unfortunate but also called the rioters “patriotic”. Mishra also promised to set up a body under the district collector to vet film scripts before giving them permission to shoot in the state. A few days later, fashion designer Sabyasachi Mukherjee found himself in the crosshairs after the minister deemed a mangalsutra ad obscene. Sabyasachi reacted like the others, quietly withdrawing the ad rather than courting controversy.

Political observers in the state attribute Mishra’s newfound tendency to air an opinion on everything to his desire to stay in the news and to use the “Yogi [Adityanath] template” of taking a controversial, hardline stand to earn political dividends. While Chouhan’s previous cabinets had hardliners, Mishra was not one of them. “Narottam Mishra is trying to carve out a separate political space for himself, distinct from CM Chouhan,” says veteran journalist N.K. Singh. “He is no hardliner, but through his reactions on religious issues, he is taking a calculated risk and also trying to endear himself to the Sangh. One must understand that people in other parties outside the state don’t know him. With new controversies, he thinks they will soon enough.”

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Hailing from a political family, Mishra has always been a “colourful personality”. He cut his teeth in student politics in Gwalior and was elected as an MLA from the region’s Dabra segment in 1990. He lost the next election in a triangular fight, but was re-elected in 1998. After Dabra was declared a reserved constituency in 2008, Mishra shifted to the Datia seat, from where he has won three elections.

In Bhopal, where he spends his weekdays, Mishra lives in the exclusive hilly locality of Char Imli. Once it was home only to top civil servants, but ministers, MLAs and even journalists also live there now. Mishra goes for a walk in the evening with his boisterous entourage, much to the chagrin of the senior officers’ wives, who grumble about the political class and their han­gers-on for having ‘encroached’ on genteel Char Imli—something they can do little about. Otherwise wary of whom he meets, Mishra does have a group of journalists hanging around his house in anticipation of the sound bites he so regularly dispenses. He is also said to be fanatical about his post-lunch siesta, letting nothing come in its way.

Weekends are reserved for his consti­tuency where Mishra is known to be very accessible to voters. He is also among the few MP cabinet ministers who answer their phones personally.

While in the opposition in the 1990s, Mishra very soon attracted attention for his fiery interventions in House proceedings, especially during debates. He was known for his oratory and was first appointed a minister in mid-2005 by Babulal Gaur and retained by Chouhan in his maiden cabinet in November 2005. The two enjoyed a good rapport till the end of Chouhan’s first term in 2008. Mishra was always by his side, and was even described as Chouhan’s “sankatmochak (trouble-shooter)” when the latter came under scrutiny for the 2006 ‘Dumper Scam’ in which he allegedly spent Rs 2 crore on the equipment, a sum disproportionate to the income stated in his poll affidavit. Back then, whenever anyone asked Mishra how he was doing, he would respond with, “Mai (the deity at Datia’s Peetambara peeth) aur bhai (Chouhan), donon ka aashirwad hai (I have the blessings of both).” Mishra contested the 2009 Lok Sabha election against Jyotiraditya Scindia in Guna but lost. He continued as minister, heading a host of departments till 2018 when the BJP was voted out of power.

In 2019, the Kamal Nath-led Congress government pursued the e-tendering scam in which the MP State Electronic Development Corporation’s e-tendering software was hacked. The Rs 3,000 crore imbroglio led to the arrest of Mishra’s personal staff and speculation that he too would soon be behind bars. Unfazed, Mishra was back in government as home minister soon after Madhavrao Scindia and his Congress cohorts switched sides and joined the BJP in March 2020. As expected, the police officer investigating the scam was sent on an obscure posting. Mishra has also been quite ruthless with political rivals in his constituency.

However, Mishra’s relationship with Chouhan has been strained this term, so much so that a visit to Delhi on January 2 ignited speculation of an imminent change of CM. Mishra’s stature in the current government is clearly higher than he has ever enjoyed as cabinet minister. He has an ADG rank IPS officer in his staff, a privilege that even the CM doesn’t have. BJP insiders suggest that Mishra was a serious contender for chief ministership when the party returned to power given his vital behind-the-scenes role in destabilising the Kamal Nath government. But since he was denied the top job, Chouhan was told Mishra would have to be treated better than the average cabinet minister. Mishra used that clout to pull off transfers and postings for his kith and kin but things changed after Chouhan cemented his position following a series of byelection wins.

Within the BJP, Mishra is said to be close to Union home minister Amit Shah, although how much of it is true and how much a legend of his creation is anyone’s guess. Given the party’s current preoccupation with OBC (Other Backward Class) politics, Mishra’s Brahmin background may well be a disqualification. But the accident of birth does not have to be an impediment to his ambition for the top job.

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