In Election Year, MP Govt Offering Free Plane Ride for Teerth Darshan
Bhopal: With assembly elections this year, the Madhya Pradesh government is adapting new and imprudent ideas to connect with the voters and media.
For better or worse, those who best understand how to get media and voter attention will have the upper hand. The key to getting votes is ensuring people remember your name.
Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan, who is riding on the strong tide of anti-incumbency ahead of assembly polls in November this year, proved that again this week when he flagged off a group of 32 devotees, including eight women to Prayagraj (Known as Allahabad) from Bhopal's Raja Bhoj Airport with aeroplane under Mukhyamantri Teerth Darshan Yojana.
With this, Madhya Pradesh became the first state in India to provide a free air travel facility to the elderly for pilgrimage to holy places apart from the train.
On Sunday morning, the devotees were welcomed with much pomp and show. The devotees, allegedly the parents of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) workers, as alleged by the opposition Congress based on a Right to Information (RTI), equated CM Chouhan as 'Shravan Kumara' known for his filial piety towards his parents.
Chouhan also symbolically gave a replica of a boarding pass to a pilgrim Krishna Choubey and sought blessings from elderly pilgrims.
Each devotee was followed by at least two or three cameras for a perfect photo or video. The number of cameras surpassed the number of devotees at the airport.
This episode happened outside the airport terminal but was not the end.
When the devotees boarded the plane, CM entered the flight with cameramen to get a perfect picture or video, violating Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) rules which say one can't enter inside the airport and then the aeroplane without a confirmed ticket or proper permission.
Inside the plane, in his signature style, CM Chouhan emotionally told reporters that sending devotees to the pilgrimage on a plane is like a dream come true. The government says it was done with the aim that devotees could attain 'spiritual peace' by going on pilgrimage by air. They also raised Har Har Gange and other slogans inside the plane before the Indigo flight took off.
It was all caught magically on video and photo and continuously displayed on television, the government's social media accounts and newspapers the following day.
When the videos of CM Chouhan inside the aeroplane went viral, the Leader of Opposition (LoP) in the Madhya Pradesh assembly and Congress leader Govind Singh wrote a formal complaint to Union Aviation Minister Jyotiraditya Scindia demanding action against CM Shivraj for violating DGCA rules.
They were the first batch of 800 devotees who would be sent to Prayagraj, Mathura-Vrindavan, Shirdi (Maharashtra) and Gangasagar (West Bengal) between May 21 to July 14, 2023, from 25 districts where the ruling party has a strong presence under the scheme.
All the devotees flew to Prayagraj, dipped in the Ganga-Yamuna-Saraswati rivers' confluence and returned on a flight the following day. The Government again welcomed them, and instead of talking about the experience of the journey to Prayagraj, devotees were busy praising CM Chouhan and equating him to Shravan Kumara.
Unlike Prayagraj, the trip to Vrindavan is full of hassle. On May 25, 32 pilgrims will depart from Betul to Bhopal via bus for a 200-km journey. They will catch a flight to Agra from Bhopal airport. After landing in Agra, the devotees will travel 60 km by bus to reach Vrindavan. The trip to Vrindavan-Mathura is three days long with two nights.
The Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation (IRCTC) has been roped in to cater to the demands of devotees travelling under the Teerth Darshan Scheme.
The scheme which was launched in 2012, Prayagraj and Mathura-Vrindavan, the two sacred places according to Hindu mythology, were added to the list of pilgrimage sites (Teerth Ashtal) lately after CM Shivraj Singh Chouhan announced to send devotees by air connectivity.
The announcement came when elections are around the corner, and the ruling government is eyeing over 20 lakh senior citizen voters. According to the State Election Commission, the state has over 20 lakh senior citizen voters, including 7.40 lakh over 80-year-olds.
The government claimed that over 7.80 lakh elders had benefited under the scheme since inspection of the scheme in as many as 782 special trains.
The BJP government, which spent Rs 15.95 lakh in the 2018 election year under the scheme to woo aged voters, and have allocated Rs 5 lakh for the year 2022-23, has allocated a revised budget of close to Rs 50 lakh in 2023-24 for the scheme, according to the officials.
The government also tweaked laws to make pilgrimages via aeroplane less expensive.
First, taking them on short-distance pilgrimages limits the number of pilgrims in a district to 32; a one family, one-person policy was introduced: a couple per family. "Soon, measures will be taken to help more than one family member to take the journey so that elders will get a chance to gain spiritual peace along with their spouses," Chouhan said.
Taking a dig at it, senior Bhopal-based journalist and political commentator Arun Dixit pointed out, "The money spent on advertising and publicity of the event is higher than the cost of flight tickets of 800 pilgrims. Despite the state slipping on the major developmental index even after 18 years of the BJP rule, CM has been equated as Sarvan Kumara in the headlines and branded Madhya Pradesh as the first state which did so as an achievement."
He added, "In just Bhopal, the social security pension of over 80,000 marginalised elders is pending because the government did not have funds. Since MP has 52 districts, the number of pensioners who get Rs 600 a month is approximately 35 lakh. According to officials, Rs 5 crore was needed a month, but the government did not have funds. Yet, the party leaders and media equating CM as Saravan Kumar are banging the drum of being the first state in the country to offer flight convenience to pilgrims."
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