Dicey choice

Kamal Nath’s appointment as state Congress president may end up benefiting the BJP

PTI5_1_2018_000196A Forced friendship: The faction led by Scindia (right) is reportedly not happy with having Nath (left) at the helm | PTI

With Kamal Nath having taken charge as president of the Congress’s Madhya Pradesh unit, a section of party workers is happy, but not the public. Nath’s appointment is being viewed more as an effort to set the faction-ridden Congress’s house in order before the assembly polls later this year, and less as a genuine attempt to take on the ruling BJP.

Nath had first become a frontrunner for the chief minister’s post in 1980. But, he chose to support his senior party colleague Arjun Singh. In 1993, he was again tipped to get the job, but he backed his friend Digvijaya Singh. Now, at 71, the erstwhile kingmaker of Madhya Pradesh has decided to try and become the king himself.

The decision to appoint Nath, who has won the Chhindwara Lok Sabha seat nine times, has surprised many people. Congress president Rahul Gandhi chose Nath to contain factionalism in the party, but the decision has not gone down well with the leaders who had been demanding a change of guard in the state party unit.

The faction led by Jyotiraditya Scindia, MP, who is popular among the two crore young voters in the state, is not happy with the decision. Outgoing state party president Arun Yadav has welcomed Rahul’s decision, but the sizeable Yadav community in the state is upset. Several Yadav leaders have described Nath’s appointment as a “betrayal”.

Former chief minister Digvijaya Singh, who himself leads a powerful faction, is said to have thrown his weight behind Nath to stop Scindia’s ascent. Digvijaya wants his son and legislator Jaivardhan Singh, 29, to establish himself before Scindia, 46, takes charge of state politics. Scindia, who was earlier the frontrunner for the post of state party president, has been made chief of the campaign committee—a position he had held in 2013, too.

Nath’s ascent is likely to help the fund-starved state leadership. Resources were so scarce that Deepak Babaria, the Congress general secretary in charge of Madhya Pradesh, had announced in March that those who wanted party tickets to contest polls had to submit demand drafts of Rs 50,000 each. “Kamal Nath will bring the much-needed discipline in the party, along with the resources, thanks to his stature and financial muscle,” said Vivek Tankha, Congress MP and former additional solicitor-general of India.

Born in Kanpur, in a family with Punjabi roots, Nath was an outsider to the politics of Madhya Pradesh. He established himself in Chhindwara with the help of Sanjay Gandhi, his classmate at Doon School, Dehradun. He was Union minister for 15 years, and has a declared net worth of Rs 176 crore. He also holds stake in scores of profit-making companies, and is known for his connections with industrialists.

Balancing caste and regional politics, Rahul has appointed four working presidents to assist Nath—Bala Bachchan, a tribal leader from the Nimar region; Surendra Choudhry, a scheduled caste leader from Bundelkhand; Jitu Patwari, who represents the Other Backward Classes in Malwa; and Ramniwas Rawat, an OBC leader from the Chambal region.

It seems the Congress is trying to experiment with the models that worked well in the assembly elections in Punjab and Gujarat last year. In Punjab, party veteran Amarinder Singh was asked to lead the party, while in Gujarat, leaders belonging to various castes worked as a team. “The Madhya Pradesh model is a mix of the two,” said a Congress spokesperson.

The appointment of Bachchan and Choudhry is aimed at preventing the BJP from engineering a split in the tribal and dalit vote base. Of 230 assembly seats in the state, 47 are reserved for the scheduled tribes and 35 for the scheduled castes. The Congress will rely on a pre-poll alliance with the Bahujan Samaj Party and tribal outfits like the Gondwana Ganatantra Party to win these seats.

Within the Congress, however, there are differences of opinion regarding the party’s strategy. “The Congress is still stuck in the formula politics of the 1980s and 1990s,” said a former minister and Congress veteran. “[Chief Minister] Shivraj Singh Chouhan has changed the grammar of politics in the state, through his ego-less, low-profile style of functioning. Our leaders still behave as if they were kings and queens. Their flamboyant style does not go down well with ordinary people.”

The Congress is banking heavily on the perceived anti-incumbency against the BJP government. But, Nath’s appointment has made BJP leaders happy. Chouhan himself was the first to welcome it, terming Nath as a “friend”. Said Rakesh Singh, state BJP president: “Nath’s appointment will not make any difference to the BJP, which is a cadre-based party. Our organisation is a thousand times better than the Congress.”

Akshay Hunka, president of the Madhya Pradesh Berozgar Sena, an organisation comprising unemployed youth, said Rahul had failed to gauge the mood of the voters. “The people of Madhya Pradesh have rejected these senior leaders time and again in the past 15 years,” he said. “In a state where more than 45 per cent of voters are below 30, ignoring the aspirations of young people may cost the Congress dear.”

Interestingly, the change of guard in the Congress marks the return of Digvijaya Singh, who had openly lobbied the high command to declare Nath as the chief minister candidate. What should worry the Congress is that Digvijaya is still remembered for the bad roads and poor power supply that marked his ten-year rule.

BJP leaders seem to be relieved with the Congress’s moves. “They are, in fact, happy,” said Vinayak Parihar, a farmer leader and former RSS member. “They were worried only about Jyotiraditya Scindia, whose image and mass appeal could have created problems for the BJP. Chouhan had always considered Scindia as his political enemy, not Kamal Nath.”