Playing offence

Kamal Nath keeps his government safe by taking the battle to the BJP camp

16-Kamal-Nath Kamal Nath | Amey Mansabdar

ON JULY 24, the Madhya Pradesh government passed the Criminal Law (Madhya Pradesh Amendment) Bill with 122 MLAs voting for it, although the ruling alliance led by the Congress has only 114 members in the assembly. The legislative coup came within hours of opposition leader Gopal Bhargava threatening that the Kamal Nath government could be pulled down if the “top two” of the BJP indicated so. Nath even got two BJP MLAs—both former Congressmen—to vote for the bill. The two MLAs, Narayan Tripathi and Sharad Kol, called the move ghar wapsi (homecoming).

The recent legislative victory, which points at a tilt towards the Congress among a section of the BJP MLAs, has demonstrated Nath’s managerial skills.

Nath, who appeared with Tripathi and Kol later for a media interaction, said the BJP had been talking about bringing down his government, but the cross-voting demonstrated the majority he enjoyed in the assembly. The chief minister’s audacious manoeuvre has shown that despite the challenges it faced, the Congress government is well entrenched politically than ever before.

The stability of the Congress government, which is supported by four independent MLAs, two from the Bahujan Samaj Party and one from the Samajwadi Party, has been under threat since its formation last December. The BJP, with its 109 MLAs (now reduced to 108 after the resignation of Jhabua MLA G.S. Damor, who became an MP), has been a doughty opposition, seeking Nath’s resignation over issues big and small. The pressure from ministerial hopefuls and the drubbing it endured in the Lok Sabha polls have also been causes for concern for the Congress.

But the recent legislative victory, which points at a tilt towards the Congress among a section of the BJP MLAs, has clearly demonstrated Nath’s managerial skills. The BJP is yet to take any action against the two rebel MLAs. “They are still very much a part of the BJP,” said state BJP president Rakesh Singh. Political journalist Manish Dixit said the BJP could not expel the duo as it would allow them to return to the Congress without risking disqualification. The BJP is worried that more MLAs could follow them. Meanwhile, Public Relations Minister P.C. Sharma and Higher Education Minister Jitu Patwari said at least six more BJP MLAs were ready to support the Congress. Some of the names doing the rounds include Sanjay Pathak, Sudesh Rai, Dinesh Rai and Rajesh Prajapati. Vijaypur MLA Sitaram Adivasi said he was offered a ministerial berth and crores of rupees for cross-voting, a claim denied by Congress media cell chief Shobha Oza.

At a membership review meeting in Bhopal, Singh and Bhargava alleged that the Congress was trying to lure away their MLAs. But they said the MLAs were not going anywhere. “This is just media speculation,” said Singh. However, the two rebels and a few others suspected to be in touch with the Congress failed to attend the meeting, despite a strong message from the party that they should. Adding to the BJP’s woes is the incident of BJP stalwart Kailash Vijayvargiya’s son, Akash, an MLA, manhandling a municipal officer and attracting the ire of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Bhargava, meanwhile, is said to be miffed at the attempts by former chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan to “hijack” state-level issues. Bhargava, Chouhan, Singh and former minister Narottam Mishra, who have their own factions, often come up with statements that are contradictory to each other. “They are not even communicating with each other properly,” said political analyst Girija Shanker. The situation has become so dire that the RSS is likely to step in.

Dixit said speculation about the Nath government’s stability was the result of BJP leaders repeatedly issuing statements on the issue. “There has been no actual attempt to pull the government down. The talk about the crisis seems to be an attempt by the BJP to keep its own flock in order because being out of power after a long time makes everyone uncomfortable,” said Dixit. So, while Congress governments across the country have been facing the heat from the BJP, Nath has held firm in Madhya Pradesh, taking the challenge to the BJP camp.

Bhargava conceded that there was some failure in his party’s strategy, but he sounded optimistic. “When the same point (Nath’s resignation) is raised repeatedly, it loses its importance,” he said. “But this government and the Congress have hollowed out under the constant fear of instability and betrayal from within. The MLAs, their phone calls, movements and meetings are constantly monitored.”

The Congress seems to be trying to convey a message of unity. Senior leader Jyotiraditya Scindia had met Nath over lunch on June 11 and the same day held a dinner meeting with senior Congress leaders, party MLAs and other MLAs who supported the government. The visit assumes importance as there have been rumours about ministers from the ‘Scindia camp’ sharing an uneasy relationship with the chief minister. Oza denied charges of instability and said the Congress was fulfilling its electoral promises under Nath’s leadership. “We have not contacted BJP MLAs, let alone try to lure them. That sort of activity is Brand BJP. But their discomfort is obvious,” she said.

Sharma, who also handles the additional portfolio of legislative affairs, compared Nath with Lord Krishna. “His stature is huge. He is the only non-BJP CM in the NITI Aayog advisory team. Because of his leadership, things are under total control in Madhya Pradesh,” he said. “At a recent meeting of the Congress Legislative Party, every MLA and minister wanted to show support for Nath.”

It does not mean that things will be easy for Nath. Keeping the MLAs happy with cabinet berths may prove to be difficult. The chief minister also needs to manage public perception on electoral promises like farm loan waiver, providing basic amenities, action on corruption and going ahead with development and welfare tasks despite the dire financial situation. However, with the BJP’s attention focused on putting its own house in order, Nath and the Congress may breathe just a little easier.