IN THE HOT SEAT

WITH A SLIM MA­JOR­ITY TO PRO­TECT AND MANY CAM­PAIGN PROM­ISES TO KEEP, THE FIRST-TIME CHIEF MIN­IS­TER FACES SEV­ERAL CHAL­LENGES

India Today - - INSIDE - By Rahul Noronha

First-time chief min­is­ter Ka­mal Nath has many poll prom­ises to keep. Can he de­liver?

In 1988, Ar­jun Singh, who had re­cently been ap­pointed chief min­is­ter of Mad­hya Pradesh, had cho­sen Khar­sia, a con­stituency in Raigarh dis­trict, now in Ch­hat­tis­garh, as the assem­bly seg­ment he would con­test the by­elec­tion from to gain en­try into the House. To en­sure that any stalled projects got ex­e­cuted be­fore the elec­tion, Singh iden­ti­fied and trans­ferred a team of of­fi­cers posted in the pub­lic health en­gi­neer­ing, ir­ri­gation and pub­lic works de­part­ments in Chhindwara to Khar­sia. Singh knew the best of­fi­cers for the job would be in Chhindwara, as its then two­term MP, Ka­mal Nath, would have hand­picked them for his Lok Sabha con­stituency. Singh went on to de­feat Dilip Singh Judeo of the BJP.

Cut to 2018­19, and Ka­mal Nath, the newly ap­pointed chief min­is­ter of MP, now faces the oner­ous task of hand­pick­ing a team for his state. In his maiden foray into state pol­i­tics, not only does Ka­mal Nath have to rise to the chal­lenges on the ad­min­is­tra­tive side, keep­ing in view the tall prom­ises in the Con­gress man­i­festo, but also de­liver for the party on the po­lit­i­cal front, with the Lok Sabha elec­tion a few months away. What ex­actly are these chal­lenges and how is the new CM squar­ing up to them?

First up, the po­lit­i­cal dif­fi­cul­ties. Hav­ing won only 114 seats on its own and en­list­ing the sup­port of four erst­while Con­gress rebels who con­tested as In­de­pen­dents and won, along with one SP and two BSP MLAs, the gov­ern­ment has a slen­der ma­jor­ity of 121 in the 230­mem­ber MP assem­bly. A for­mer min­is­ter in the pre­vi­ous BJP gov­ern­ment from the Gwalior re­gion has been in touch with the In­de­pen­dents and a few Con­gress MLAs to get them to re­sign, to force by­elec­tions that the BJP hopes will see it across the half­way mark. Even though the Con­gress passed its first test on Jan­uary 8, se­cur­ing 120 votes in elect­ing N.P. Pra­jap­ati as the Speaker, the go­ing won’t be easy as the BJP, with its 109 MLAs, is likely to de­mand divi­sion on the floor of the House when­ever it can.

Cab­i­net for­ma­tion and port­fo­lio al­lo­ca­tion have proved to be a tough job, with ne­go­ti­a­tions over al­lo­ca­tion of de­part­ments tak­ing much longer than usual. And even though it’s now all done, it is not as if ev­ery­thing will be hunky­dory. As CM, Ka­mal Nath will be work­ing with min­is­ters whose pres­ence in the cab­i­net has not been de­cided solely by him.

The BJP holds 26 of the 29 Lok Sabha seats in the state. Key to the Con­gress 2019 plan is to sig­nif­i­cantly re­duce this num­ber, strate­gis­ing to win at least 15 seats. It won’t be easy, given that the BJP put up a good fight in the assem­bly elec­tion. But CM Ka­mal Nath is al­ready on the job, hold­ing dis­cus­sions on po­ten­tial can­di­dates for LS polls with a spe­cial fo­cus on field­ing a max­i­mum num­ber of OBC can­di­dates in gen­eral seats. The ex­tent to which Ka­mal Nath plans elec­tions can be gauged from the fact that po­ten­tial donors to the party were not pushed be­yond a point in the Vid­han Sabha elec­tion be­cause the party lead­er­ship reck­oned their sup­port will be need again in the Lok Sabha elec­tion to take on the BJP’s fi­nan­cial mus­cle.

That apart, this is Ka­mal Nath’s first stint in state pol­i­tics. He has im­mense ex­pe­ri­ence as a cen­tral min­is­ter, but run­ning a depart­ment at the Cen­tre is very dif­fer­ent from run­ning a gov­ern­ment in a state.

“At the cen­tral level, the min­is­ter has a sec­re­tary and a bat­tery of joint sec­re­taries and di­rec­tors to work for him; while at the state level, the work force below the level of de­part­men­tal sec­re­taries is not of the same cal­i­bre as at the Cen­tre,” says a se­nior civil ser­vant. Be­sides, there are dis­trict col­lec­tors and a pha­lanx of babus at the state cap­i­tal whose work needs to be mon­i­tored all the time.

As a cen­tral min­is­ter, Ka­mal Nath was seen as re­sult­ori­ented and known to work through bu­reau­crats. Babu­dom in Bhopal seems happy in the hope that they will rule the roost, given that other than the CM and eight out of the 28 min­is­ters, the rest do not have any ex­pe­ri­ence in gov­ern­ment. The CM will, there­fore, need to mon­i­tor many more de­part­ments closely, even though he has said that the min­is­ters would be re­spon­si­ble for their own de­part­ments, where the buck would stop at them.

An­other rea­son for the bu­reau­cracy’s op­ti­mism is that Ka­mal Nath has not ef­fected ma­jor changes by way of trans­fers and post­ings. Only those col­lec­tors who had been found to be an­tag­o­nis­tic to­wards Con­gress can­di­dates in the elec­tions, go­ing by the feed­back from party lead­ers, were changed.

“Work­ing in the state of­ten in­volves get­ting into the minu­tiae of things which can be avoided at the Cen­tre,” adds an­other civil ser­vant who has worked with Ka­mal Nath in the past. “Ka­mal Nath never gets into the nitty­gritty of things, some­thing he may have to change soon.”

The CM, how­ever, is very metic­u­lous with de­tail in his in­ter­ac­tions with peo­ple. A civil ser­vant who called on him at his of­fice was sur­prised to find the CM sit­ting with an Ex­ec­u­tive Record (ER) sheet, which lists all de­tails of ad­min­is­tra­tive post­ings. “So what do you think are your strengths and where can they be utilised?” Ka­mal Nath likes to ask po­ten­tial re­cruits, CEO­style. Also, un­like his pre­de­ces­sor Shivraj Singh Chouhan, who al­ways seemed to be in a hurry to go some­where, Ka­mal Nath gives un­di­vided at­ten­tion for the 15­minute slot that he gives peo­ple.

What Ka­mal Nath does share with Chouhan is a repu­

Be­sides run­ning the state, Ka­mal Nath, as a key mo­biliser of re­sources for the Con­gress, has to keep an eye on the com­ing Lok Sabha elec­tion. He made sure donors whose sup­port the party will count on were not pushed too hard dur­ing the assem­bly poll

tation for eat­ing fru­gally and sleep­ing lit­tle. “A CM has to be on his toes all the time and a reg­u­lar work day is much longer than what it is for a cen­tral min­is­ter since it in­volves de­ci­sion-mak­ing on both the po­lit­i­cal and ad­min­is­tra­tive fronts. For a cen­tral min­is­ter, the po­lit­i­cal part is usu­ally taken care of by the PM,” says a se­nior civil ser­vant, who was for­merly in the CM’s sec­re­tariat.

On the ad­min­is­tra­tive front, Ka­mal Nath’s big­gest chal­lenge is the suc­cess­ful im­ple­men­ta­tion of the farm loan waiver. “We will hon­our ev­ery­thing men­tioned in the man­i­festo,” Ka­mal Nath said the day he was de­clared chief min­is­ter. But the trun­cat­ing of the list of ben­e­fi­cia­ries— keep­ing out in­come-tax pay­ers, GST reg­is­tra­tion hold­ers, gov­ern­ment em­ploy­ees, MPs, MLAs, among oth­ers—some­thing Chouhan never did while dol­ing out sops to farm­ers, could cre­ate a rift in ru­ral so­ci­ety and hurt the Con­gress in the Lok Sabha poll. In Ch­hat­tis­garh, the waiver is uni­ver­sal.

In any case, the so­lu­tion is not short-term doles. The farm sec­tor is in gen­eral dis­tress, with frag­men­ta­tion of land hold­ings and non-re­mu­ner­a­tive prices driv­ing farm­ers to sui­cide. What is needed is in­vest­ment in agri­cul­tural in­fra­struc­ture and cre­at­ing an en­abling en­vi­ron­ment for ru­ral work­ers to shift to the sec­ondary and ter­tiary sec­tors.

It is es­ti­mated that the waiver, which is ex­pected to ben­e­fit close to 8 mil­lion farm­ers, will cost the ex­che­quer Rs 56,000 crore. Al­ready, there are doubts about how the Con­gress gov­ern­ment will foot the bill with­out se­vere im­pli­ca­tions for the state econ­omy. The ap­pro­pri­a­tion amount in the state bud­get in 2018-19 stood at about Rs 2 lakh crore, with the to­tal rev­enue re­ceipts es­ti­mated at Rs 1.5 lakh crore. The state’s own tax rev­enue was es­ti­mated to be Rs 55,000 crore this year, which has al­ready seen a down­ward re­vi­sion to Rs 45,000 crore. The bor­row­ings by the state gov­ern­ment stand at Rs 1.9 lakh crore. Fur­ther bor­row­ings stand cur­tailed by the lim­its im­posed un­der the Fis­cal Re­spon­si­bil­ity and Bud­get Man­age­ment Act, 2003.

Sev­eral other Con­gress prom­ises have eco­nomic im­pli­ca­tions: halv­ing farm elec­tric­ity bills, Rs 4,000 monthly al­lowance for un­em­ployed youth and re­duc­ing fuel and cook­ing gas prices. The party has also promised Rs 51,000 to girls at the time of mar­riage and to in­crease the so­cial se­cu­rity pen­sion from the cur­rent Rs 300 ev­ery month to Rs 1,000.

Ka­mal Nath faces chal­lenges on the law and or­der front as well. Ac­cord­ing to the Crime In­dia Re­port 2016 brought out by the Na­tional Crime Records Bureau, Mad­hya Pradesh has the high­est in­ci­dence of rapes in the coun­try, with 4,882 cases recorded. The state does not have a very good record in prevent­ing atroc­i­ties against Sched­uled Castes and Sched­uled Tribes ei­ther. In April 2018, four Dal­its were among the six peo­ple killed in the vi­o­lence dur­ing a Dalit ag­i­ta­tion in north­ern MP.

For­mer chief min­is­ter Digvi­jaya Singh per­forms an in­ter­est­ing role in the form of a men­tor to the state gov­ern­ment. He acts as a sound­ing board for Ka­mal Nath who knows how deep Singh goes into the Con­gress or­gan­i­sa­tion in the state and utilises his ad­min­is­tra­tive ex­pe­ri­ence on state-level is­sues. The two go back a long way. In the 10 years that Singh was CM, Nath was a pil­lar of sup­port for him, es­pe­cially dur­ing the pe­riod when Singh’s men­tor, the late Ar­jun Singh, parted ways with the Con­gress to join the Con­gress (Ti­wari), threat­en­ing to desta­bilise the Con­gress gov­ern­ment in the state. The two have in the past closed ranks to keep other chal­lengers out and this time is ex­pected to be no dif­fer­ent.

Al­ready, a cou­ple of de­ci­sions by the new gov­ern­ment, namely to sus­pend and then rein­tro­duce the singing of Vande Mataram by em­ploy­ees at the Mantralaya and the sus­pen­sion of a Rs 25,000 per month pen­sion to MISA (Main­te­nance of In­ter­nal Se­cu­rity Act) de­tainees of the Emer­gency era, have gen­er­ated con­tro­versy. The chal­lenge for Ka­mal Nath is to stick to de­ci­sions that have po­lit­i­cal im­pli­ca­tions rather than back­track on them and give the BJP more fod­der. For­mer chief min­is­ter Chouhan was quick to re­act say­ing, “De­ci­sions are be­ing taken and re­versed. It is un­clear who is run­ning the gov­ern­ment,” in re­sponse to the re­vo­ca­tion of cer­tain trans­fer or­ders.

An­other pri­or­ity is to get the mori­bund in­dus­trial sec­tor go­ing. Job cre­ation too de­mands im­me­di­ate at­ten­tion. The pre­vi­ous BJP gov­ern­ment or­gan­ised a num­ber of in­vest­ment meets, which saw at­ten­dance by top in­dus­trial houses and cap­tains of in­dus­try, but did not fruc­tify into in­vest­ments, ex­cept for tex­tiles which saw Vardhman and Tri­dent set­ting up plants in CM Chouhan’s con­stituency, Budhni. Nath’s ex­pe­ri­ence as com­merce min­is­ter and in at­tract­ing in­dus­tries to Chhindwara should come in handy.

MU­JEEB FARUQUI/ GETTY IMAGES

TAK­ING STOCK Ka­mal Nath at the Po­lice head­quar­ters in Bhopal

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