A Congress troika: Battle the party fought within itself in Madhya Pradesh
Decoding the Kamal Nath-Digvijaya vs Scindia equation.
The Congress has never been short of leaders in the state of Madhya Pradesh. From the days of D.P. Mishra, Ravi Shankar Shukla and his sons, the Shukla brothers, Arjun Singh, Motilal Vohra, Madhavrao Scindia, to the current troika of Digvijaya Singh, Kamal Nath and Jyotiraditya Scindia, the state has done the Congress proud. In fact, till 2003, no non-Congress government had completed five years in office. Which is why it’s been a mystery as to why the Congress has languished out of power in this state for as many as 15 years.
There are many reasons for this, but the one that stands out is that ever since Digvijaya Singh lost the 2003 elections and opted out of state politics, the Congress has not been able to find a leader to replace him. One who would be acceptable to not just all the factions but also to Digvijaya himself, for he remains an influential voice in state politics. As a Congress party general secretary commented wryly, “Digvijaya may not be popular amongst the state, but he is very popular amongst Congress workers”.
Realising this, Rahul Gandhi promoted the one leader whom Digvijaya would back—the nine-term MP and former Union Minister Kamal Nath. The Nath-Digvijaya equation dates back to Rajiv Gandhi’s Congress, if not earlier, for it was Indira Gandhi who took Nath to Chhindwara and introduced him as her “third son”. Digvijaya too joined the Congress around the time and was made a minister in the Arjun Singh-led government in the state from 1980-84. Both Nath and Digvijaya were mentored by the wiliest Thakur of them all, the late Arjun Singh. However, when Digvijaya fell out with Arjun Singh in 1995, Nath backed him. (This was when Arjun Singh fell out with then Congress president, Narasimha Rao and split the Congress. He wanted Digvijaya to join his Congress-T, but Digvijaya felt he owed Narasimha Rao, who had appointed him CM over the rival claims of Shyamacharan Shukla and Motilal Vohra.)
In the decade that followed, Digvijaya ruled the state and cemented his equation with Nath. He used to tell his colleagues in a lighter vein, “Of the 45 districts in the state, I rule over 44 while the 45th is Nath’s”. All the postings in Nath’s district were subject to his approval, who was known as the “Bada Bhai” (elder brother) and one whose writ runs in the state.
Interestingly, during the 2008 MP Assembly campaign, Sonia Gandhi had promoted Suresh Pachouri as the state PCC chief and the de facto CM face. ( If you recall after his 2003 defeat Digvijaya had taken a 10-year sabbatical from electoral politics.) An Arjun Singh and Kamal Nath protégé, Pachouri was not in favour with Digvijaya Singh. At Nath’s insistence, Pachouri kicked off the 2008 Congress campaign from Chhindwara, which is Nath’s bastion. Arjun Singh cautioned him against this, pointing out that he should instead hold a rally in the state’s capital, Bhopal. But Pachouri heeded Nath’s advice and after his speech, Digvijaya took the microphone and put forward Nath’s name as the CM face. Since this was Nath’s bastion, an eager crowd lapped up the suggestion, leaving Pachouri red- faced. The infighting between Digvijaya and Arjun Singh (via Pachouri) dented the Congress campaign. This then is also the hold Digvijaya has over the state—he may not be able to win it for the Congress but he can ensure a Congress defeat. Which is why it is imperative for the Congress high command to field a candidate of his choice. And Digvijaya Singh has made it clear that Nath has his support, for while
What is as intriguing as Digvijaya’s friendship with Nath is his distrust of Jyotiraditya Scindia. However, one thing all the Congress leaders from MP have in common is their conservative Hinduism, which works in the Hindi belt.
Singh has opted out of state politics, he wants to ensure that his son Jaivardhan Singh, the sitting MLA from Raghogarh, remains relevant. He knows that Nath will ensure this. As Rasheed Kidwai, author of 24 Akbar Road points out, “Kamal Nath is Digvijaya Singh by another name.”
What is as intriguing as Digvijaya’s friendship with Nath is his distrust of Jyotiraditya Scindia. The Digvijaya-Scindia equation (or lack of it) is a key turning point in state Congress politics. Digvijaya’s father was the erstwhile Raja of Raghogarh, which comes in the Gwalior-Guna belt, of which the Scindias were the former Maharajas. Even today there are those who call Digvijaya “Raja Sahib” and Jyotiraditya Scindia “Maharaja”. In terms of seniority, as a former CM, Digvijaya trumps Jyotirad- itya in the party hierarchy. In fact, their equation falls in the grey area between democratic and feudal India. Those who know Digvijaya, claim that he considers the Scindias as “outsiders”, for they trace their heritage to the Shindes from Maharashtra.
Interestingly, after Madhavrao died prematurely in a plane crash in 2002, his widow took their son to Digvijaya and asked him to mentor him. Jyotiraditya used to visit Digvijaya at his CM residence in Bhopal. That experiment, however, clearly was very short-lived as the current strained relationships show.
During a rally in July 2017 at Lahar—ironically pitched as a unity meet with all the leaders sharing the dais— Digvijaya turned to Scindia with a smile and said, “go and fight the BJP, not me”. Interestingly, Scindia’s fa- ther Madhavrao had organised a similar unity meet in Dabra in 1993, where he got all the warring factions—Motilal Vora, Arjun Singh, Digvijaya and Nath (who were then with Arjun Singh)—on the same dais. And the Congress won the state polls later that year.
It is this gap that Rahul Gandhi tried to bridge when he appointed Kamal Nath as the PCC chief, for Digvijaya had made it clear that if Scindia was promoted then he would rebel. And neither Nath, nor Scindia has the same hold over the party apparatus as Digvijaya has. While Scindia’s appeal lies in the Guna-Gwalior-Shivpuri belt, Nath is popular in the Mahakaushal-Chhindwara region. It is Digvijaya alone who has a pan state appeal. As Rasheed Kidwai points out, “Madhya Pradesh is unique in that it does not have a linguistic identity as does West Bengal or Tamil Nadu. Every few hundred kms the language changes. It is an administrative state.” This gives rise to regional satraps within the state and hence the factionalism is more intense here than in other states.
However, one thing all the Congress leaders from MP have in common is their conservative Hinduism, which works in the Hindi belt. Digvijaya just completed the 3,300-km long Narmada Parikrama. Kamal Nath has built a 101 ft tall Hanuman temple in his constituency, while Scindia recently told the BJP they should learn how to build temples from his family which has built 60 temples across MP, Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra and Rajasthan. Hence, in Madhya Pradesh, it was not difficult for the Congress to counter the BJP’s Hindutva card with some degree of conviction.
Both Nath and Scindia kept their infighting away from public glare; each focused on their strongholds during the campaign. Digvijaya’s face may have been missing from the party posters, but he has been working behind the scenes to ensure a Congress win—for Nath. In fact, Nath claims it was at Singh’s request that his face was kept out of campaign posters. Digvijaya also got the lion’s share of tickets distributed, which led to a public face-off between him and Scindia during an inner party meeting to finalise seats.
What has also worked is Nath’s grip on governance and administration. Under him the Congress launched Project Shakti, a campaign to galvanise booth- level workers identifying 43 key constituencies where the BJP was weakest. Madhya Pradesh has 230 Assembly constituencies, with 65,341 booths and each booth was given 25-30 workers. The attention to detail was not unlike that followed by BJP chief Amit Shah, though Nath had only seven months since he took over as Pradesh Congress Committee (PCC) chief till the state elections to deliver. He also focused on the samajik sangathans (caste based groups) and wooed each separately, concentrating on the OBC sangathans. Party workers were given specific tasks to allay all their concerns. Nath’s outreach also included Anganwadi workers and Asha karyakartas (social health activists) for he realised the influence they had over their areas of work. It was a well crafted campaign, for Nath’s strong point is putting systems in place.
Moreover, he was the one leader who could unite all factions. Realising this, as early as 2017, Nath reached out to Scindia, and the duo told Rahul Gandhi that they were okay with whomsoever Rahul chose to promote as party chief, but the Congress needed a face to counter the popular Shivraj Singh Chouhan. Other state leaders like Kantilal Bhuria and Rahul Singh backed Digvijaya-Nath over Scindia. But at the end of the day, the Congress has fought a two-layered battle in Madhya Pradesh—one against the BJP, and the other equally intense one, within itself.
Congress leaders Jyotiraditya Scindia, Kamal Nath and Digvijaya Singh release the party’s manifesto for the Madhya Pradesh Assembly elections, in Bhopal, on 10 November.