Curiosity, concern and hope mark Kamal Nath’s arrival in Madhya Pradesh

As the Shivraj Singh Chouhan government faces anti-incumbency, can Congress leaders shun differences and close ranks around their new state unit head Kamal Nath?

Photo courtesy: Getty images
Photo courtesy: Getty images

Chandarakant Naidu

Has the Congress finally got its organisational configuration right in Madhya Pradesh? Very little has gone right for the party in the state over the past 15 years since it lost power after a 10-year stint under Digvijay Singh.

With the Assembly elections due in six months, supporters are watching its moves with much anticipation and anxiety. Just as a loss now could push the Congress into oblivion, a victory could lead to recovery in other states as well. Before it sets out for a fresh battle, the Congress needs to ask itself: How many of its leaders can match Chouhan in maintaining grassroot-level contacts? Why has it been so easy for him to outwit Congress?

It Is not so much about the large number of cadres from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) cadres. It is about striking the right chord with the electorate with some convincing arguments. How realistic are Congress’ chances to reclaim power in Madhya Pradesh with its present financial and human resources? As the main opposition party in a bipolar state, the Congress has mostly remained fragmented, leaving it to the law of gravity to take care of the ruling party.

The state unit is groaning under a financial crunch. The BJP has lured away some affluent members. The reorganised state unit under Kamal Nath, former Union minister and Lok Sabha member for nine terms, promises to make amends for all lapses.

The party has also projected another former Union minister Jyotiraditya Scindia as its campaign incharge. In a new experiment, it has named four working presidents to keep the party united. Others, like leader of the opposition in the Vidhan Sabha, Ajay Singh, and outgoing PCC chief Arun Yadav, will need to work in tandem with Nath and Scindia.

The transition was made to look seamless through a 19-km road show to mark Nath’s assumption of office. Although it brought all the faction leaders together, the rumblings did not go unnoticed.

Arun Yadav was sulking on being relieved of his charge and refused to join the road show till Digvijay Singh persuaded him to do so. Digvijay himself stayed at the rear-end of the procession, saying he would play guard for the train. Scindia, who spared no effort to be the CM face of the party, rarely smiled during the show.

Yadav poured out his anguish during the welcome to the new leader. “I am a farmer’s son. I have sown the seeds for the party’s success. Let the seniors reap the harvest,” he said. In over three years at the helm, Yadav had presided over many failures of the party.

But of late, three successive wins in the by-elections had boosted his morale. Congress watchers say the supporters of Digvijay Singh and Ajay Singh opposed Scindia as the CM candidate due to a 35-year-old factional rivalry simmering since the times of Madhavrao Scindia and Arjun Singh. It could have cast a shadow on the party’s showing.

The 72-year-old Kamal Nath was a better bet. Kamal Nath’s abilities as a fund-raiser also should have weighed in his favour. Call it intra-party bonding or social engineering, the preliminary composition of the team shows several caste combinations and regional permutations have received due consideration.

No one would expect factionalism to end in one stroke but the party seems to show readiness to assume the responsibility if the voters seek a change. Having frittered away many opportunities to effectively corner the BJP on corruption, atrocities against Dalits, farmers’ suicides, crimes against women and children and scams like Vyapam, the party shows the intent to go all out with a pro-active approach. Kamal Nath’s appointment hasn’t come one day too soon.

Can he mobilise the requisite support for the party in six months before the elections? Besides Chhindwara, the constituency he has nursed assiduously for nearly 40 years, Kamal Nath has shown little interest in the rest of the state. He has confined himself to the political and social circles in Delhi. A similar perception holds good for Scindia. His magnetic field is confined to Gwalior, Chambal and parts of the Madhya Bharat region. But he certainly carries a stronger appeal among the younger voters whose disillusionment with Chouhan is growing.

A whole new generation of voters has emerged without having to do much with Kamal Nath. He does give the impression of taking everyone along with him. But, unfamiliarity with a large section of party workers in his first few days at the PCC office points to the enormity of the task ahead. He has meant business right from the word go. The message of a new work ethic has gone down well. Quite unlike the past, all but four of the 52 party MLAs attended a meeting called at a short notice after Kamal Nath took charge. He has to catch up with a much younger Shivraj Singh Chouhan, who has had to campaign for one election or the other throughout the state for the best part of past 13 years. Chouhan is synonymous with the BJP.

His micro-management makes Kamal Nath’s task daunting. The BJP now flaunts its wealth unabashedly with matching bluster. Despite long incumbency, it claims to be sure of a fourth term under Chouhan. Chouhan’s adversaries—and even some supporters—however, say he has been judged more on his promises than on his performance.

This time around, dissensions and factionalism have acquired a new dimension. The reasons are not that difficult to see. Just as the two-men high command of Narendra Modi and Amit Shah has reduced all party veterans into bystanders at the national-level, Chouhan has marginalised seniors like Babulal Gaur and Sartaj Singh in the state. He has antagonised party members by his excesses like offering ministerial status to some sanyasis.

This might have won him four friends but could cost the party many more. He has also made tall claims of having rid the state of the “Bimaru” tag. None other than NITI Aayog recently quashed that claim. The BJP may now have to pay for incumbency fatigue in other states too. The point is whether the Congress can profit from it.

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