Can Kamal Nath Outwit Shivraj Singh Chouhan, Madhya Pradesh’s Longest Serving CM?

With a proven track record, Nath, who has been a steady presence in the Congress for decades, has been handed the charge of wresting the state away from the BJP.

Madhya Pradesh Congress chief Kamal Nath, a former Union minister, is leading the Congress campaign for the first time in a state election. Having won the Chhindwara parliament seat nine times since 1980, Nath is the seniormost parliamentarian in the 16th Lok Sabha.

Out of power in Madhya Pradesh for the last 15 years, the Congress has a mammoth task at hand and is focussing on the “unfulfilled” promises of chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan, whom the party has termed as a “ghoshnaveer” (a man of hollow promises).

A proven track record

Kamal Nath is in a league of his own in the Congress. Nath, who has been a leader in the Congress since Sanjay Gandhi era, contributed to the fall of Janata regime of 1979 by sowing seeds of discontent between Morarji Desai and Charan Singh, and making full use of maverick Raj Narain.

Nath has maintained a track record of being a “go-getter” and a “doer”. When the UPA was struggling to push through a bill on FDI (foreign direct investment) in retail, Nath performed a near miracle by bringing Mayawati to vote for the bill in the Rajya Sabha in the later half of 2008. Just as confident opposition leaders were retiring to bed, Nath was with Mayawati, in the company of Satish Mishra, promising the Bahujan Samaj Party supremo help the SC/ST job reservation bill in parliament in exchange of her support to FDI.

Also read: From ‘Pappu’ and ‘Mama’, the Rise of Shivraj Singh Chouhan in Madhya Pradesh

Against this backdrop, Nath’s appointment as MPCC chief is a signal that Rahul Gandhi may finally be acknowledging leaders with seniority and a proven track record.

The big question is whether the Doon School, St Xavier Calcutta alumnus will be able to outwit Shivraj Singh Chouhan, Madhya Pradesh’s longest serving chief minister?

Nath started eyeing Madhya Pradesh soon after Congress’ humiliating defeat in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. He deftly worked out intra-party strategic alliances with Digvijaya Singh and Jyotiraditya Scindia. While Scindia initially sulked after Nath’s appointment as MPCC chief in May 2018, Nath quickly got Digvijaya Singh, Ajay Singh, Siresh Pachauri, Kantilal Bhuria and half a dozen other regional satraps on his side.

Madhya Pradesh state Congress committee chief Kamal Nath with Jyotiraditya Scindia and Digvijay Singh. Credit: PTI

In Congress circles in the state, Nath is called “Bada bhai” of ‘Diggy Raja’ – a tag he earned during Digvijay Singh’s ten-year rule (1993-2003) when Nath and Digvijay neutralised veterans like Arjun Singh, Madhavrao Scindia and the Shukla brothers. During Singh’s rule (1993-2003), Nath’s wishes were treated as commands as even the chief minister publicly acknowledged Nath as “Bada bhai” and the real power behind the throne.

As a politician, Nath appears to have realised that he has a far better chance in becoming the chief minister of Madhya Pradesh in 2018 and contributing to a possible Congress victory in the 2019 general elections than he would have achieved by serving as AICC general secretary.

Nath, the son of a businessman from Meerut, was a contemporary of Sanjay and Rajiv Gandhi at Doon School, where he was affectionately called “Roly”. He later earned a BCom degree from St Xavier’s, Calcutta. At the height of Sanjay’s clout during 1975-76, there used to be a slogan, “Indira Gandhi ke do haath, Sanjay Gandhi aur Kamal Nath.”

Nath is known for his ready wit. He has narrated how when travelling from Paris to Brussels by train with then European Union trade commissioner Peter Mandelson, he had explained his stand against agricultural protectionism by developed countries. “Here are the fat cows living on subsidised food and they can’t stand on their legs. That is my story and that is my argument,” he had told Mandelson. At another occasion, when he was asked what time he woke up in the morning, Nath quickly said, “First ask me what time I sleep!”

Also read: Why Congress Should Tie up With JAYS, the Adivasi Movement in MP That Began on Facebook

Nath has nursed his Chhindwara constituency well and visits it every month. Local lore tells the tale of how he once got executives from the Japan Bank for International Cooperation to visit Chhindwara as his guests so he could persuade them to extend a loan for a central project that involved building a dam on the local Pench river.

In February 2007, he got the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) to hold a conclave in Chhindwara. Two private jets carrying leading Indian industrialists landed on the Nath family’s airstrip. One of the upshots? A spice park in the constituency.

Ghosts of the past

Nath has gotten sucked into a few controversies over the years. In 2011, party rivals accused him of inviting Baba Ramdev to Chhindwara to organise a campaign against the UPA II government. A party member from Ujjain, Prem Chand Guddu, had at that point of time written to Sonia Gandhi alleging Nath had raised Rs 25 lakh for the campaign. Nath denied any involvement. Earlier, during the last days of the P.V. Narasimha Rao government in the mid-1990s, Nath had been forced to quit the cabinet after being accused in the Jain hawala case.

Nath’s role in 1984 has been hazy and often treated as a forgotten, closed chapter. However, the ghosts of 1984 came back to haunt Nath when during a visit to the US, he found himself summoned by a US federal district court in a civil case filed under the Alien Torts Claims Act, where the petitioners sought compensatory and punitive damages for several allegations including crimes against humanity, degrading treatment and wrongful killing.

Also read: Why Failure to Form an Alliance With BSP in MP Shouldn’t Worry Congress

In a series of interviews, Nath has been stressing on the fact he had never been charged in any court and questioned why these allegations were being raised more than two decades after the tragedy and that too in a foreign land. “For the last 25 years I wasn’t involved… suddenly in 2010 I get involved… There was nobody who stood up and said that he was a victim or that I was in any way connected. So I’m surprised and appalled,” Nath had said.

The electoral battleground

As a campaigner, Nath is focussing on the Vyapam scam, farmers unrest, caste conflicts between Dalits and upper castes, crime against women, corruption in high places and disquiet in the state bureaucracy over influence of certain bureaucrats. Given 15 years of BJP rule in the state and primacy of Chouhan in state politics, he is confident that prime minister Narendra Modi’s high-pitched campaign will not help the BJP much.

“Assembly polls tend to be fought on local issues and on that count, Chouhan and BJP have little to showcase,” Nath recently told this correspondent.

For the past four months, the Congress under Nath has been working on a multi-pronged strategy. First and foremost, it wants to dent Chouhan’s good image. The Congress is searching for a catchy slogan and a spin to take a dig at Chouhan’s mama (maternal uncle) image and project him as someone who betrayed masses’ confidence and trust.

Even unity in the faction-ridden Congress is another mantra that is being addressed by presenting Digvijaya Singh, Jyotiraditya Scindia and Nath as a united face of the party.

The outcome of the Madhya Pradesh assembly polls, along with Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Telangana and Mizoram, will have a crucial bearing on national politics. If the Congress manages to wrest Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan, could have the potential of becoming a rallying point of a rainbow coalition. BJP’s success, on the other hand, will not only demoralise the opposition but will very likely create sharp differences between the Congress and non-NDA allies like the Samajwadi Party, Trinamool Congress, BSP and others.

If BJP’s wins in two or more election bound states, it would be a huge shot in the arm for prime minister Modi and BJP chief Amit Shah. And more likely than not, the 2019 general elections would become a foregone conclusion.

Rasheed Kidwai is a noted political commentator and talking head on Indian tv news channels. He is a visiting fellow at the ORF and the views expressed here are his own.