It was the year 1993, when Madhya Pradesh had not yet been divided. The Congress had snatched power from the BJP in the assembly elections, winning 174 seats of the 320-member house.
The Congress’s state unit had a host of veterans who wielded influence not just in MP, but also at the Centre. These included former chief minister Arjun Singh, Shyama Charan Shukla, Madhavrao Scindia, Subhash Yadav, Vidya Charan Shukla and Motilal Vora.
However, the party chose Digvijay Singh, who was then the party’s state unit chief, as the chief minister.
Veteran journalist Deepak Tiwari, who authored Rajnitinama Madhya Pradesh, said, “Initially, Shyama Charan Shukla was considered for the CM post. Arjun Singh, on the other hand, was in favour of Subhash Yadav. But Digvijay Singh, who had Kamal Nath’s support, dealt directly with then Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao.”
Tiwari said Madhavrao Scindia and Vidya Charan Shukla were also in the fray for the state’s top post. “Vidya Charan Shukla’s base, although not in favour of Shyama Charan Shukla, was nevertheless opposed to Digvijay Singh. Singh was able to surmount all these challenges to become the chief minister,” he said.
And once he did, he managed to hold on for ten years.
According to Tiwari, “Singh’s 1993-98 stint was spent combating these veteran leaders and other challengers within the party. But when the Congress won the assembly elections again under his leadership in 1998, his stature grew. After the state’s division in 2000, Shukla and Vora were in Chhattisgarh. Madhavrao Scindia passed away. Arjun Singh formed his own party. Consequently, Singh remained the Congress’s only leader of stature from MP.”
Singh, who is adept in political strategy and considered to be Rahul Gandhi’s political guru, now says, “I do not campaign during the elections because it could hurt the party.” Questions are being raised if he has been pushed to the party’s sidelines.
Is his presence in the party, just like BJP’s Margdarshak Mandal, just for the sake of appearances?
And if so, what is the reason? And what compels him to vocally and enthusiastically support the Congress’s policies?
A self-imposed exile
In 2003, when the Congress was routed in the state’s assembly elections (it won only 38 seats), Singh declared that he would neither contest elections nor interfere in the state’s politics for a decade.
In a conversation with The Wire, Singh said, “I was accused of being responsible for the Congress’s loss in 2003. So stepped out of the picture.”
After his two tenures as CM, Singh became part of the Congress’s central leadership. In 2008, he was elected as the AICC general secretary and oversaw policy formation in states like Uttar Pradesh, Assam, Bihar and Andhra Pradesh.
It was during this time that he was portrayed as Rahul Gandhi’s political guru.
The Congress continued to have faith in him and Singh worked with state units in Goa, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana.
His self-imposed ten-year state exile ended in 2013. He was willing to contest the Lok Sabha elections, if the party deemed so. Although he did not get a Lok Sabha ticket then, the party offered him a Rajya Sabha ticket in 2014.
During this time, Singh often made headlines with his controversial statements. He questioned the Batala encounter case, objected to the US dumping Osama Bin Laden’s body in the sea and remained aggressively critical of the RSS, all of which generated media attention.
During the UPA’s reign, it was said that Singh’s public statements were a weapon the party used when it was cornered. His controversial statements were bound to draw attention away from crucial national issues.
Singh’s political career fell on hard times in 2017. As the Congress’s Goa in-charge, despite the party emerging as the largest party, Singh failed to ensure the government’s formation.
Soon, he was stripped of overseeing elections in Karnataka and later, Telangana.
Singh’s role in the party was minimised in 2018, when newly elected party president Rahul Gandhi removed him as the AICC general secretary and withdrew his charge of Andhra Pradesh. These responsibilities were handed over to the former Kerala chief minister Oommen Chandy.
Resolving internal conflicts
Presently, Singh is just the coordination committee chief of the Madhya Pradesh Congress. He has been entrusted to resolve the differences among the various factions within the party.
Even Singh’s appointment as the chief of the coordination committee was contentious. Although the committee was ostensibly formed to resolve internal conflict, its real aim was to appease Singh, a manifestation of the very problem it aims to end.
After concluding his Narmada Parikrama Yatra, Singh announced that to prepare for elections, he would travel to every vidhan sabha constituency in MP to unite cadre and leaders. He was unsure if the Congress’s internal conflict could be put to bed.
Meanwhile, an internal Congress survey was leaked to the media. It said Singh’s proposed travels could prove harmful to the party. Presumably in reaction to the findings, Singh’s plans were scrapped by the party.
Kamal Nath, recently appointed as the party’s state president, declared on May 12 that leaders could not begin a campaign journey without permission.
Unexpectedly, on May 22, the party granted permission for his journey. But even then, his wings were clipped.
While Singh had announced his intention to visit every Vidhan Sabha constituency, the party restricted it to the district-level. The party also nominated his staunch rival Satyavrat Chaturvedi to the coordination committee.
Experts believe that, the party nominated Singh as chief of the coordination committee to offer some consolation.
Political expert Girija Shankar says, “If a party allows a leader to go on a private journey (Narmada Yatra) just six months before the elections are due to take place, it becomes clear that the leader’s presence is not crucial. The Congress had, already in September 2017, indicated that Singh could do whatever he wished, as the party did not need him.”
- While Singh initially denied the yatra was political, he confirmed it in an interview with The Wire.
Digvijay Singh had commenced his Narmada Yatra on September 30, 2017, declaring it a private, religious journey. In six months, he passed through 90 vidhan sabha constituencies located on the Narmada’s bank.
Although a “religious” yatra, many political leaders participated. Singh sought blessings of some sadhus and godmen who play an active role in politics. On social media, Singh posted details of interactions with citizens.
While Singh initially denied the yatra was political, he confirmed it in an interview with The Wire.
It was said then that Singh’s yatra was an attempt to recover lost territory and portray himself as a popular alternative to Shivraj Chauhan. Gaining traction, he was seen as Congress’s chosen candidate for chief minister.
His ambition was grand, which is why immediately after the conclusion of the Narmada Yatra, Singh wanted to visit all vidhan sabha constituencies. But the Congress thought otherwise.
After these events, Singh publicly declared that he would not seek to become the chief minister. Yet, his supporters continued to lobby, though Singh distanced himself from that campaign.
Playing up his own importance
Singh still desires to play an important role in the state’s politics. In August, he told The Wire, “The Congress lost the previous two legislative assembly elections in Madhya Pradesh because I was not involved. But now I am completely involved. I have travelled 3,100 km on the banks of the Narmada. I walked on foot for 11 days in Shivraj Chauhan’s constituency and now I am going to every district, and will go to every village.”
He proclaimed that Chauhan would not be able to form the government again. “This time, Digvijay Singh will go everywhere. In the past he only went where the Congress wanted him go. This time I will ensure that the Congress forms government in the state,” he said.
At Rahul Gandhi’s publicity event at the BHEL Dussehra Maidan and other similar events, Singh’s absence was noticeable. While large cutouts of various leaders were installed as part of the Congress’s campaign, Singh’s face was once again missing.
Girija Shankar, criticising his tenure as the chief minister, said Singh was attempting to assert his own importance. “In any party, a leader has prove their value. The media might declare that so-and-so is a great leader, but that does not mean that the party will agree. What has Digvijay Singh done in the past 15 years? The media says he is Rahul Gandhi’s guru, but neither himself nor the party has portrayed him as such,” Shankar says.
Shankar’s views resonate even more in light of the fact that Singh has not been able to resolve the party’s internal conflicts. The party, which was to announce its seat allocations by August 15, has still announced only 155 candidates.
The failure to reach consensus is because there are more than ten contenders vying for a single seat or leaders such as Kamal Nath, Scindia, Digvijay Singh and Ajay Singh are plotting to include their own loyalists.
And Singh, whose job was to resolve internal polarisation, has not even been able to resolve the polarisation against him. For instance, Scindia did not allow Singh’s yatra to pass through the Gwalior-Chambal region, which is of great political importance and has 32 constituencies.
Veteran journalist Rashid Kidwai says Singh has been sidelined due to his age and political style. “At first, the party wanted leaders of his age-group to step away from politics in order to make way for the younger leaders. But after the defeat of 2014, this was abandoned. There has been a great change in the politics of this country since the BJP’s victory and the rise of Narendra Modi,” he said.
Kidwai added, “The Congress’s old tactic of maintaining a rapport with the public by having an upper-caste person speak in favour of minorities and Dalits is not successful anymore. Majoritarianism has taken root everywhere. There is very little political space for people who wish to speak for minorities and become their messiahs. In this new political environment, Digvijay Singh has little use to the Congress. His biggest weakness is the inability to change with the circumstances.”
A strategic decision
According to Deepak Tiwari, the Congress made a strategic decision to not field Digvijay Singh. Tiwari says, “The BJP has managed to make Singh look like a monster in Madhya Pradesh. His electoral image has suffered as a result and Singh has not made an effort to correct or improve that image.”
“Digvijay Singh understands Madhya Pradesh well. He knows who commands influence and to what degree in the state Congress. For that reason, he is useful only behind the scenes. This is not just the party’s belief,” he said.
Although Singh has been left out of the Congress’s campaign, the BJP has made him a key part of its own campaign. Neither Chauhan nor BJP president Amit Shah miss an opportunity to bring up Singh’s tenure as chief minister. In every public event, they remind the public of his tenure, calling him Shriman Bantadhar (Mr Ruination).
For this reason, had the Congress promoted Singh, it would have given the BJP’s attacks more bite. The Congress is also wary of turning the elections into a contest between Chauhan and Singh.
It is important to note that the Congress is the police firing on farmers in Mandsaur to hammer away at Chahuan and the BJP. Had the party fielded Singh, it would have to answer difficult questions about the police firing on farmers that took place in Multai during Singh’s reign. This is perhaps why all major Congress leaders besides Singh were present at the stage during Rahul Gandhi’s Mandsaur rally on June 6, 2018.
Deepak Tiwari says, “This time, the elections in Madhya Pradesh are not BJP vs Congress, but rather BJP vs the public. The Congress is hoping that anti-incumbency will ensure that the BJP is booted out. For that reason, it is not promoting any particular leader in Madhya Pradesh, as the people might find them even more objectionable than the current BJP leaders. This is especially true in the case of Singh.”
Kidwai believes, on the contrary, that Singh is the scapegoat for the mistakes made by the party’s top leadership. “Congress lost many states, including Goa. There were many reasons why the Congress could not form a government there despite winning the most seats. Singh cannot be blamed entirely.”
the Congress’s tradition has been to never blame Sonia Gandhi or Rahul Gandhi for any mistake, Kidwai says. “The prime minister can be blamed. Other ministers and leaders can be blamed. Just take a look at UP or any other state, where the BJP defeated the Congress. No accusations have been made against Rahul or Sonia Gandhi. Digvijay Singh has had to reap the bitter fruit of this culture,” he said.
His son’s political career
Singh’s commitment to the Congress may even be influenced by his son’s political career. His son, Jaivardhan Singh, is an MLA from Raghogarh. Rashid says, “Singh is mostly concerned with his son, who he hopes will become a minister if the Congress is elected. Moreover, Singh’s supporters are spread across the state. He has to ensure that their careers are not hindered.”
On the other hand, Girija Shankar questions the influence of not just Singh, but also Kamal Nath and Scindia. “How did the Congress lose three elections in a row? No leader in the Madhya Pradesh Congress seems so influential that his or her being upset would affect the party’s chances,” Shankar says.
Shankar says, “Singh has not been involved in the state’s politics for 15 years. Neither Scindia nor Kamal Nath has ever lived in Madhya Pradesh. They have no mass support and thus, are not capable of harming the party’s chances.”
In any case, Singh does have a stake in ensuring that the Congress will win. One, because his son can progress in politics. Secondly, in case Kamal Nath becomes the chief minister, Singh’s close relationship with him could prove useful. Singh also needs to keep his Rajya Sabha seat. It remains to be seen if this will resuscitate his career.
Deepak Goswami is an independent journalist.
This is an abridged version of an article that appeared in The Wire Hindi. Read the original here. Translated by Karan Dhingra.