A day after he resigned as the chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, Kamal Nath flew into Delhi and was ensconced in his residence at 1, Tughlaq Road, from where over the years he has fought and won many an electoral battle for the Congress as well as played a role in the downfall of a couple of opposition-led central governments. This March, in a bitter twist of irony, he found himself at the receiving end, blindsided by a colleague 24 years his junior. It cost him the hard-earned chief ministership of a state that the Congress won just 15 months ago.
In his study, pictures of key members of the Nehru-Gandhi family whom he has worked with adorn the wall behind his desk. The one that finds centre stage is of Sanjay Gandhi, his Doon School buddy and political mentor. It was as one of Sanjay’s storm-troopers that a young Kamal Nath cut his political teeth. After playing a role in staying the arrest of Indira Gandhi by a special court in 1979, he was rewarded with a ticket the next year to contest the Chhindwara Lok Sabha seat, which covers the largest district in Madhya Pradesh. Nath went on to win the seat nine times before making way for his son Nakul in the 2019 Lok Sabha election. Significantly, of the 29 seats that the Congress contested in the state in the general election, it won only one, Chhindwara. The other 28 went to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Among the most prominent Congress losers in the state was Jyotiraditya Scindia, scion of the Gwalior royalty, who lost family pocket borough Guna for the first time since 2002. That defeat would set in motion a chain reaction that would result in Jyotiraditya joining the BJP along with 22 Congress MLAs two weeks ago. It changed the political landscape and dealt a body blow to the Kamal Nath government, which had cobbled together an administration after the Congress registered a surprise win in the 2018 assembly election. It was a victory that ended 15 years of uninterrupted BJP rule in the state, but it was a tenuous one. The Congress won 114 seats in the 230-strong assembly and needed four Independents and MLAs from two other parties to cross the simple majority mark of 116 and form the government.
With 22 MLAs pulling out of the Congress and resigning from the assembly on March 9, the party’s tally dropped to 92, forcing Kamal Nath to tender his resignation. The BJP, which had 107 seats, was invited to form a government and Shivraj Singh Chouhan was back at the helm.
The massive setback has given Kamal Nath plenty of time to reflect over what went wrong and to start plotting his comeback. He alleges that he was ousted by the BJP’s massive money power, the likes of which, he says, he has never seen in his 40 years in politics. In between spraying a mist of Nicorette in his mouth, Kamal Nath told India Today, “My government did not fall because of Jyotiraditya’s exit from the Congress, but by the brazen display of cash incentives by the BJP. Nor did I anticipate that some of my party MLAs would fall to the lure of that money so easily.” These are serious charges, which both Jyotiraditya and the BJP vehemently deny, claiming that the Kamal Nath government fell because of the disillusionment of a section of the Congress over its lack of performance.
However, the seeds of discontent had been sown long before, emerging from the intense power struggle that broke out between Kamal Nath and Jyotiraditya six months before the Madhya Pradesh assembly election in November 2018. Kamal Nath may have been the longest-serving MP from the state, but had for decades preferred to be in Delhi and play a larger role in national politics. In 1993, he was in the list of probable chief ministerial candidates that included Digvijaya Singh, Shyama Charan Shukla and Jyotiraditya’s father, Madhavrao Scindia. Kamal Nath, who was the Union minister for environment at that time and had just finished playing a stellar role in the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio, decided to keep his ministerial post at the Centre and backed Digvijaya as chief minister over the others.
It was something Digvijaya would eternally remain grateful for. Years later, in 2018, when Rahul Gandhi asked Digvijaya whom the party should send as the chief of the Madhya Pradesh Congress Committee (MPCC), he named Kamal Nath over Jyotiraditya. Jyotiraditya was closer to Rahul than Kamal Nath, both in years and socially’. In fact, when Jyotiraditya left the party, a somewhat hurt Rahul told the media that he is the only chap in the Congress who could walk into my house anytime he wanted. However, when it came to naming the PCC chief, Rahul chose Kamal Nath over Jyotiraditya. Congress sources point to two reasons: Kamal Nath was far wilier and the more experienced trouble-shooter of the two; he also had access to more resources to take on the BJP as well as the seasoned Chouhan. The other consideration was that Jyotiraditya’s clout didn’t extend beyond his family bastions in the Gwalior-Chambal region.
Kamal Nath. Photo by Bandeep Singh
Kamal Nath recalls that when he took over as MPCC chief in May 2018, just six months before the assembly election, there was no organisation in most districts. In fact, “not even a bathroom”, he adds, with characteristic humour. He set about invigorating the cadres by pushing for booth and block-level management, a strategy that had seen him win consistently from Chhindwara in the past. When it came to ticket distribution, party sources say Kamal Nath was more than willing to accommodate Jyotiraditya’s requests and gave him an almost free hand to choose candidates from the Gwalior-Chambal region, to the detriment of Digvijaya, who also came from the same region. With the three Congress strongmen in the state working jointly and aided by the anti-incumbency against Chouhan, the party managed to put up a good show even if it fell short of a clear majority.
As MPCC chief, Kamal Nath was the top contender for the chief ministerial post. Plus, he had Digvijaya’s backing. However, Jyotiraditya too staked an equally strong claim, saying it was time younger Congress leaders were pushed to the fore to revive the party. That might have worked if the party had a clear win, but the tenuous results required deft political management to win over the Independents and other allies. And it was Kamal Nath who was better-placed to do the needful. Rahul pushed for a vote by the PCC legislative party, which Kamal Nath reportedly won hands down, securing the support of 93 MLAs to Jyotiraditya’s 21.
Needless to say, Nath’s selection as chief minister did not go down well with Jyotiraditya. Though a Congress Working Committee (CWC) member dismisses Jyotiraditya’s aspirations for the chief ministerial chair as “disproportionate ambition”, his followers claim that the party’s success in the Gwalior-Chambal region, which he represents, was instrumental in the Congress’s return to power in MP after 15 yearsthe party won 26 of the 34 seats in the Gwalior-Chambal region. The CWC member accepts Jyotiraditya’s contribution in 15 seats, but finds his claim of influence in this region exaggerated.
After the vote, Congress sources say, Jyotiraditya was offered the deputy chief minister’s post, but he requested that his nominee Tulsi Silawat be appointed in his place. Kamal Nath reportedly nixed the idea, saying he would then have to appoint another deputy chief minister to please other factions. Instead, Kamal Nath was willing to accommodate six of Jyotiraditya’s nominees in his 33-strong cabinet, considered a generous offer, and included Silawat as his health minister. Digvijaya would later point out that Silawat was among the first to jump ship to the BJP with Jyotiraditya instead of leading the charge in preparing the state to combat the threat of the coronavirus.
Jyotiraditya’s supporters, on the other hand, claim that after the Congress government was formed, Kamal Nath and Digvijaya systematically sidelined him, refusing to accommodate his requests, and at times even humiliating him. The two leaders vehemently deny the charges. Says Digvijaya, “All his land deals were taken care of by the chief minister. Please find out how much land has been transferred to Jyotiraditya’s personal trust in Gwalior.”
Kamal Nath’s supporters also say that Jyotiraditya was given a free hand in administrative matters in the Gwalior-Chambal region. They claim the collectors and police superintendents of almost all districts in the two regions were changed in accordance with Jyotiraditya’s wishes. Another senior Congress leader, however, claims that Kamal Nath blocked some of Jyotiraditya’s requests for appointments because many of them had RSS or BJP backgrounds. Jyotiraditya declined to comment on such ridiculous charges. On his part, Kamal Nath says, “I accepted all his demands because of my warm personal equation with him, not because of any political compulsion.” Despite apparent differences, Kamal Nath and Jyotiraditya continued to have cordial relations and were recently seen at a dinner hosted by common friends.
To his credit, Kamal Nath’s political and managerial acumen helped the Congress’s minority government survive for 15 months despite multiple attempts by the BJP to pull it down. Jyotiraditya’s discontent gave Kamal Nath all the more reason to be on his guard and keep an eye on internal dissent, apart from ensuring that the state was governed well and that the party fulfilled its poll promises. “I inherited a bankrupt treasury and a dysfunctional and partisan bureaucracy that had seen only BJP governments, says Kamal Nath. So the last 15 months were divided between saving my government from the BJP’s money politics and making the bureaucracy adapt to my style of functioning. Yet, I managed to deliver some of the key things I had set out to do farm loan waiver, increased pension and electricity supply. It was not easy as time was short and the obstacles many.”
It was tough going all the way for Kamal Nath. Two of the state’s 230 assembly seats fell vacant following the death of the incumbents. The Congress government was technically safe with the support of 121 MLAs, 114 from the Congress, four Independents, two BSP and one SP, five more than the required majority mark. But with 107 members, just nine short of the magic number, the BJP was always breathing down its neck. The party fired its first salvo against the state government at the time of the election of the Speaker in January 2019. There were reports that a section of senior Congress MLAs might cross-vote as they were miffed at not being accommodated in the cabinet. The Congress passed that test and, in fact, even kept the Deputy Speaker’s post for itself, something that should go to the opposition, as a matter of convention. A second attempt came when the BJP planned to parade six rebel Congress MLAs at the governor’s residence, but Kamal Nath managed to scuttle that plan with some deft political footwork.
Despite the opposition’s best efforts, Kamal Nath managed to keep things going for a while. With farmers’ distress as the main poll plank for his party, Kamal Nath went about fulfilling the loan waiver promise, benefitting 2 million farmers in the first phase and promising that others would be eligible later. And this despite the dismal finances of the state and stiff resistance from the bureaucracy. His government launched two other prominent programmes, the first being Shuddh Ke Liye Yuddh, or war against adulteration of foodstuff, and the other an anti-mafia campaign against unscrupulous developers and history-sheeters across the state. As part of the first campaign, tests were conducted on thousands of samples of oil, milk and masala. In an interview to india today at the beginning of his term, Kamal Nath had said he wanted to give a government that is responsive, alert and moves fast; to get things done and move on.
Kamal Nath even pursued a soft Hindutva agenda. He cleared a plan for the construction of a Ram Van Gaman Path and a Sita temple in Sri Lanka. A total of 1,000 cowsheds were to be constructed.
A new subsidised electricity plan too was introduced under which a beneficiary has to pay Rs 100 for 100 units of power. On the political front, reservation for Other Backward Classes was enhanced from 14 to 27 per cent, a move that has been challenged in the high court. Reservation for economically weak upper castes was also announced but not implemented.
Relations between Kamal Nath and Jyotiraditya, however, became strained after the Lok Sabha election results in May 2019. The Congress received a severe drubbing not just at the Centre but also in the state, winning just a single seat. Jyotiraditya’s supporters accused Kamal Nath and Digvijaya of conspiring to make him lose. However, a senior Congress leader points out that Jyotiraditya lost by a huge margin of 125,000 votes in his bastion. He also alleges that it was after this defeat that Jyotiraditya began drifting toward the BJP and was in touch with its leaders to bring down the Kamal Nath government. But the BJP took its time because there was resistance within the state unit about taking him on board.
The tipping point, however, was the Rajya Sabha election scheduled for March 26. The Congress had the numbers to win two of the three seats falling vacant. This would lead to a loss of one seat from the existing two for the BJP in the upper house. The BJP sensed an opportunity to retain both the seats when the Congress exhibited uncertainty over Jyotiraditya’s candidature. This was when the saffron party pushed the pedal to achieve a double objective, a BJP government in a state after the disastrous loss in the Delhi election and an additional seat in Rajya Sabha where it’s still short of a majority.
Towards the end of February, a group of Congress, Independent and BSP MLAs were in touch with BJP state leaders Chouhan, Narottam Mishra, Bhupendra Singh and Arvind Bhadoria. Digvijaya raised an alarm on March 2, claiming that BJP leaders had taken Congress MLAs Bisahulal Singh, Aidal Singh Kansana, Raghuraj Kansana, Hardeep Dang, Independent MLA Surendra Singh Shera and BSP MLA Ram Bai to Delhi by chartered flight. Congress ministers Jai Vardhan Singh and Jitu Patwari managed to get Ram Bai back to Bhopal and there was hope that the others, except Dang who had sent in his resignation, would return too.
The newly elected Shivraj Singh Chouhan at the BJP office in Bhopal
That’s when the central leadership of the BJP realised that the situation was slipping out of their hands and that they needed to act fast. A plan was fine-tuned at the wedding reception of BJP national president J.P. Nadda’s son in Delhi and executed on March 10, when Jyotiraditya resigned from the Congress and 22 Congress MLAs assembled in Bengaluru.
Scindia with JP Nadda in Delhi
While Kamal Nath claims money power finally broke his defence, his supporters say it was Jyotiraditya’s personal ambition fuelled by the BJP’s desperation for power that felled his government. Both Kamal Nath and Digvijaya hold that Jyotiraditya’s departure from the Congress was pre-decided and he was only looking for an excuse. “It all started,” alleges Digvijaya, “when Jyotiraditya could not digest his defeat in the Lok Sabha election. That he could not retain his house in Delhi’s Safdarjung Road also played on his mind. He made a deal with the BJP in June. He was promised a cabinet berth and a Rajya Sabha ticket in return for toppling the Congress government.”
Jyotiraditya declined to comment, but his supporters rubbish such insinuations and point towards how he was fighting the BJP till February this year.” If he had such intent, he would have kept quiet on the BJP. He was made to feel unwanted in the Congress. Forget about a Rajya Sabha ticket or post of PCC president, even his constituency-related organisational and political requests were ignored,” says an aide. In response, Digvijaya says all of Jyotiraditya’s demands were accepted; it was he himself who did not want to become PCC president. His supporters admit that he wanted a candidate of his choice as PCC chief, but Congress president Sonia Gandhi asked him to suggest a name that also had Kamal Nath’s consent. Jyotiraditya, says Kamal Nath, never came up with a name.
Underlying tensions between them spilled out in the open this February when Jyotiraditya was seen walking out of a Madhya Pradesh coordination committee meeting in Delhi following a tiff with Kamal Nath. Sonia Gandhi had set up the coordination committee for better party-government liaison for the effective rollout of manifesto promises. Trying to gain public sympathy and to hit back at the Kamal Nath government, Jyotiraditya demanded the immediate waiver of farm loans, a poll promise the Congress had only partially fulfilled. If the Congress makes a promise, it fulfils it. Otherwise, we will have to take to the streets, he told mediapersons on February 15. The next day, Kamal Nath dared Jyotiraditya to hit the streets. His allegations are baseless. In several election campaigns for the Lok Sabha polls, he himself claimed to have distributed loan waiver cheques, says Kamal Nath.
While disgruntlement in the Jyotiraditya camp kept mounting, the Congress, including the party high command, remained strangely unresponsive to Jyotiraditya’s explicit expression of discontent. His supporters claim that the Nehru-Gandhi family’s attitude towards him emboldened the Kamal Nath-Digvijaya duo to cut him off further. When Jyotiraditya reportedly told Sonia Gandhi in September 2019 that he saw no future for himself in the Congress, she did nothing to address his concerns. When Jyotiraditya tried to reach out to Rahul, he texted him asking him to direct political queries to the Congress president, his mother, Sonia. A septuagenarian Congress leader claims that Priyanka Gandhi always saw Jyotiraditya as a threat to their family’s hold over the Congress and did not help the former Guna MP. Another party member counters that Jyotiraditya feared that Priyanka’s growing ascendancy in the party would kill any hope of his succeeding Rahul as party president.
Meanwhile, the Congress brass made the mistake of believing that Jyotiraditya would never take the drastic step of joining the BJP and the party too would be averse to striking a deal with him. Kamal Nath, too, was so busy keeping an eye on the four Independent, one SP and two BSP MLAs that he failed to note what the Scindia team was up to.
With the BJP’s electoral pitch too revolving around Maharaj vs Shivraj, it would be a long shot for Jyotiraditya to be inducted into the party, the Congress mistakenly believed. A number of BJP leaders, from national vice-president Prabhat Jha to ex-Bajrang Dal national head and former minister Jaibhan Singh Pawaiyya, were opposed to him. Two of the senior state BJP leaders, Narendra Singh Tomar and Narottam Mishra, come from Jyotiraditya’s Chambal-Gwalior stronghold.
The Congress leaders also assumed that since six of Jyotiraditya’s loyalists were ministers, they would be reluctant to give up the privilege. Most of these MLAs and ministers are pitted against BJP stalwarts in their respective constituencies and their careers would no doubt be adversely affected. Prabhuram Choudhary from Sanchi, for instance, has contested against Dr Gauri Shankar Shejwar for years. Pradyuman Singh Tomar is pitted locally against Pawaiyya, Silawat in Sanwer has a traditional rival in BJP’s Rajesh Sonkar.
Yet, to Jyotiraditya’s credit, his supporters stood by him in unwavering loyalty, sometimes verging on sycophancy. Former minister Pradyuman is known to dive for the royal feet despite being admonished for such displays. Former minister Mahendra Singh Sisodia famously called himself Jyotiraditya’s chamcha (sycophant), while another former minister, Imarti Devi, said she would jump into a well at Maharaj’s’ behest. They believe disloyalty to Scindia will make them lose the party ticket in the region, says Digvijaya.
Meanwhile, the sense of complacency among the Congress leadership was so deep that when Jyotiraditya took 16 MLAs to Delhi on March 9, Digvijaya claims he thought they were being taken to put pressure on the high command for Jyotiraditya to get a Rajya Sabha ticket. Inexplicably, the Congress did not announce Jyotiraditya’s candidature at that point to disarm the legislators. Kamal Nath admits he had advance information of the flight manifest of the chartered flight that took the MLAs to Bengaluru, yet no attempt was made to pre-empt the move. Once they were in Bengaluru, the game was over for the Congress. The party alleges the BJP offered each defecting MLA several crores of rupees, prompting Kamal Nath to say, “We don’t have that kind of money to buy them back. I am not an ATM.” All the rebel Congress MLAs and the BJP leaders have vehemently denied these allegations.
At 73, Kamal Nath, however, is not yet ready to walk into the sunset. Parked in Bhopal, he says, I am not going to give up without a fight. He has already chalked out a plan for the by-election, triggered by the resignations of the 22 MLAs. The game will certainly get murkier. The Kamal Nath camp claims the Congress will win at least 18 seats while BJP insiders say winning just nine seats will take their party past the magic number of 116.
The 22 MLAs will certainly want to get re-elected, this time as BJP candidates. The existing BJP candidate in each of these constituencies is unlikely to vacate the space for the Congress imports. Besides, there will be a tussle for ministerships. There are 33 ministerial berths and at least half of these 22 MLAs will have to be accommodated. That will leave only 22 positions for the original BJP stalwarts. Reportedly, there is already friction between a section of the BJP and Team Scindia over the post of deputy chief minister. The BJP government will collapse under the weight of its own contradictions, says Kamal Nath. Congress insiders also claim that Jyotiraditya’s entry in the BJP has ruffled feathers to the extent that some from the BJP might cross over to the Congress. “We already have resignations of several BJP MLAs,” claims a state Congress leader.
Kamal Nath’s supporters have one more reason to feel confident, Chouhan will find it difficult to tackle the spread of coronavirus and its fallout. “The course of politics will change in this country in the next six months. The economic mess unleashed by coronavirus will now fall on the back of the BJP government. It’s good that we are not at the helm,” says a Congress MP. That doesn’t enthuse Kamal Nath, though. “I’m not sad about the post I lost,” he says. “I’m sad because I could not complete what I started. And could not start what I wanted to complete. There is a difference between achievement and fulfilment. Becoming the chief minister was an achievement, but I was unable to get the fulfilment I was seeking.” And that, says Kamal Nath, is a battle worth fighting for. n