OPINION | Kamal Nath’s Equation With Digvijaya Singh May Have Forced Rahul Gandhi's Hand
Party president Rahul Gandhi, caught between the rival claims of the youthful 'maharaj' of Gwalior and his feisty 71-year-old 'vassal' Digvijay Singh, needs to find a compromise nominee. Even if that means going with a Punjabi baniya in an OBC-dominated state.
File photo of Madhya Pradesh chief minister Kamal Nath.
The projection of Kamal Nath, the 'one-seat wonder' from Chhindwara, to lead the Congress charge in Madhya Pradesh can be seen in the backdrop of an intergenerational tug-of-war.
In the run-up to the Assembly polls, veteran Congressmen have shown a decided preference for state assignments. Realising that there is no place for them in Team Rahul, the septuagenarian leaders are vying with young-ish party colleagues for pole position in their respective states.
Party president Rahul Gandhi, caught between the rival claims of the youthful 'maharaj' of Gwalior and his feisty 71-year-old 'vassal' Digvijay Singh, needed to find a compromise nominee. Even if that means going with a Punjabi baniya in an OBC-dominated state.
Kamal Nath's lack of caste credentials is a political shortcoming. As the seniormost Congress MP in the Lok Sabha in 2014, he should have been a shoo-in for leader of the parliamentary party, but the high command went with a rather more politically correct choice—Dalit leader Mallikarjun Kharge. In the same spirit, MPCC president Arun Yadav, an OBC, will be a hard man to displace or replace.
The wealthy and wily Kamal Nath has retained Chhindwara since 1980 in the teeth of formidable challenges. Even the young firebrand, Prahlad Patel, failed to dislodge him in the 2004 BJP wave. His narrow victory was attributed to a masterly manipulation of the tribal Gondwana Gantantra Party (GGP).
Denied a Congress ticket in 1996 because of the Jain hawala case, he induced the party to nominate his wife, Alka, by threatening to stand as an Independent. She won, but the very next year, he suffered his first and only electoral loss, against BJP stalwart and former chief minister Sunderlal Patwa.
The nine-term MP owes his success to a superbly efficient constituency-level electoral machinery, which works throughout the five-year election cycle. Even his Delhi office is open 24X7, arranging accommodation and appointments for constituents. He was among the first politicians to deploy helicopters and satellite phones for election campaigns.
On the other hand, Kamal Nath, unlike his buddy 'Diggy Raja', has rarely been spotted in Bhopal. He is seen as an 'outsider' and his influence is limited to 30 to 40 seats in the southern belt. In a state where analog face-time, hob-nobbing and pressing the flesh are de rigueur for politicians, he prefers delegating and outsourcing.
The very fact that he lacks a statewide network goes in his favour, because it makes him more amenable than, say, a Jyotiraditya Scindia or a Capt Amarinder Singh in Punjab. Besides, he has been a family loyalist ever since he was inducted by Sanjay Gandhi in the 1970s. His role in the Emergency led to the slogan, “Indira ke do haath, Sanjay Gandhi aur Kamal Nath”. As Environment minister under P V Narasimha Rao, he earned accolades during the Earth Summit at Rio de Janeiro and brickbats for alleged encroachment of forest land by his Span Club in Manali.
He was one of the Congress leaders who strongly urged Rahul to take over as Congress president. His son, Nakul, is expected to inherit Chhindwara.
What about recasting the loyalist-based party structure, as Rahul Gandhi had promised? The fiery, passionate, ambitious Rahul of 2013 denounced the Congress Old Guard in terms famously popularised by his father: “..the brokers of power and influence...dispense patronage to convert a mass movement into a feudal oligarchy”.
Five years later, he appears to have understood the need for a balance between the young turks and veterans. A fifth of the Congress MPs elected in 2014 were over 70 years old. He continues to tout a youth quota in party posts, however.
Rahul rightly values youth for their willingness to network, collaborate and undertake comprehensive research. They are digital natives and can navigate social media which, like it or not, has become critical to political outreach. But a wealth of experience, banked wisdom and goodwill is perhaps more relevant when taking on a seasoned campaigner like 'Mama' Shivraj Singh Chouhan.
‘Diggy Raja’, freshly returned from a six-month 'Narmada Yatra' to reconnect with the masses and re-establish his relevance in the state, had indicated that he was comfortable with Nath as a leader, but not Scindia. That appears to have weighed with the party high command, even more than Nath's phenomenal organisational skills.
Young blood has rejuvenating properties, recent studies have established. But in politics, the old warhorses bring home the gold.
(The writer is a senior journalist. Views are personal)
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