In a massive setback for the Congress, prominent youth leader Jyotiraditya Scindia quit the party and in a coordinated rebellion on Tuesday 22 MLAs loyal to him resigned in Madhya Pradesh, pushing the 15-month-old Kamal Nath government to the brink of collapse.
Scindia, 49, appeared set to join the BJP, a party which had his late grandmother Vijaya Raje Scindia as one of the leading lights amid speculation he may get a Rajya Sabha ticket and be given a central ministry.
BJP sources said Scindia, a former Union minister and a four-time Lok Sabha MP, is likely to be inducted into the party in the next day or two and certainly before March 13 -- the last day for filing of nominations for the three Rajya Sabha sets in MP.
In a largely symbolic move of no consequence, a shocked Congress expelled Scindia, the party general secretary and scion of the erstwhile Gwalior royal family, on charges of anti-party activities.
As the country celebrated Holi on Tuesday morning, Scindia, once considered a rising star of the Congress, met senior BJP leader and Home Minister Amit Shah after which he called on Prime Minister Narendra Modi at his 7, Lok Kalyan Marg, residence.
While there was no official word on what transpired at the meetings, BJP sources claimed that the decision of the party's top two leaders to hold long deliberations with Scindia underlined the importance they attach to a politician considered close to Rahul Gandhi.
In his resignation letter to Congress President Sonia Gandhi dated March 9, Scindia said “it is now time for me to move on” as he was unable to serve the people of the country while remaining in the party.
The Congress said his letter was received at Sonia Gandhi's residence only at 12.20 pm on Tuesday, a day which was also Scindia's father and Congress leader Madhavrao Scindia's 75th birth anniversary.
Scindia's decision to quit was welcomed as “ghar wapsi” (homecoming) by his paternal aunt and BJP MLA from Madhya Pradesh, Yashodhara Raje. His other paternal aunt, Vasundhara Raje, is also a BJP leader and a former chief minister of Rajasthan.
Madhavrao Scindia had also started his political innings as an MP of the Jana Sangh, the earlier avatar of the BJP, in 1971 but joined the Congress later.
Kamal Nath govt in trouble
With Scindia's loyalist MLAs following suit, the Congress government in Madhya Pradesh appeared headed for a collapse and will be reduced to minority if the resignation letters of the 22 legislators are accepted by Assembly Speaker NP Prajapati.
The Congress, whose tally before the rebellion is 114, has a wafer-thin majority in the Assembly whose current effective strength is 228. It also has the support of four Independents, two BSP and one SP MLA but some of them are now likely to switch sides to the BJP.
If the resignations of the 22 MLAs are accepted, the strength of the Assembly will fall to 206. The Congress, on its own, will then be left with 92 seats while the BJP has 107 seats with the magic number for a majority being 104.
A delegation of BJP leaders met Prajapati in Bhopal and handed over the resignations of 19 Congress MLAs who are holed up in a resort in Bengaluru in BJP-ruled Karnataka. Senior BJP leader Bhupendra Singh reached Bhopal on Tuesday afternoon by a special flight, carrying with him the resignations, said BJP MLA Vishwas Sarang.
Three more Congress MLAs who are in Bhopal also submitted their resignations to the Speaker. Six of the MLAs are ministers. After their resignation, Kamal Nath wrote to the Governor seeking their immediate removal.
Singh read out the names of the MLAs whose letters he was submitting in front of Prajapati, claiming that the Congress government had lost its majority. He also claimed these resignations were in the MLAs' own hand-writing.
The number of Congress MLAs resigning could reach 30 very soon, he claimed.
"I have received these resignations. I will take action on these letters as per the established rules and regulations of the state assembly," said Prajapati.
Governor Lalji Tandon, who is in Lucknow to celebrate Holi, said he is keeping a tab on the political developments in the state and that any decision related to it will be taken only after reaching Raj Bhavan in Bhopal.
"At present, I am a spectator. Once I return there, only then can I make any comment after seeing all things, letters in which people have made some complaints," Tandon said to a query whether he will call any party to prove its majority on the floor of the House.
'Looking for a fresh start'
Noting that the events of the day had been drawing themselves out for a year, Scindia, in his letter to Gandhi, said it was now best for him to look at a fresh start.
"Having been a primary member of the Congress party for the last 18 years. It is now time for me to move on. I am tendering my resignation from the primary membership of the Congress and as you well know this is a path that has been drawing itself out over the last year," he wrote.
"While my aim and purpose remains the same as it has always been from the very beginning, to serve the people of my state and my country, I believe I am unable to do this anymore within this party," Scindia said in his resignation letter posted on Twitter. "To reflect and realise the aspirations of my people and workers I believe it is best that I now look ahead at a fresh start."
Soon after, a statement from AICC general secretary KC Venugopal said the Congress president has "approved the expulsion of Jyotiraditya Scindia from the Indian National Congress with immediate effect for anti-party activities".
Scindia has long been at loggerheads with Nath who belongs to the old guard. After narrowly winning the state Assembly elections in December 2018, Nath took over as chief minister.
But trouble started brewing when Scindia's supporters in the government were sidelined, and it appeared that his ambitions to be the state Congress president were also thwarted. It was also clear that the central leadership was not ready to listen to his grievances.
This weekend, Scindia and six ministers in the Nath Cabinet went to Bengaluru and became incommunicado. It then became clear that a rebellion was brewing in the party and Nath would lose the support of the six ministers as well as other MLAs loyal to Scindia.
Congress leaders decry personal ambition
Several Congress leaders accused Scindia of betraying the trust of the people and placing "personal ambition" over ideology. Criticising him, many party leaders referred to the 1857 revolt against the East India Company and the role of the Scindia royals back then as well as Vijaya Raje Scindia's switch from the Congress in 1967.
"Joining hands with the BJP in a time of national crisis speaks volumes about a leader's self-indulgent political ambitions, especially when the BJP is ruining the economy, democratic institutions, social fabric and as well the judiciary," wrote Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot on Twitter.
Congress leader in Lok Sabha Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury said ideology did not matter to Scindia, claiming that "political convenience" and "personal ambition" played a major part in his decision to quit the party.
Chowdhury alleged that some sort of "allurement and enticement" offered by the BJP had convinced Scindia to switch over from the Congress.
"It is sad news for the Congress party because Jyotiraditya Scindia had been nurtured by the party over the years," said Chowdhury. "He had been entrusted with important jobs by the party. But now the situation had come to such a pass that he found it more convenient to switch over to the other party."
Senior party leader Jairam Ramesh said, "The father had once called the BJP 'deshdrohis' (traitors). Wonder what he would be thinking of his son joining that gang?"
Congress MP Karti Chidambaram tweeted, "I understand ambition. But is ideology irrelevant?"
Some leaders also voiced concerns over the state of the party.
Haryana Congress leader and MLA Kuldeep Bishnoi said Scindia's "departure is a big blow" to the Congress.
"He was a central pillar in the party and the leadership should've done more to convince him to stay. Like him, there are many other devoted INC leaders across the country who feel alienated, wasted and discontented," he said. "India's oldest party needs to empower young leaders who have the capacity to work hard and resonate with the masses."
(With inputs from agencies)