By stating that he had no objections to Scindia’s candidature, Kamal Nath had also ensured that Scindia could not raise any objections to his candidature either.

 

Vote for Kamal” is now a two-edged slogan in Madhya Pradesh. Will it mean the Bharatiya Janata Party’s election symbol, the lotus? Or will it mean Kamal Nath, the state’s newly appointed Pradesh Congress Committee (PCC) chief?

The decision to upgrade Kamal Nath as the PCC chief was apparently taken a few months ago by both Sonia and Rahul Gandhi. Kamal Nath knew of this, but since this was the Congress, where nothing is final until it is announced, he said nothing. The choice was between Kamal Nath, a nine-term MP from the state and a former Cabinet minister, Digvijaya Singh, a two-term Chief Minister, and Jyotiraditya Scindia, one of the party’s brightest Gen-Next leaders, a former Union minister and four-term MP. Last year, when Rahul Gandhi met with all of them, they all agreed on one thing: that the party needed to project a CM face. They left the final decision to the party “high command”. Digvijaya also let it be known that he was not in the race for the CM post.

Not having heard anything from Rahul Gandhi, Kamal Nath made the first move. In September 2017, he announced—first to the media—that Scindia should be made the CM face: “Apart from political relations, there have been family relations between us (he and Scindia). I do not have any problem with whatever Rahul Gandhi decides…I do not have any ambition as far as the post is concerned.” Scindia followed his cue and stated that he too had no problem with whomsoever the party chose as its CM face, but the need of the hour was to declare a face and fight a presidential election. The wild card here was Digvijaya Singh, who had taken off for his Narmada parikrama in October, an exercise that was as political as it was spiritual.

The shrewd Singh made no political comments during his six-month-long yatra, but managed to send out one clear message—that Scindia’s candidature did not have his support (No one can beat Digvijaya Singh in the art of political messaging even when he’s on a maun-vrat). By stating that he had no objections to Scindia’s candidature, Kamal Nath had not just played the statesman card, but had also ensured that Scindia could not raise any objections to his candidature either. Digvijaya Singh and Kamal Nath go back a long way, even before 1993 when the former was the MP CM. With Digvijaya’s endorsement, Nath emerged as the consensus between the Digvijaya and the Scindia camps. The cards were all lined up, only the announcement had to be made.

On 26 April, the Congress issued a press release stating that the 71-year-old Nath would be its new PCC chief, while Scindia was made the campaign committee chief. It was a neat balancing of the old and new guards, with the edge being given to the veteran player. Although the CM face has not been nominated, the mantle usually goes to the PCC chief. The Congress posters will now pitch his face and credentials against the BJP’s sitting CM, Shivraj Singh Chouhan. Kamal Nath’s task is cut out because he has to face a strong sitting Chief Minister, but he is hoping that a three-term anti-incumbency will work against the BJP. Like Rahul Gandhi, even Kamal Nath is playing up the Hindutva card and was recently heard commenting that he was a frequent temple-goer and had even built a Hanuman temple in Chhindwara, his constituency.

But what will work for Nath will not be his Hindutva credentials, but the governance card. A strong administrator, he was one of the key performers in the Manmohan Singh government as the Cabinet Minister for Commerce. Before that he’s been a Union minister (independent charge) for Environment, and later Textiles, in the 1991 Narasimha Rao government. As Commerce Minister, wearing sharp suits and carrying his Trion palmtop, he had represented India at the WTO, making a strong pitch for protecting the rights of developing nations. During the WTO meet at Sau Paolo. while under pressure from developed countries to open up India’s agricultural market, he commented sarcastically, “Next time can you bring a picture of an American farmer? I haven’t ever seen one. I have only seen US conglomerates masquerading as farmers.” The comment went viral and the Congress often quoted this an example of its moves to protect the livelihood of poor farmers against the interests of developed countries.

Confident of winning his constituency over and again, Nath doesn’t hesitate to speak his mind. During the Manmohan Singh government he took on the clout of the now extinct Planning Commission led by Montek Singh Ahluwalia for not releasing enough funds, quipping that “in order to solve the problems of the rural poor the Planning Commission has hired a team of urban rich”. Since even Rajiv Gandhi had had his run-ins with the Planning Commission (on one memorable occasion calling them a bunch of jokers), Nath’s comments found a resonance with his young leader and Rajiv’s son.

Yet, more often than Dr Manmohan Singh and he were on the same page, along with P. Chidambaram and Sharad Pawar as the pro-reformist faces of the government, batting for such moves as FDI in retail. Nath, however, argued in favour of more autonomy for the states, saying “let each state frame their own guidelines”. This pro-states vs Centre outlook will stand him in good stead in his new avatar.

That he can make both his worlds meet, the pro-reforms and the populist face, was evident when he got industrialist Sunil Mittal and a bunch of CII honchos to fly down to the largely rural Chhindwara, where he lured them over lunch to invest in his constituency. When he wants to, he can bring diverse camps together, whether it’s getting a Sunil Mittal or a Tarun Das to a rural hinterland, or whether it’s bringing Scindia and Digvijaya Singh on the same platform.

In his study in Delhi’s Tughlaq Lane there are photographs of Indira Gandhi, Sanjay, Rajiv, Sonia and Rahul—for he has worked closely with each and in a sense represents a sense of continuity in Rahul’s Congress. It was Indira Gandhi who took the Calcutta based, Doon School pal of her younger son to the rural Chhindwara, a constituency in Madhya Pradesh that borders Nagpur and announced, “This is my third son. Please vote for him.” The son of an industrialist, Kamal Nath took to politics like a duck to water.

Despite his safari suits and trade talk he also represents a continuity with the old guard and all its traditions. It’s interesting to note his favourite ride is the old Ambassador car. Even when he was a minister he stuck to it and has got two Ambassadors refurbished to be part of his fleet of cars. As he points out, these are best suited for Indian roads. Like any good politician, he also picks his tools with care, preferring what’s best suited to the new age and glitz.

One of Kamal Nath’s favourite TV shows is the BBC mini-series, House of Cards. A political thriller, it was the prelude to the current Kevin Spacey-starrer on Netflix. The shrewd political player no doubt has a few cards up his sleeve, as he scripts a finale to the Madhya Pradesh state elections due towards the end of the year. For he knows all too well that unlike political dramas, in realpolitik, there are no remakes.

 

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