His immediate task would be to ensure defeat of the 22 rebel MLAs in byelections.

 

New Delhi: Is this the last curtain call for Kamal Nath, former Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh, a former Cabinet Minister and nine-term MP? Knowing Nath, presiding over the fall of a 15-month-old state government is not quite the way he saw his political career ending. Which brings us to the question—what next for one of Congress Party’s tallest leaders? Will the 73-year-old leader go back to being CM of Chhindwara, as his critics allege?

Nath’s immediate task would be to ensure the defeat of the 22 rebel MLAs in the byelections that are to follow. Apart from his personal prestige, he is also still the Pradesh Congress Committee (PCC) chief. But conventional wisdom has it that the bypolls normally favour the party in power, which in most likelihood will be the BJP. As far as state politics is concerned, Nath’s limited role will be curtailed after this. The Congress will need to project a new face—and Digvijaya Singh hopes this will be his son Jaivardhan (currently an MLA), for after all wasn’t it “putra moh” (love for the son) that led to all this in the first place? If Digvijaya wasn’t so worried about his son’s future would he have taken on Jyotiraditya Scindia in so comprehensive a fashion?

This brings Kamal Nath back to Delhi and the slippery slope of AICC’s headquarters politics. This is where he can still make a difference. For he has a fairly decent track record as party general secretary, having handled states such as Gujarat, West Bengal, Delhi and Haryana. One of his strong points is his administrative skills as was evident by the way he commandeered the Madhya Pradesh 2018 state polls, putting in a machinery that matched the Amit Shah model, sending his team to cover every district across the state.

Nath’s administrative acumen was also visible during the UPA years, especially during UPA 2, in the post-Pranab Mukherjee era when he emerged as one of the government’s key trouble shooters. Congressmen recall how he got the controversial FDI in Retail passed through the Rajya Sabha where the UPA was short of numbers. Burning the midnight oil he went in for a marathon dinner diplomacy, first wooing the Samajwadi Party. At the dinner he also invited Dr Farooq Abdullah to convince the Yadavs that even the Muslim community was on board with the bill. As far as the BSP was concerned, he did a trade-off, getting Mayawati to support the bill in exchange for which he speeded up the introduction of the Bill to ensure reservations in promotions for Dalits. As a negotiator Nath knows which buttons to push.

This old school politics of give and take is something the Congress needs right now to woo allies across states. Apart from Farooq, Nath has a personal equation with most regional leaders, especially Sharad Pawar. He was one of the few Opposition leaders who made it to Uddhav Thackeray’s swearing-in and Sharad Pawar sat next to him on the dais. He knows Mamata Bannerjee from the Youth Congress days; Naveen Patnaik is an old school friend and Stalin knows him from the days he called Karunanidhi “uncle”. With the Congress in its current rudderless state, it needs a networker who can help in stitching up crucial alliances.

Of course, it is no secret that Rahul Gandhi is wary of the Old Guard and this includes Kamal Nath—as much as it excludes Ashok Gehlot, the Rajasthan CM. Which brings up the question, will Rahul include Nath in his organisational set up, whenever he takes charge?

On the walls of Nath’s study at this Delhi home are pictures of him with three generations of Congress leaders—from Rahul to Rajiv and Sanjay Gandhi to Indira Gandhi. When Nath had pulled the FDI Bill through Parliament in 2012, BJP leader Dr Subramanian Swamy had told me, “Congress has found its Machiavelli.” Swamy had also recalled then “without him (Nath), Indira Gandhi and Sanjay could not have engineered the split in the Janata Party (in 1979)”. This eventually led to the fall of the Morarji Desai government. It was Sanjay with Nath’s help who had lured Charan Singh to break with Morarji with the promise of prime ministership. Once they installed Charan Singh, the Congress withdrew support, leading to the 1980 elections. It was also an election that saw Nath’s debut as a Lok Sabha MP from Chhindwara.

So, maybe it would be premature to write off this resourceful negotiator just yet. As Nath said in his last press conference before resigning as CM, “after today there is tomorrow”. However clichéd that sentence might be, its political astuteness is yet to be tested.

 

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