At the visitors’ room of Kamal Nath’s refurbished Bhopal residence in Shyamla Hills, among the many pictures and portraits hanging on the wall, one particular image draws instant attention. The group photo has Arjun Singh, Motilal Vohra and Shyama Charan Shukla seated on chairs with Digvijay Singh and Kamal Nath standing behind. Why the picture—seemingly from the early 1990s—evoked curiosity was for the fact that apart from Nath, all the rest had at least two terms each (not necessarily full terms) as Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh. And Nath was still waiting in line.
The wait has finally ended in 2018 but this wasn’t Nath’s first opportunity to bid for the coveted job. Ten years ago, in 2008, Nath had his first shot when he coordinated the campaign with then Pradesh Congress Committee (PCC) Chief Suresh Pachouri. Nath was also the Union Minister for Commerce and Industry at the time and he couldn’t salvage the campaign at that stage, saddled with a moribund party organisation and the factionalism within the unit.
In 2013, Jyotiraditya Scindia was the face of the campaign when the second term of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) was drawing to a close. The Congress lost yet again and many political pundits later pointed out how the Congress had never recovered from three terms in the opposition to win back any state. It was in this backdrop that Nath was finally appointed as the PCC chief in April 2018, after almost a year of deliberations. At the age of 72, Nath would have known at the back of his mind that it was perhaps his last chance to stake a claim for chief ministership.
Having been initiated into politics by Indira Gandhi and his Doon school mate Sanjay Gandhi, Nath was possibly the best candidate in the Congress ranks to outmanoeuvre the wily duo of Amit Shah and Bhupendra Yadav at their own game—election management. Despite struggling for a couple of months to take full control of the organisation following his appointment, Nath did manage to bring together the different factions in the state by the time the election bugle was sounded.
Although the Congress bungled in ticket distribution, as usual, the rebels were contained and many of them prevailed upon to withdraw nominations at the last minute. With the organisation beefed up and observers imported from Gujarat to oversee things, the party finally seemed election-ready to take on the Bharatiya Janata Party’s well-oiled machinery. Madhya Pradesh is one state where the BJP has a strong core vote base and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh has deep roots, and it was always going to be a challenge to dislodge the still-popular Shivraj Singh Chouhan. Chipping away at Chouhan’s image was one of the prime goals of Nath; remedying the Congress’s anti-Hindu image thrust on it by the BJP was another.
When Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath came to Bhopal and gave a speech asking Kamal Nath to “keep your Ali, Bajrang Bali is enough for us” in response to a widely-circulated video clip where Nath was heard telling Muslim representatives to ensure 90 per cent polling from their community, it had the potential to polarise. But, having installed a 101-foot statue of the monkey-god in his constituency of Chhindwara in 2015, Nath was unfazed. The soft-Hindutva pitch was also conspicuous on the Congress’s election manifesto.
Nath’s toughest call in the run-up to the election was the decision to go it alone following some hard bargaining by the Bahujan Samaj Party. But Nath reckoned that if he could unite the myriad factions and leader-heavy organisation, Madhya Pradesh could be won. He had assured support from Digvijay Singh, the two-time Chief Minister who calls Nath his “big brother” and they go back a long way.
Old-timers recall how in 1997, when then Congress President Sitaram Kesari wanted to replace Digvijay Singh with Deputy Chief Minister Subhash Yadav, Nath rallied behind Digvijay Singh. Arjun Singh and Madhavrao Scindia were back in the party (Narasimha Rao had eased them out) following the poor performances of their splinter parties—Tiwari Congress (Arjun Singh) and Madhya Pradesh Vikas Party (Scindia)—and all of them were gunning for Singh’s head. Nath ensured Digvijay Singh’s survival by cobbling up a majority in the Congress Legislature Party (CLP).
It is rumoured that the only time Kamal Nath lost an election—a by-election in 1997 against (a two-term former Chief Minister) Sunder Lal Patwa—was a result of all the powerful regional chieftains ganging up against the duo of Digvijay Singh and Nath. The by-election was necessitated on account of Alka Nath’s resignation as Chhindwara MP following her husband’s acquittal in the Jain-Hawala case (he had stepped down) to make way for him. Nath avenged his only defeat by wresting the seat back from Patwa in style by polling nearly twice the number of votes in the ensuing election in 1999.
In 1980, when Indira Gandhi came to Chhindwara to campaign for Nath making his electoral debut, she introduced Nath as her “third son” eventually leading to the coinage of the slogan “Indira ke do hath, Sanjay Gandhi aur Kamal Nath”. The only blot on Nath’s political résumé is his murky role in the Gurdwara Rakabganj incident during the 1984 riots that followed the assassination of Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards. Although Nath admitted to his presence at the spot, the Nanavati Commission acquitted him for lack of evidence. Despite the acquittal, the stigma would trail him ever since.
Nath has demonstrated his ability as a good administrator during his many stints as Union Minister. In 1992, as India’s representative at the UN Earth Summit, he came in for praise from many quarters while serving as the Environment Minister. As Commerce Minister, he was once again at the forefront of the WTO negotiations of 2009.
An old-school politician, Nath enjoys excellent relations with politicians cutting across party lines. Nath also has good equations with industrialists and he is expected to persuade the business community to invest big in Madhya Pradesh. Having nurtured and developed his tribal-dominated constituency of Chhindwara since 1980, Nath would be expected to replicate that model to the rest of the state. Some Congress leaders are apprehensive about how Nath would reconcile his jet-setting ways to confine himself to Madhya Pradesh but he is also renowned for his ability to “get things done”—as one Congress leader put it.
Nath’s immediate challenge would be to fulfil the manifesto promises including farm loan waivers and raising money to meet these demands. With the general election just four months away, he would also be expected to maximise his party’s potential to win seats in Madhya Pradesh.