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Advantage Kamal Nath in battleground Madhya Pradesh

Editor's ChoiceAdvantage Kamal Nath in battleground Madhya Pradesh

There is a quiet sense of confidence in the Kamal Nath camp. His son Nakul Nath has even predicted that Nath Senior will be sworn in on 7 December, four days after the results are announced.

Ajab hai, sabse gajab hai—the Madhya Pradesh tourism tagline that pegs the state as one that is mysterious, unpredictable and bewitching, says it all. Of all the states going to the polls in this round of Assembly elections, it is Madhya Pradesh that is proving to be the hardest to predict. On the ground the fight seems to be between the Congress Pradesh chief and former Chief Minister Kamal Nath versus the track record of the sitting Chief Minister, the BJP’s Shivraj Singh Chouhan. But there are layers within layers; the fight is both within and outside. Truly it is ajab, gajab Madhya Pradesh.

Initially the psephologists had given the Congress an early lead keeping in mind the enormous 16 years of anti-incumbency against the sitting Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan. The BJP went into damage control mode and tried to sideline the CM during the initial phase of the campaign, but it wasn’t easy to dislodge someone who has such a strong hold on the state’s bureaucracy and even the media. Accordingly, the party has fielded as many as three Union Ministers in the fray along with four other MPs and one somewhat reluctant party general secretary. Add one high profile and new founded Gujarat ka damad (son-in-law) to this mix and it does seem as if the intention is to keep the chief ministerial option open.

But Shivraj cannot be wished away so easily. Take the instance of the five Jan Ashirwad Yatras organised by the BJP across the state in September. Usually, there was only one Shivraj Singh dominated Jan Ashirwad Yatra, but this time there were five, one each from the Vindhya, Malwa, Nimar, Mahakoshal and Gwalior regions. The idea was to showcase a diverse bouquet of leaders but Shivraj accompanied each at various points. Crisscrossing the state, he refuses to be sidelined.

Chhindwara, Nov 11 (ANI): Madhya Pradesh State Congress President Kamal Nath addresses a public meeting at Harrai block of Amarwada Assembly in Chhindwara district on Saturday. (ANI Photo)

Moreover, Jyotiraditya Scindia would probably back Chouhan over Tomar since the Union Agriculture Minister is from Morena that lies in the Gwalior-Chambal region that is Scindia’s fiefdom. Then there is also Scindia’s own candidature, for he may not be contesting the current Assembly polls but his organisational skills have caught the eye of both the PM and the Home Minister, with the former referring to Scindia as a Gujarat ka Damad (son-in-law) recently (since Scindia’s wife belongs to the Gaekwad royals from Baroda). To counter Scindia’s candidature are a host of party workers who are already upset with the prominence given to an export over the loyal cadre. This led Digvijaya Singh to quip recently that the BJP is divided between the Shivraj BJP, the Maharaja BJP (Scindia faction) and the Naraaz BJP (upset party workers).
To further buttress his claim, the sitting CM has announced a host of welfare schemes, with the trophy Ladli Behna Yojana targeted at 1.32 crore beneficiaries. Announced in March this year this gives a monthly stipend of Rs 1,250 to all women aged between 23 and 60 years. The initial sum was Rs 1,000, but this was increased in August. In response, the Congress too has announced a host of schemes, such as the Nari Samman Nidhi monthly stipend of Rs 1,500 for women. The battle really is between the freebies in hand versus the ones promised. Ideally, given the state’s debt the battle should focus on which leader can deliver all these schemes and balance the state exchequer and in this, Kamal Nath scores for he has both the governance skills to deliver and unparalleled access to get industry to invest.

It is interesting that while targeting the Congress, the BJP either attacks Rahul Gandhi or else brings up the controversy surrounding the Kamal Nath-Digvijaya Singh friendship. There is no third topic. The last Congress government in the state was from 1993 to 2003, when Digvijaya was CM. Since the Kamal Nath government lasted barely 15 months, alluding to it would only bring the focus on the BJP’s own politics of destabilization. There is a certain sympathy for the fact that Chacha Kamal was not allowed to finish his term thanks to Mamaji (as Shivraj is known within the state). And it is also difficult to pin Digvijaya’s anti-incumbency onto the Nath campaign specially at a time when the duo is said to be at loggerheads.

While both Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra are campaigning in the state, the burden of the campaign is being carried out by Team Nath. He is crisscrossing the state holding rallies as well as providing organisational support to the candidates. It is also Nath who is deciding the party’s narrative, staying clear from the BJP’s game plan of ratcheting up the Hindutva card. As Nath keeps telling the media, “the world’s largest Hindu population lives in our country. 82% of Hindus reside here. It is not a debatable issue. It is not something to be told. These are statistics…What is the need to say it separately?” His own commitment to Hinduism cannot be questioned, not only has he built the world’s tallest Hanuman statue in his constituency; he also recently organised kathas of two popular Hindu preachers, Dhirendra Shashtri and Pankaj Mishra in Chhindwara. Locals in Bhopal talk of the number of gaushalas built by him and the fact there are more stray cows on the road now than there were during Nath’s tenure as CM. Having proved his point, Nath is wisely steering clear of a needless debate that will divert from the real issues of governance. He clearly wants to keep the focus on the anti-incumbency against Shivraj and not polarise the vote.
As Kamal Nath told The Sunday Guardian in an exclusive interview: “Janata sab samjthti hai, 90% janata yeh sabh media seh alag rahti hai, aaj jinko hum gyaan dene jaate the woh hamme gyaan dete hain (The public is too smart and will not be diverted. Today those people to whom we go and give a lecture too is giving us a lecture).” To appeal to the youth he has promised an IPL team for Madhya Pradesh.

Given this, the BJP raking up the Nath-Digvijaya equation could work in the Congress party’s favour for as far as the larger picture is concerned, it is a non issue. The duo has a working relationship that is not unlike the Vajpayee-Advani one. They may have their differences but on larger issues they are united. In the interview Nath also explained, “Hamari dosti atoot hai, 50 saal purani hai. Yeh hassi mazaak hai. Main Digvijaya to iska credit deta hoon jab woh cm the mere se har cheez ki salah karte the. Hum saath hain aur saath rahenge (Digvijaya and I are one, there is no enmity).” Agreeing with this, author and political analyst Rasheed Kidwai says, “In Madhya Pradesh politics, Digvijaya is Kamal Nath by another name. They are the Jai-Veeru Jodi of Madhya Pradesh and share a common sense of purpose and support base. Though they have different personalities, they complement one another. Digvijaya has a lot of patience for workers’ concerns, Nath is a good at administration and both understand state and Delhi politics well.”

There is a quiet sense of confidence in the Kamal Nath camp. His son Nakul Nath, the only Congress MP from the state, has even predicted that Nath Senior will be sworn in on 7 December, four days after the results are announced. That is how sure the Congress is both of the win and of its CM face. The BJP, on the other hand, is not quite sure of the win, except for the fact that the PM has been known to swing elections at the last minute. Even then, the party has not decided who its CM candidate will be.

For a political analyst, this is a first, both the indecision within the BJP and the decisiveness within the Congress. Even in Himachal Pradesh and Karnataka, states that the Congress has won recently, it was a while before the party honed onto its CM candidate. But in Madhya Pradesh there is no confusion. Maybe this is the Kamal Nath effect. Or maybe, the state works in mysterious ways; for true to its campaign it is indeed—Ajab, gajab Madhya Pradesh.

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