Perched atop Bhopal’s Shamla Hills, the CM House is indeed MP’s power centre. Just across the road, overlooking the picturesque Upper Lake, stands another colonial bungalow that has emerged as the state’s second power centre. Only a few feet of asphalt divide the two high profile neighbours. State Congress president Kamal Nath, the occupant of the other house, has pitched a make-shift tent in its sprawling campus. It is to accommodate the perennial stream of visitors. The campus resembles a mela ground. Those making a beeline to the house include political leaders, not necessarily from the Congress party, business tycoons and journalists. Some government officials are also in regular touch.
Once you enter Nath’s private office, however, the atmosphere changes. The area is pulsating with brisk efficiency. Visitors are ushered in, business is conducted in the shorted possible time and before they realise it, the next appointee enters to take their place. Nath, 71, has always been known for time management.
He was Sanjay Gandhi’s friend. Indira Gandhi once called him “my third son”. He became part of Rajiv Gandhi’s Doon brigade. PV Narsimha Rao made him a minister even as two other big politicians from the state, Arjun Singh and Madhavrao Scindia, fell by wayside. After Sonia Gandhi took over the reins, he managed allies and opposition for the Congress. His skillful political management made him MP’s king-maker, who played a key role in anointing both Arjun Singh and Digvijay Singh. Now in the fifth decade of his political career, Nath is working with the third generation of Gandhis.
Let there be no doubt about it. Jyotiraditya Scindia may be most popular face of the Congress party. Digvijay Singh may know each party worker by name, working in the background to bring warring factions together. But it is Nath who is leading this election. The nine-time Lok Sabha MP from Chhindwara the longest serving in the country was apparently chosen because of his seniority and ability to keep the party’s warring factions under check. His vast experience as an administrator and ground level politics makes him equally comfortable in both Davos and Dewas.
No wonder, the Congress has taken up the baton of soft Hindutva in the poll arena this time. It is a strategy to prove simply that it is not an anti-Hindu party, as propagated by the BJP. Decades ago, in the aftermath of Babri mosque demolition, Nath had successfully countered the BJP in Chhindwara by importing a hundreds of sadhus from Haridwar and Ayodhya to campaign in his favour.
His stature has helped Congressmen to close ranks. But his real test lies during ticket distribution, when chieftains start scrambling for their candidates. The Congress has also managed a visible presence in both social media and, more importantly, traditional media after he took over. It certainly does not hurt that he is on first name, back-slapping terms with most media baron in the country.
Nath is known for his one-liners. After his appointment as MPCC chief, CM Chouhan had tweeted, welcoming him as a friend. Nath was asked about it at his first press meet. His reply was a classic one-liner. He admitted that Chouhan was a friend, but added: “Kuch mitr layak hoten hain aur kuch…” The incomplete sentence, saying everything without saying it, had the audience roaring.
He is supposed to be a master of backroom parleys, with friends across party lines. Hence political observers were surprised when efforts at clobbering an alliance with Opposition parties like the BSP, SP and the Gondwana recently failed. Why and how did that happen? Apparently, while the BSP wanted 50 seats, the Congress was not willing to give more than 15-20. In an acerbic outburst, BSP supremo Mayawati blamed “arrogance” of the Congress party for the failure of negotiations.
The Congress blames the BSP. Sources say its leaders were intrigued by the BSP’s final list of 30 seats. It included many constituencies where the party had not polled even a few thousand votes and where it was in no position to defeat the BJP. An internal analysis by the Congress data analytics department said that giving those seats to the BSP would have amounted to handing over those seats to the BJP on a platter.
Political analysts feel that the failure to cobble together an alliance may make dent into the Congress vote share. The BJP had polled 8% more votes a yawning gap than the Congress in 2013 election. Nath is a master of improvisation. Once, when his plane could not fly from Chhindwara, which had no night-landing facility, he lined up vehicles on both sides of the runway and took off with the help of their headlights. Can he make the Congress take off with similar out of box idea in these difficult times?
(The writer is a senior journalist)