[dropcap]”I[/dropcap]’m not going to fry pakodas,” said Digvijaya Singh when reporters asked him what he intended doing after his six-month Narmada pilgrimage earlier this year. He is certainly not frying pakodas. Rising like a phoenix from the ashes, he is on the centre-stage of Madhya Pradesh politics once again. As the Congress returns to power after 15 years, the person who benefited the most from the change in political fortunes was Diggi Raja. Kamal Nath may have walked away with the chief minister’s chair, but it is Singh who is enjoying a sudden surge in power and clout.
In the 28-member Cabinet, some say he has as many as 10 ministers. Others put the number at nine. The newly inducted ministers include his son and nephew. It is an impressive achievement for someone who had been lying low throughout the election campaign. He was not very visible as many in the Congress party feared that if he straddled centre-stage, the BJP would resume its ‘Mr Bantadhar’ campaign. The serpentine queues of Congress workers in front of his house are an indication of the general perception that prevails.
As the important task of government formation moves at snail’s pace in the strife-ridden Congress, Singh gains in importance. With chief minister Kamal Nath engaged in the arduous task of governance, Singh’s famous negotiation and persuasion skills have been put to the test not only in ministry formation, but also in portfolio distribution. Coordination among the warring factions a task that Singh had chosen for himself has suddenly assumed important status.
Digvijaya Singh’s political career was looking downward when he had asked the Congress high command for six months’ leave of absence for his Narmada pilgrimage last year. The leadership had relieved him of major responsibilities after Goa fiasco, with the local politicians blaming him for not forming the government despite securing a majority in the Assembly elections. The man, who was once described as Rahul Gandhi’s mentor, was no longer part of the inner charmed circle.
But washing his sins in the holy waters of the Narmada, Singh reinvented himself. What helped him was also the chemistry that he enjoys with Nath. Both Nath and Digvijaya Singh received their political grooming from the same guru Arjun Singh. They have been at loggerhead at times, even gunning for each other. But, whenever challenged by an ‘outsider’, they tended to close ranks. This is what happened last summer as Digvijaya Singh worked the subterranean world of realpolitik and helped Nath become the president of the Madhya Pradesh Congress Committee.
The high command, of course, preferred a collective leadership, rather than putting all its eggs in Nath’s basket. It made Scindia the campaign committee chief of the party. Factional politics is in the genes of the party that had once harboured communists, capitalists, Hindus, Muslims and socialists all under one roof. The warring factions unite only when the party high command cracks the whip. It was here that Singh smelled an opportunity. With the party high command failing to untangle the knotty leadership issue in Madhya Pradesh, Singh carved out a niche role for himself. He bestowed upon himself the status of “Fevicol” to unite the fragmented party. He tried to assuage the apprehensions of other factions: “I’m not a contender for the chief minister’s post.”
What helped him in the task of “coordination” was that he is the only one among the top three of the Madhya Pradesh Congress Nath, Scindia and Singh to know the state as the palm of his hand, thanks to the party organisation he helped nurture during the BJP regime in the early-’90s. The network of party workers that he had assiduously built up as a 45-year-old Madhya Pradesh Congress Committee president travelling constantly and living out of a suitcase for nearly two years helped him in this task.
As the Congress failed to achieve the magic figure for forming the government on its own, Digvijaya Singh’s networking skills helped in bringing the Independent MLAs aboard ship. Again, as the Scindia group staked its claim to chief ministership, Singh threw in his lot with Nath, bringing on board various other groups, such as Arun Yadav, Suresh Pachouri and Ajay Singh. That clinched the deal in Nath’s favour, who was, in any case, always the front-runner. So, it was only natural that Singh would emerge powerful in the Nath administration. Let us wait and watch how long the present bonhomie continues.
(The writer is a senior journalist)