[dropcap]W[/dropcap]hen Kamal Nath was appointed the minister of state for environment in 1991, one of his first acts was to quit smoking. “This is my contribution to environment,” he told me then, with a smile. He had a hard time keeping up that promise at the age of 44. Travelling with him soon after that, I noticed him popping up nicotine-laced chewing gums to ward off the craving. But he never succumbed.
Nath is known to take up every task entrusted to him with single-minded pursuit. Just imagine him landing in the wilderness of rural Chhindwara in 1980 a 33-year-old young man from a prosperous business family, an alumnus of the elite Doon School, a product of Delhi’s upper class five-star culture, a buddy of Sanjay Gandhi, the most powerful man in the country.
When the Congress decided to field him from Chhindwara in 1980, Nath was a stark outsider. His detractors decried him as a Doon School crony of Sanjay Gandhi who had been thrust upon MP. But the young man made Chhindwara his home and worked relentlessly for its development, winning the seat eight more times after that. Today, Chhindwara is identified with Kamal Nath, it is known as his pocket borough in political circles!
He brought the same energy and zeal to his job when he was appointed MP Congress chief last April. Bringing a sense of purpose, focus and work culture to a moribund organisation, he energised and revived the party that was coming apart at the seams, having been out of power for 15 years. The Congress high command apparently chose him because of his seniority and ability to keep the party’s warring factions under check. Nath proved equal to the task. The Congressmen fought, but they stood together. That ability to carry everyone along is needed even after he takes over as chief minister next week, thanks to the fragmented mandate that left the Congress two MLAs short of majority.
As chief minister, Nath brings to the job his rich experience as an administrator since 1991. He has also emerged as a leader of the Congress party in his own right, an astute player of ground level politics, making him equally comfortable in both Davos and Dewas. He has already proved his mettle in his stints in environment, commerce, road transport and urban development ministries in the union government.
[box type=”note” align=”aligncenter” class=”” width=””]The rough and tumble of state politics awaits
It is well known that Nath preferred Delhi over Bhopal, comfortable in the labyrinth of Lutyens’ politics. His skilful political management made him a kingmaker in MP. His key role in anointing both Arjun Singh and Digvijay Singh as chief ministers is a subject of political folklore now. It is yet to be seen how he will evolve in the rough and tumble of the state politics.[/box]
His political opponents criticise him for his ‘corporate style’ of governance. But that style of governance has transformed Chhindwara. He brought to his constituency not only welfare schemes, but also industries and jobs. A string of skill training centres have become the core of the Chhindwara model of development since 2006. “Today it has the largest concentration of training centres anywhere in the world,” Nath proclaims proudly. Bureaucracy can look forward to a CEO in saddle rather than a populist demagogue focussing only on winning elections.
It is well known that Nath preferred Delhi over Bhopal, comfortable in the labyrinth of Lutyens’ politics. His skilful political management made him a king-maker in MP. His key role in anointing both Arjun Singh and Digvijay Singh as chief ministers is a subject of political folklore now. It is yet to be seen how he will evolve in the rough and tumble of the state politics.
He was 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, he managed allies and opposition for the Congress. Now in the fifth decade of his career, he is working with the third generation of Gandhis.
He is street smart and cannot be made fool of easily. Here is a jewel from 1995, how he outsmarted T.N. Seshan’s stringent expenses rules by launching his re-election campaign on the sly. Before the announcement of the poll, he inundated his constituency with 2.5 lakh leaflets, appealing to voters to get themselves photographed for I-cards. The leaflets flaunted the Congress election symbol, along with Nath’s photo and carried the party’s colours. A man known for his wit and repartee, Nath does not depend on hired PR agencies for his famed one-liners. Sample this one after polling was over in MP: “Do cheez aaj shanti se nipat gaye chunav aur BJP.”
An acclaimed master of backroom parleys, with friends across party lines, Nath’s networking skills will be at test very soon. He faces a mammoth task ahead to bring on board BSP, SP and Gondwana and increase the Congress vote share in 2019 Lok Sabha election.
(The writer is a senior journalist)