Bhopal: It is not often that a Congress leader anoints himself the party’s chief ministerial candidate much before the assembly elections, and the high command is not even offended by the appropriation of its authority, in a state that may play a crucial role in arresting its shrinking national footprint.
With Madhya Pradesh scheduled to hold assembly elections later this year, septuagenarian Kamal Nath (76) faces virtually no challenge to his leadership in a state where the Congress is notorious for factionalism. The in-fighting was so bad a few years ago, that the state’s Pradesh Congress Committee (PCC) had the dubious distinction of having different spokespeople for different party leaders.
Now, social media platforms of the state Congress unit routinely describe Nath as “future CM’’ and so do many of the posters that come up in the state every now and then. Last year, a decision was made at an informal meeting held at the PCC office in Bhopal to project Nath as the “CM face” — the decision is yet to be sanctioned the high command, said sources in MP Congress.
After nine Lok Sabha victories from the family stronghold of Chhindwara, and a short-lived stint as Chief Minister between December 2018 and March 2020, Nath has established himself as the topmost Congress leader in MP.
The only other leader who comes close to him in seniority is former CM Digvijaya Singh.
Scion of the erstwhile royal family of Gwalior, Jyotiraditya Scindia — who was a top contender for the CM’s post ahead of the 2018 assembly elections — is now a minister in the Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government at the Centre. In March 2020, Scindia pulled down the 15-month-old Kamal Nath administration after defecting to the BJP with 22 Congress MLAs, all of whom were his ardent supporters.
Underlining that Kamal Nath is a “senior leader”, a former state PCC chief told ThePrint that Nath’s current position as PCC chief gives him the “edge” in the race among Congress leaders to clutch the chief minister’s chair.
“He (Kamal Nath) takes all important decisions. As things stand today, we have to work under his leadership because he enjoys the high command’s confidence and we have been given the impression that he will be our leader. We have all decided to work together because our agenda is to get back to power. Other issues can be sorted out later,’’ said the Congress leader, who did not wish to be named.
Interestingly, Congress general secretary in-charge of MP, J.P. Agarwal, said last month that the party was yet to finalise its CM face in the state.
“There is a procedure that the Congress party has been following for years. The procedure hasn’t even started. Once tickets are distributed and the election is fought, it will depend on what the party (national) president, executive and local leaders think at that time,’’ Agarwal had told the media, while putting Nath and Digvijaya Singh on par.
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Kamal Nath ‘supreme Congress authority in MP’
The restructured PCC team is full of Nath’s supporters. While naming Nath as PCC chief in 2018, the All India Congress Committee (AICC) named four working PCC presidents. Five years later, Nath enjoys a free hand according to party insiders, given that the four working presidents are now members of the political affairs committee headed by Nath.
The committee also comprises his son Nakul Nath, Digvijaya Singh, leader of opposition in the MP assembly Govind Singh, and former union ministers Kantilal Bhuria, Suresh Pachouri and Arun Yadav, among others.
Following a murmur of protest over some of the names doing the rounds for top party posts at the district level, Agarwal had maintained last month that the list was not final.
It is well known in political circles that Nath has always been close to the Nehru-Gandhi family and is often called upon to play the party’s troubleshooter in times of crises in other states.
“I was with him when Sonia Gandhi called him to become Congress president, but he refused,’’ claimed a state party leader. “He has his eyes on MP. He felt hurt over the way his government collapsed because it sullied his image as a political manager. He is adamant and will go to any extent to form a government again,’’ the leader said, adding that Nath has on multiple occasions declared his intention to contest assembly polls one last time.
Incidentally, the same argument had been given by the Kamal Nath camp in the run-up to the 2018 assembly polls, when he was nearing 72.
“Nath is a supreme Congress authority in MP and he has conditioned himself to not look elsewhere but the state. He has been holding meetings and mingling with workers. Given his seniority the high command will not ask him to explain the posters declaring him the future CM,” said political commentator Girija Shankar.
He, however, added, “Authority like this can be harmful to the party because people start getting suffocated and can’t muster the courage to speak out.”
“Nath may have fought and won many elections, but he lacks hands-on experience of local equations and conditions to supervise an entire election. If he relies on someone else’s experience he will not get the credit (for victory),” Shankar said.
Congress, BJP IT cells lock horns
With elections approaching, the MP Congress has stepped up its presence on social media. From webcasting party events and Nath’s speeches, to rebutting BJP leaders’ comments and posting memes and documentaries to criticise the Shivraj Singh Chouhan-led BJP government in the state, the party has been on the offensive.
Nath’s media coordinator Piyush Babele claimed the party has created thousands of WhatsApp groups to ensure its viewpoint and leaders’ speeches reach even villages, to ensure a direct channel of communication. For this, the party chose young and energetic workers who were active on social media and appointed them at district and block levels, he said.
“Before letting them (workers) in, their social media activity of the last six months is vetted to see if they have posted any objectionable content,” Babele also told ThePrint.
The MP Congress IT cell creates short videos by digging up old information and sharing them using official handles to rebut claims and allegations levelled against the party by CM Chouhan or vocal BJP ministers like Narottam Mishra and Vishwas Sarang — a “tit for tat” move, said Babele.
At 1.1 million, the Congress claims its state unit has more followers on Twitter than the Madhya Pradesh BJP. However, the state BJP’s official handle also has as many followers. Babele claimed the party’s MP unit excels all state Congress units when it comes to social media presence.
According to an independent Bhopal-based social media watcher, the MP Congress IT cell learned how to time its tweets to get them to trend. Cadres regularly change their display pictures to suit the current narrative, said the media watcher.
However, Narendra Saluja, who was Nath’s media coordinator till late last year and is now a state BJP spokesperson, claimed the “aura around Nath is gone”.
“Everyone used to be in awe of him in 2018 and considered him a management guru, but he failed to save his own government. Having worked with him in the last few years, state leaders and workers have come to know of his temperament up close,” said Saluja.
Claiming that defections from the MP Congress did not stop with the exit of Scindia and his supporters, and more followed suit, Saluja claimed that this was an indication that party workers did not trust Kamal Nath.
A BJP leader, who was with the Congress till three years ago, insisted that the opposition party is active only virtually, not on the ground. “They may have created a perception to boost the morale of their cadres but there is little on the ground. It neither has the infrastructure, nor workers.”
(Edited by Amrtansh Arora)
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