MADHYA PRADESH Chief Minister Kamal Nath submitted his resignation to Governor Lalji Tandon around 1 p.m. on March 20, an hour before the trust vote was scheduled to be held in the Assembly. His resignation put the seal on the way things started shaping up when Jyotiraditya Scindia wrote to interim Congress president Sonia Gandhi (letter dated March 9) tendering his resignation from the party. At a press conference in Bhopal around noon, Kamal Nath announced his decision to resign and accused the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of “murdering democracy”.
The fate of the Kamal Nath government was perceived to be hanging in the balance with Jyotiraditya Scindia’s resignation followed by his formal induction into the BJP. (Sonia Gandhi expelled him soon after he tweeted his resignation letter stating that he was unable to “serve the people of his State and country” as a member of the Congress.) Within hours of these developments on March 10, 22 Congress Members of the Legislative Assembly, who were kept in seclusion in Bengaluru, sent their resignations to the Governor, turning the Kamal Nath government into a minority one. (The Congress had 114 seats in the 230-seat Assembly, while the BJP had 107.)
Congress leaders had kept up a brave face at media appearances as long as they could, but on March 20 the signs of imminent defeat were clear and senior leader Digvijaya Singh was reported to have said that the government would lose the trust vote. Jyotiraditya Scindia greeted the news of Kamal Nath’s resignation, saying it was a “victory for the people”.
There was no trust vote, after all. In the days leading up to Kamal Nath’s resignation, however, there was much political activity around the trust vote. Assembly Speaker N.P. Prajapati said he was unable to go ahead with the vote unless he met the rebel legislators in person and confirmed that they had not resigned under duress. Governor Lalji Tandon, in a late night correspondence on March 14, asked Kamal Nath to prove his government’s majority in the Assembly. By this time, the strength of the Congress government had reduced from 114 to 108 because the Speaker had accepted the resignations of six of the 22 MLAs. On March 16, Kamal Nath, amid claims that his government was safe, wrote to the Governor asserting that a floor test “will be undemocratic since MLAs are being held captive in Bengaluru”.
The BJP filed a petition in the Supreme Court demanding a floor test at the earliest. The Congress argued in court that “the floor test can happen only when all the elected lawmakers are present in the Assembly”. It also said that a trust vote could be held only after byelections to the constituencies falling vacant were held. Prajapati, on his part, adjourned the Assembly’s budget session, scheduled to commence on March 16, until March 26, citing the COVID-19 outbreak.
The Supreme Court, however, ordered the floor test on March 20, stating that it could appoint an observer who would visit the defectors in Bengaluru and arrange for their interaction with the Madhya Pradesh Speaker through a video conference.
Congress efforts to avert crisis
The Congress had deployed its trusted troubleshooter in Karnataka, D.K. Shivakumar, to try and defuse the crisis. On March 18, Digvijaya Singh and Shivakumar tried to meet the 22 MLAs who were holing up in Bengaluru, but they were not allowed to meet the latter. Addressing the media shortly afterwards, Singh claimed the MLAs were being kept hostage. “BJP MLA Arvind Bhadoriya and an MP are holding them captive. Why can’t I meet my MLAs, my voters [for the Rajya Sabha election], my own party people? What is the BJP doing in between?” he said.
Meanwhile, there was much speculation about what was going on behind the curtains. There was a view that some of the 22 defecting MLAs had resigned to court support for Scindia and were taken by surprise when their leader decided to join the BJP. These MLAs were said to be in two minds now about following in Scindia’s footsteps. Congress insiders even claimed that the BJP had moved a couple of them to Assam in order to isolate them further. The story, if true, would reflect the fragile trust between the BJP and its new allies in Madhya Pradesh.
The latest version of “Operation Lotus”, a sobriquet the BJP’s machinations to topple elected government have earned for the party, began early in March, though the first attempt ended in failure. A senior State leader of the BJP was said to have flown out eight MLAs of the Congress and its allies to a hotel in Gurugram. But the Congress was able to thwart the plan. (According to Congress sources, four of the eight were Congress MLAs, one was an independent, and the rest were from the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Samajwadi Party.)
Kamal Nath was quick to claim that his government was immune to attempts at engineering defections. “We have full faith in all our MLAs, we have no doubt about their integrity and honesty. The truth of this black money earned from corruption and scams has been revealed and all BJP’s conspiracies will fall flat on their face,” he said. Yet, internal squabbles were reportedly already at their peak in the State Congress, even if Scindia appeared to be on the same page with Kamal Nath. “This is 100 per cent an attempt to poach [MLAs]. We are united and our government is stable. We have counted the numbers and there is no threat to the government,” Scindia said as he joined Kamal Nath in lambasting the BJP’s attempt to usurp power in the State.
A lost election and a bungalow
It is not clear exactly what changed so quickly for Scindia to desert, a week later, the party which he had served for 18 years and which his father, Madhavrao, belonged to. But for over a year there had been sporadic manifestations of his frustration at being sidelined. According to one reading of the development, the final estrangement was triggered by the last-minute denial of a Rajya Sabha berth. The Congress in Madhya Pradesh was hopeful of winning two of the three Rajya Sabha seats for which elections were scheduled. One seat was reportedly reserved for Deepak Saxena, who vacated his Chhindwara legislative seat for Kamal Nath after he became Chief Minister in December 2018. Scindia was apparently sure of securing the other. Digvijaya Singh’s emergence as a strong contender for it is said to have eventually prompted his exit.
However, Frontline has learnt from reliable sources that the BJP started making overtures to Scindia soon after the Congress’ comprehensive defeat in the May 2019 general election. Scindia lost more than his family bastion of Guna, a constituency that had in the past elected him for four consecutive terms, in that election. (He lost it to former aide Krishna Pal Singh Yadav by over 1,25,000 votes.) He also lost the 27, Safdarjung Road bungalow in Lutyens’ Delhi, which was earlier allotted to Madhavrao Scindia before it came to him as an MP and had been his home for decades. In July 2019, the Union government declined his request to be allowed to retain the bungalow, to which he is believed to be “emotionally attached”. Sources from the Scindia camp and the Digvijaya Singh-Kamal Nath camp separately confirmed to this reporter that former Finance Minister Arun Jaitley reached out to Scindia sometime between May and July 2019. The rewards offered were a Cabinet berth for Scindia, plum postings for MLAs loyal to him in Madhya Pradesh, and the bungalow.
More than two rounds of parleys were reportedly held between Scindia and Jaitley regarding his future role and position within the BJP before Jaitley’s death interrupted the process. Yet there were signs that all was not well. Scindia’s support for the Modi government’s move to revoke Article 370 in Kashmir now seems to be a piece of deliberate political posturing. “I support the move on #JammuAndKashmir & #Ladakh and its full integration into union of India. Would have been better if constitutional process had been followed. No questions could have been raised then. Nevertheless, this is in our country’s interest and I support this,” he said in a tweet.
Meanwhile, the rift between Scindia and Kamal Nath kept widening. The Kamal Nath camp says an over-ambitious Scindia had been eyeing tthe post of All India Congress Committee president. The Scindia camp says that though Jyotiraditya contributed significantly to the Congress’ victory in the December 2018 election, Digvijaya Singh called the shots in bureaucratic postings and in the nomination of party functionaries. Pankaj Chaturvedi, a Scindia loyalist who was also the State spokesperson of the Congress, said: “I was in the Congress party along with Scindiaji and I have resigned from the Congress party along with Scindiaji. As per our assessment, as many as 10,000 office-bearers of the Congress across the State have tendered resignation to support Scindiaji’s decision to join the BJP. The Kamal Nath government has lost its majority and a floor test will prove that as well. This is a government dictated by a bundle of arrogance. It has been blind to the free run of mafias in the State though it claims to be working to end their impunity. This government’s only objective is to make as much money as possible as it knew from the beginning that its days were numbered.”
Some other Congress leaders and functionaries close to Scindia tried to justify his claim that he was unable to serve the country and the State while being in the Congress. In his letter to Sonia Gandhi, Scindia wrote: “While my aim and purpose remain the same as it has always been from the very beginning, to serve the people of my State and country, I believe I am unable to do this anymore with this party.” A Scindia aide told this reporter: “We won on a loan waiver promise to the farmers. But we failed to do so within 10 days. It has been over a year since we assumed power, but we have reneged on our manifesto agendas.” Leaders loyal to Kamal Nath were dismissive. A senior Madhya Pradesh Congress Committee functionary, who requested not to be named, said Scindia had made up his mind to join the BJP as early as November 2019. He claimed that the BJP’s central leadership was only delaying the move to time it with Rahul Gandhi’s resumption of his role as Congress president, whenever that happened, in order to score a point against his leadership abilities. “We have incontrovertible reports that he [Scindia] had alerted his MLAs about a possible defection. We know it for a fact he had told them ‘to make the maximum out of their office’ as they might have to remit it next year ,” said the Kamal Nath aide. This person further claimed that Scindia was offered the post of PCC president but he showed little interest. “His ambitions were bigger; he did not want to be the Deputy Chief Minister or the PCC president. He was offered both [posts] but he insisted that his aide Tulsi Silawat be made Kamal Nath’s deputy. This was turned down by Kamal Nath as there were people senior to Silawat in rank and experience and it was next to impossible to sideline them.”