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Power struggle in Madhya Pradesh Congress

The history of infighting in the Congress’ Madhya Pradesh unit is generations old. A quadrilateral power struggle among former Chief Ministers Digvijaya Singh and Arjun Singh, incumbent Chief Minister Kamal Nath and the late Madhavrao Scindia had kept the party high command on tenterhooks about possible divisions, hurt the party’s electoral prospects and affected its overall performance and credibility whenever it came to power.

Arjun Singh and Madhavrao Scindia are no more, but with their supporters continuing to pledge fierce loyalty to their sons and political heirs, Ajay Singh and Jyotiraditya Scindia, respectively, the grand old party’s factions in the State continue to remain at loggerheads.

However, several political analysts are of the view that this quadrilateral power struggle has now mutated into a battle between the Scindia camp and the rest. Digvijaya Singh, the Arjun Singh-Ajay Singh duo and Kamal Nath had, on many occasions in the past, successfully and tactfully buried their differences. Now they are joining forces to stop the Scindia juggernaut, which has a dominant presence in the electorally significant Gwalior-Chambal region.

It was an understanding between Digvijaya Singh and Kamal Nath that prevented Jyotiraditya Scindia’s ascension to power in December last year after the Congress ended the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) 15-year rule. Now, as Scindia loyalists are raising the pitch for his elevation as the Pradesh Congress Committee (PCC) chief, it is Digvijaya Singh again who is playing spoilsport, informed sources told Frontline.

Kamal Nath, who has to vacate the post since he is also the Chief Minister, is only too happy to align with Digvijaya Singh with the manifest objective of installing a proxy and cementing his hold on the party’s State unit.

The bickering within the party, even as names continue to do the rounds for the coveted PCC president post, came out in the open recently when Forest Minister Umang Singhar launched a scathing attack on Digvijaya Singh. According to Singhar, the nephew of Jamuna Devi, who was Deputy Chief Minister in the erstwhile Digvijaya Singh Cabinet, the two-time former Chief Minister had been “blackmailing the government” with a few Ministers and Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) on his side. Singhar also accused him of promoting illegal sand mining and liquor businesses in the State.

Digvijaya Singh’s role

His is not the lone voice against Digvijaya Singh’s “undue interferences”. There are murmurs in the corridors of power in Bhopal that the septuagenarian leader has been nudging State Ministers for certain transfers and postings. Such moves are being watched with caution by other factions in the party, including Kamal Nath’s.

The perception among them is that Digvijaya Singh’s larger design is to build a formidable block of loyalists within the State’s administration and emerge as the main pivot in the establishment and rule it by proxies.

Sources in the Chief Minister’s Office underlined the point that despite Digvijaya Singh’s evident agenda, Kamal Nath cannot afford to antagonise him. “Digvijaya Singh has a good hold on the block-level leaders of the Congress in M.P. He is known to be wily, and considering the government’s fragile majority in the State Assembly, even a minor defection engineered by him can destabilise it. Kamal Nath has decided to turn a blind eye to his interferences for now, though he is obviously miffed,” a source said.

According to these sources, Kamal Nath wants Madhya Pradesh Home Minister Bala Bachchan, his close aide, to become the PCC chief, but that would effectively mean that Bachchan would have to step down as Minister and he is unwilling to do so.

The Thakur lobby, a prominent group in the State Congress, is said to have put its weight behind Ajay Singh, and Digvijaya Singh is apparently supporting Ajay Singh’s bid for the top slot in the State Congress, as that is his best bet to stop Scindia.

A source close to Kamal Nath told Frontline that the resistance to Scindia’s candidature was not so much from Kamal Nath as it was from Digvijaya Singh. For some time, Scindia had fancied becoming the All India Congress Committee (AICC) president. This was after Rahul Gandhi quit the post and categorically stated that a non-Gandhi should lead the party nationally.

During that period, Scindia tried to prop up the name of Ram Niwas Rawat, his loyalist and one of the working presidents of the Madhya Pradesh Congress, to replace Kamal Nath as the party’s State chief, according to sources close to him. But with Sonia Gandhi taking over the AICC as interim president, Scindia is back to positioning himself as the next PCC chief.

There were several media reports that he had indicated to the party high command that he would have to look for greener pastures if he was not given the post. Sources within the Madhya Pradesh Congress, however, view this as a pressure tactic. There is unanimity that Scindia’s options are limited and that he would only be hurting his own prospects if he brings the government down, which he is technically capable of doing since he is known to have at least 30 loyalists among the Congress’ 114 MLAs.

Scindia’s moves

An informed source said: “Despite the fact that he lost out in the Chief Minister’s race last year, the fact remains that he has seven loyalist Ministers in Kamal Nath’s Cabinet. That is his only source of political clout in the current circumstances, with the Congress relegated to a small force in the Lok Sabha and since he himself lost from the family pocket borough of Guna. Second, it is very unlikely that the BJP, which has multiple claimants for the Chief Minister’s post—Shivraj Singh Chouhan, Kailash Vijayvargiya, Narottam Mishra and Gopal Bhargava—will let him head the government should the Kamal Nath regime lose its majority. He knows his limitations well and is playing cleverly.”

In late August, Scindia was made the chairman of the Congress Screening Committee for Maharashtra. The appointment and the timing were significant, and the development is interpreted differently by different political observers. While there is no doubting the judiciousness of the decision to entrust Scindia with important election responsibilities in adjoining Maharashtra given the Scindia family’s roots in that State, some analysts are reading it as a ploy to keep him off Madhya Pradesh.

As Scindia’s sense of resentment became a talking point in the media, there were reports of him seeking an appointment with Sonia Gandhi; some sections of the media claimed that he had been summoned by the Congress chief.

There were also reports that Sonia Gandhi wanted to convene a joint meeting with all the three seniors in the State, namely Kamal Nath, Digvijaya Singh and Jyotiraditya Scindia. Scindia denied that he had sought to meet the interim Congress president. “I did not ask for time with Sonia Gandhi. The news is wrong. At present I am focussing on the Maharashtra elections,” he told mediapersons.

As the bickering continued, the Congress high command was forced to constitute a committee under A.K. Antony’s aegis to avert further washing of dirty linen in public. The committee will hear the leaders of the warring factions from the State and take a decision accordingly. On September 7, Sonia Gandhi met Kamal Nath for over an hour at her residence in New Delhi to take stock of the intra-party rivalries in Madhya Pradesh.

Kamal Nath later told mediapersons: “We discussed the political situation of Madhya Pradesh. She expressed concern over issues of indiscipline in the State. The matter has been handed over to the Congress’ discipline committee president, A.K. Antony. Whoever has a complaint can approach him.”

This was Kamal Nath’s second meeting with Sonia Gandhi in eight days. On August 30, after the two met, he tried to play down any power tussle with Scindia. “It’s wrong to say Scindia is angry,” he told the media then.

On September 6, Deepak Babariya, the Congress general secretary in charge of Madhya Pradesh, met Sonia Gandhi and submitted a report on the infighting in the party’s State unit and the unsavoury statements being issued by party members against one another. Following the meeting, Babariya asked the party leaders to desist from taking their differences to the public domain and warned them of disciplinary action.

Meanwhile, Scindia has begun reaching out to rivals within the party. After landing in Indore from New Delhi on September 15, he dropped in at Congress MLA Sanjay Shukla’s place for a breakfast meeting. Shukla is known to be a part of Kamal Nath’s inner circle.

Scindia later called on senior Congress leader and former MLA Satyanarayan Patel, who is close to Digvijaya Singh.

In Indore, he also held “one-to-one” meetings with workers and leaders belonging to different factions of the party from the Malwa-Nimad region. Scindia obviously wants to send across a message to rival factions that their interests would be kept in mind if he is elected PCC chief. This is a much-needed act of image-bolstering for the royal scion, otherwise known as “not accommodating” among his opponents.

Political observers believe that he has been successful in getting the party high command’s nod for his elevation as PCC chief provided he tides over the opposition to him, which explains his sudden outreach programme.

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