Early in September, the Madhya Pradesh chief of the Congress, Kamal Nath, announced that if the party came to power it would build a gaushala in every panchayat in the state, which amounts to a staggering 23,412 gaushalas. A fortnight later, as the party president, Rahul Gandhi, headed to Bhopal for his first speech on the campaign trail for the state’s upcoming election, billboards of him doing a Shiva abhisheka dotted the town. For a party fighting Shivraj Singh Chouhan, a three-time incumbent chief minister of middling popularity, this seemed an odd electoral strategy—defending its own religious credentials rather than attacking the government for its failings.
The choice of Kamal Nath as party chief embodies all the Congress’s weaknesses in Madhya Pradesh—most notably, a lack of regional leadership and a serious crisis of funds—which mirror its problems nationally. Nath is known across the state but his political appeal is restricted to his parliamentary constituency of Chhindwara. During the 1984 massacre of Sikhs in Delhi, he led a murderous mob that burnt two Sikhs to death within a kilometre of parliament. Each time Gandhi tries to explain the party’s involvement in the killings, Nath’s record tarnishes his credentials.
In 2016, Nath had to step down as the party’s Punjab in-charge over the 1984 charges, but found himself in favour once again as the Madhya Pradesh elections approached. Now, in the same way his presence silences the party nationally on the 2002 Gujarat pogrom, it also silences the party from raising any questions about the financial dealings of the BJP or Chouhan. His long association with the businessman Gautam Adani has been cited often in media reports, and problems with land acquisition and construction of an Adani power plant in his constituency are well known in the region. Issues such as the Vyapam scandal, which had a resonance across the state, are now notably absent from the Congress campaign.
That the party opted for Nath despite these evident failings reflects the Congress’s weakness in a state where it had long been the default party in power. Since the 2002 defeat of the Digvijaya Singh-led Congress to a BJP campaign spearheaded by Uma Bharti, the party has largely withered away in Madhya Pradesh. Long bereft of ideological moorings, it has largely been dependent on sustaining a patronage structure by letting its supporters share in the spoils of power. Having spent three terms out of power, its local leadership consists largely of those who have not been able to find space within the BJP.
The party has found Jyotiraditya Scindia to be the only real alternative to Nath. In Delhi, Jyotiraditya is often sold by some pliant journalists as a young and dynamic leader. However, his prominence resembles that of Gandhi—both lack any evident political talent and both have inherited prominent political names. His following is limited to one part of the state, the Gwalior region, but even here the BJP’s strength has meant that the Scindia name ensures victory in but a single parliamentary constituency.
This region is both underdeveloped and feudal and spills over into Rajasthan. The Scindias here are embodiments of feudal royalty. They have used politics as a means to hold on to the same power they once enjoyed as rulers of this region, which means that Jyotiraditya’s politics is as instrumental within the Congress as Vasundhra Raje Scindia’s is within the BJP in Rajasthan. Either leader would be equally at home in the other party.
It is this feudal appeal of the Scindias that pits Jyotiraditya against Digvijaya Singh, a former chief minister of the state who is from a family that rules the small princely state of Raghogarh in the same part of the state as Gwalior. Historically, the Raghogarh kings have been at odds with the Scindias and this remains true of the interaction between their descendants in the contemporary world. For Singh, a possible Scindia chief minister in the state suggests an end to his political career. His alliance with Nath is a pragmatic choice to counter the rise of Jyotiraditya.
Singh has been a recent loser in the shuffling and rearranging of courtiers around Gandhi. This is an arena marked by intrigues and machinations that resemble those in a medieval court, with no one sure of their own position for any length of time. Over a period of time, Singh’s predilection for calling out Hindutva in public, often in intemperate fashion, has seen the young faces around Gandhi—who are keen to portray him as a “Hindu” leader and a Shiv bhakt—ease him out. The party’s failure to form a government in Goa was used as the pretext for doing so.
As he fell out with Gandhi, Singh too became a born-again Hindu to save his political career. He took months off from active political work to undertake a popular pilgrimage, a circumambulation of the Narmada. He combined this with extensive interactions with Congress workers along the pilgrimage path, which runs the length of Madhya Pradesh. By taking refuge in the Narmada, he was doing what the BJP had already done, through the Narmada Seva Yatra initiated by the former union environment minister Anil Dave. Singh’s yatra has revived his presence within the party, but the memory of his two terms as chief minister has not gone away. His failure to deliver on infrastructure—roads and electricity—still makes it impossible for him to play an active role in popular politics.
Singh’s ouster from Gandhi’s court happened at much the same time as Ahmed Patel, once derided by the Gandhi scion, found his way back in favour. This rapprochement has since been formalised by his appointment as treasurer, which suggests that, despite his lack of a political base, Patel is someone Gandhi has realised he cannot do without. The party is struggling for funds, and Patel, with his formidable network among industrialists, is the party’s best bet to fix this.
The same logic also works for Nath. In addition to Singh throwing his weight behind him, the latter’s potential for raising funds ensured that Gandhi chose him to lead the party in Madhya Pradesh. As the Rajasthan unit of the party struggles for funds, complaints have become public, but there is no indication from Madhya Pradesh. Without factoring in Nath, this contradiction is difficult to explain, given that the party is far better placed in Rajasthan than Madhya Pradesh and that industrialists usually back the party in regions where they see it as most likely to win.
Nath may be a necessity for the Congress, but if Chouhan had to handpick an opponent from the Congress, he could do no better than him. After three terms in power, Chouhan’s personal appeal has diminished but not disappeared completely, and a popular opponent with a clean image would be able to defeat him. Nath is neither popular nor does he enjoy a reputation that would allow him to take on Chouhan over the Vyapam scandal.
Clearly, then, Nath is exactly the kind of politician that might keep the Congress in the fight in Madhya Pradesh, but cannot ensure victory. He is the best illustration of why the Congress under Gandhi is struggling. His appointment as state party chief is an easy compromise that brings into question any claim that Gandhi makes of standing for any principles in political life.