Even though he has spent nearly four decades in Madhya Pradesh, no one recalls even one visit by Kamal Nath to the Assembly premises in Bhopal. Before his appointment as the Pradesh Congress Committee chief in April this year, his visits to the party headquarters in Bhopal were so few that local Congress leaders have to try really hard to recall them.
Yet the 72-year-old, who is set to enter the Assembly as the 18th chief minister of MP, has his finger on the pulse of the huge state, his core supporters in the party, and friends in other political establishments.
This ability to strike an instant rapport, and his famed organisational skills, seems to have landed Nath the job that appeared near-impossible for the Congress for years. MP was once a Congress bastion before the BJP dislodged it in 2003, and held on to it firmly before losing it narrowly in 2018.
Nath did not contest this Assembly election this year, and will have to win within the next six months to continue in office.
Asked to steward the party for the November 28 polls, Nath moved to Bhopal – to a huge bungalow near Bharat Bhawan, not far from the Chief Minister’s official bungalow on Shyamla Hills.
Although the Congress did not make it official that he would get the top job in the event of victory, it was more than a subtle hint, because Jyotiraditya Scindia, the other contender, had been made the campaign committee chief. Former CM Digvijaya Singh was the first to propose Nath’s name for the CM post, and backed him throughout.
From coordinating between leaders in the divided house that the Congress was, to distributing tickets and managing resources, Nath’s hands-on approach pumped fresh life in the party organisation, even though it was no patch on the BJP’s. Asked about the organisational mismatch, Nath’s stock reply was, “When voters have made up their mind, issues such as organisational muscle will not come into play.”
With the Congress coming up two seats short, most Congress leaders saw Nath as the ideal man to cobble up the numbers. The BSP and the Samajwadi Party soon offered support, and the four Independents, with allegiance to him and Digvijaya Singh, were on board just as soon.
Among Nath’s admirers is Former CM Babulal Gaur of the BJP, who says, “Kamal Nath knows his economics and is a good planner and executioner.” The octogenarian had praised the “Chhindwara model of development” – Nath is a nine-term Lok Sabha MP from Chhindwara – at a book launch in August, inviting the wrath of the then ruling party for embarrassing it before the Assembly polls. Unfazed, Gaur says Nath enjoys the goodwill of everyone because he does not hurt anyone.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, however, did not have any kind words for the Congress leader when he addressed a rally in Chhindwara on November 18, insisting that the Chhindwara model is a canard spread by the Congress and has nothing to show by way of development. The BJP lost all seven seats in Chhindwara district.
Chhindwara and Guna, represented by Scindia, were the only constituencies in MP that survived the Modi wave in 2014.
Nath, who studied with Sanjay Gandhi at Doon School, won his first Lok Sabha election in 1980, and has remained a Gandhi family loyalist. Indira Gandhi had introduced him as her third son when she campaigned for Nath in Chhindwara.
He probably owns the biggest farmhouse in Chhindwara, and it’s not unusual to see him get off his helicopter on a helipad in the backyard of the massive property. Helicopter is his usual mode of campaign during Lok Sabha polls, and an aviation company is among the many firms his family owns.
Yet, an IPS officer who served as an SP in Chhindwara, says even when he makes demands of the local administration, Nath’s approach is usually decent.
Sajjan Singh Verma, former Congress MP and now an MLA, says Nath has changed the party system like “never before” by infusing energy into it. “Only he could have brought all factions together and made them work,’’ he says.