Play in three acts

Rasheed Kidwai | Updated on: Dec 21, 2018
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Rahul Gandhi has struck a tricky balance by choosing the old guard to head the newly-won states, but with young contenders in the fray, future choices are not going to be easy

It was a three-act play that left the audience — as well as the cast — suitably surprised. But Congress president Rahul Gandhi, who directed the drama with some help from party seniors, may want to look out for the next act.

The party’s three leaders — Kamal Nath, Ashok Gehlot and Bhupesh Bhagel — earned their jobs in Bhopal, Jaipur and Raipur, respectively, not just through grit and hard work, but because of some last-minute, behind-the-scene deliberations, too. There was some arm-twisting, and a fair bit of cajoling — but Gandhi managed to hold his own.

The selection of the chief ministerial candidate for Chhattisgarh proved to be the trickiest. Perhaps the Congress high command had not anticipated a landslide victory in the state, and had made little preparations for the change. The December 11 verdict offered Gandhi four options. Tribhuvaneshwar Saran Singh Deo was a suave and experienced hand but his feudal background stood against the former Sarguja ruler. Tamradhwaj Sahu, the Congress MP from Durg, was backed by AICC point man PL Punia but had been fielded at the last minute to win over the influential Sahu samaj. The resourceful and worldly-wise Charan Das Mahant, a former Union minister, was among the contenders. And then there was Baghel, Chhattisgarh Congress unit chief.

Baghel, who dropped out of college while doing his BSc, had convinced his father to allow him to join the uncertain world of politics by promising him that he would be a chief minister one day. His father, Nand Kumar Baghel, proudly narrated the conversation 37 years later to the media.

But the Congress state chief was not the first choice of the top brass. On December 13, the four contenders were summoned to Delhi for a meeting with Gandhi. The Congress president tried to hammer out a consensus for three hours and decided that Sahu would be the next CM. But Gandhi met with a full-blown rebellion. The other three satraps said they would not work under Sahu.

Another round of consultations followed. This time Singh Deo was the favourite, but now Sahu was ready to revolt. The AICC general secretary in-charge of administration, former chief minister Motilal Vora, was brought in for the negotiations. When the deadlock continued, AICC treasurer Ahmed Patel intervened. Patel backed Baghel and, to Gandhi’s astonishment, everyone came around to it, with Mahant putting in a condition that he be made the Speaker of the Assembly.

Rajasthan was not easy either. When former minister Sachin Pilot landed in New Delhi from Jaipur after winning the Tonk seat, he went to meet Gandhi at his residence. Around the same time, Ashok Gehlot, the victor of the Sardarpura seat, was confabulating with Patel at his residence. Hectic lobbying followed. It led to a see-saw battle, which first saw Pilot on top, and then Gehlot as the likely contender, with the former Rajasthan CM having nearly twice the number of MLAs backing him as compared to Pilot.

Gandhi was keen to appoint a “young face” in one of the three newly-acquired states, but Gehlot, who comes from a magicians’ family, proved to be a crafty customer. It was difficult to convince Pilot to give way. Finally, Gandhi’s sister, Priyanka, who has known Pilot since he was a small boy, was roped in, along with their mother, Sonia, to prevail upon him to accept the deputy chief minister’s post. And the Gandhi women’s pressure worked.

In Madhya Pradesh, Kamal Nath’s appointment as CM was a near-forgone conclusion, till the Rajasthan developments started to affect the neighbouring state. A former royal from Rajasthan is said to have egged the Jyotiraditya Scindia camp on by whispering that if a “junior” such as Pilot became a chief minister ahead of the erstwhile maharaja of Gwalior, Scindia — a four-time Lok Sabha MP — would trail behind the two-time MP forever. Scindia, who had declined to be state party chief three years ago, was suddenly in the race.

Some serious number-crunching followed. Scindia supporters said they had 26 of the 34 seats in the Gwalior-Chambal region, as against Nath’s 24 out of 38 Assembly seats in the Mahakaushal region. That was when former CM Digvijaya Singh took centre-stage, sharing a photograph of 31 newly-elected MLAs calling on his son Jaivardhan, who had won from Raghogarh. The subtle message was that Scindia’s support of 26 MLAs meant little when a “non-contender” had 31 MLAs behind him. While this battle carried on, Kamal Nath, in Bhopal, messaged party bigwigs to say over 80 MLAs from various parties and groups were with him. Gandhi, however, publicly demonstrated his confidence in Scindia by ensuring that he was by his side when he travelled from Delhi to Jaipur, Bhopal and Raipur for the three swearing-in ceremonies. The idea was to showcase the “young face” of the party when, in effect, the old guard was calling the shots.

It’s not going to be easy for Gandhi. With the exception of V Narayanaswamy of Puducherry, Gandhi has to contend with four Congress chief ministers — Nath, Gehlot, Baghel and Amarinder Singh in Punjab — who not only have a streak of independence in them but also a direct line to the party’s powerful old guard. The play is still on.

Rasheed Kidwai, a visiting fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, is the author of 24 Akbar Road

Published on December 21, 2018

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