Kamal Nath's Political Dexterity Puts Him in a Different League Within Congress

He raised many eyebrows when he gave an interview to a TV anchor blacklisted by the 'INDIA' alliance.

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Known for hogging the limelight, the Congress Party's chief ministerial candidate in Madhya Pradesh, Kamal Nath, has stolen it again when he recently said in an interview that the doors of Ram Janmabhoomi were opened by the late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.

He also did something that raised many eyebrows amongst politicians and observers of the Congress party and the 'INDIA' alliance, that is, giving an interview to a TV anchor blacklisted by the alliance.

This is not the first time that the 76-year-old Congress veteran has sprung a surprise.

“Nath is in a different league within the Congress. He has been a go-getter and such situations arise because of the confidence gained after decades of politics and working with three generations of the Gandhi family”, a senior party leader said.

He has his own style of handling situations and while doing so, he sometimes comes off as different from his colleagues in the party. This becomes especially important to understand ahead of the state Assembly polls in Madhya Pradesh.


A Political Journey Longer Than Most Others

From raising the issues of India’s farmers as the Union minister for Environment and Forest long ago in 1992 at the Earth Summit held in Rio de Janeiro, to taking on the European nations and the United States at the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in Geneva in 2008 as the Union Commerce Minister, to resolving issues of the Congress party in the badlands of Chambal in Madhya Pradesh, it has been a long political journey for Kamal Nath, perhaps, longer than any other leader in the Congress or those within the 'INDIA' alliance.

For Generation Z, the Earth Summit was held in Brazil to discuss environmental degradation and the WTO meeting in Geneva was crucial for India’s poor.

Now, Nath is Congress’ chief ministerial candidate in Madhya Pradesh.

So, what is the difference as he shifts gears from one political assignment to another? “It’s not the question of achievements, but fulfillment”, he said to me over the phone.

“I have often said,” according to the Doon school alumnus, “it’s not the achievements that matter, it’s the pursuit of fulfillment that has been important for me”.

After a long stint as a globetrotting union minister and working in the All India Congress Committee (AICC) in different capacities, Nath has been active for a very long time in Madhya Pradesh where he has represented Chhindwara, a city and the district headquarters situated in Satpura range, about 300 km away from Bhopal.

He has represented Chhindwara for a record nine times since 1980 and was the longest-serving parliamentarian in the 16th Lok Sabha.


Not Letting the BJP Monopolise Hindutva

Surprising many within his party and those in the opposition, that is, the BJP, Kamal Nath along with his family, in August this year, attended the Bhagwat Katha session of Dhirendra Shastri of Bageshwer Dham. Often raising the issue of Hindu Rashtra, the spiritual leader is immensely popular and is considered close to the BJP.

It is believed that Nath himself organised the Katha. He later said to the media, "Shastri ji visited Chhindwara and delivered sermons. I also attended it and addressed the people.” Discourses of Pradeep Sharma, another popular spiritual guru in the state, were also organised in Chhindwara.

Both Shastri and Sharma have a huge following and attract large crowds when they deliver sermons. "In engaging with them, Nath has outsmarted the BJP", a BJP leader said.

Kamal Nath also constructed a Hanuman temple in Chhindwara 10 years ago. It is a 101-foot statue of Lord Hanuman and Nath has been regularly worshipping the lord. In the Karnataka elections, the BJP had tried to use the issue of Bajrangbali.

When people started correlating the two issues, the BJP decided to act.

The chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan realised that Kamal Nath’s move of attending discourses of the two spiritual gurus and his image as a Hanuman bhakta was gaining momentum, the four-time CM announced a project for the renovation of an old Hanuman temple in Chhindwara with a cost of Rs 350 crore.

“This is the third time that the CM has made such an announcement”, Nath would later quip.

“In fact,” a senior BJP leader told me, “Kamal Nath has so far refused to play on the Hindutva pitch of the BJP, yet he has successfully addressed the issue during the election campaign.”

This political dexterity has not come overnight, this is a result of a long practical politics, observed a senior Congress leader.


A Rigorous Test of His Political Skills

“Nath has been in Congress politics since the days of Sanjay Gandhi and has lots of experience in handling the organisation as well. He has shown organisational skills as the party’s general secretary when he broke an alliance with Jayalalitha in 2004 and shook hands with the DMK in Tamil Nadu leading to 40 seats for the Congress,” the aforementioned senior leader explained.

But now as the state Congress president, Nath is undergoing a rigorous test of his political skills. He along with his party is pitched against the might of the BJP. As a Congress spearhead in 2018, he had succeeded in defeating the party but Jyotiraditya Scindia and his supporters defected to the BJP and the Congress government collapsed.

Already playing the Sanatan card, the BJP of late has also introduced issues of Ram temple and Hamas in Madhya Pradesh's election scenario, while the Congress has stuck to the issues of unemployment, corruption, and inflation.

“As far as Ram temple is concerned, it doesn’t belong only to the BJP. They do not have its patta (lease) on their name. Ram and his temple belong to all of us”, he said.

The assembly elections in the five states of MP, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan, Telangana, and Mizoram would have their bearing in the next year’s Lok Sabha polls.

The old Congress war horse is putting up a brave fight as the battle of the ballot is reaching its crescendo. Whether he will be able to outsmart the saffron party this time also remains to be seen.

(The author is a senior journalist based in Madhya Pradesh. This is an opinion article and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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