Kamal Nath and the Congress are still hoping that the Madhya Pradesh by-elections for 28 seats will be a clash of the titans. But if there are two star players at all in this round, scheduled for Tuesday, it is Sachin Pilot versus Jyotiraditya Scindia - the turncoat versus the one who returned from the brink. So, voters get to choose between defection and loyalty (at least on date).
In March, Scindia, 49, exited the Congress and only a few days later, his defection brought down the government of Madhya Pradesh with73-year-old Kamal Nath as its Chief Minister. Scindia took with him 22 MLAs, necessitating elections for their seats in the legislature.
To remain in power, Shivraj Singh Chouhan of the BJP needs to win eight of the 28 seats. To return to power, the Congress needs to win all 28 so the deck is stacked firmly against it.
Most of the seats are in the areas of Gwalior and Chambal, where Scindia is a mass leader and has a strong hold on MLAs. Yesterday, he was campaigning in the same region as Pilot, nine years his junior. At one time, both men were spoken of as the front-benchers of the much-vaunted Gen Next of the Congress, a party in which being nearly 50 years old is considered the youth bridgade. Amit Shah, union Home Minister, is 56. Tejashwi Yadav, the presumptive Chief Minister of his party in Bihar, is 30.The Congress ages slowly. Glacially. And not gracefully.
Proof of this was splashed across the full frontal assault launched by first Scindia and then Pilot on the Congress old guard, demanding a larger role and say in their home states where they were undeniably instrumental to the party's standing. Scindia was refused his demands by Kamal Nath and Digvijaya Singh, who wanted to call the shots in Madhya Pradesh. For Pilot, it was Ashok Gehlot who refused to allow him the space due to him as Deputy Chief Minister. Scindia saw his revolt through, joining the BJP and entering the Rajya Sabha, reportedly a condition he had attached to switching sides. Pilot miscalculated how many MLAs would back for him, Gehlot outwitted him, and was therefore forced to make peace with the Congress and is now stuck in a cooling-off period, which means a new role cannot be assigned to him till a suitable period of penance is completed.
As Scindia and Pilot addressed rallies yesterday, they refused to be drawn into attacking each other, a facet which their parties must have been lusting for.
The pair of 40-somethings seemed to be respecting a tacit covenant. Scindia, from the former royal family of Gwalior, said he welcomed Pilot to campaign in his stronghold of Guna and Chambal. Scindia who switched to the BJP and pulled down the Kamal Nath led contest government 15 months ago has huge stakes in by-elections to the 28 assembly seats which will poll on November 3.
Pilot, who campaigns today in Gwalior, Shivpuri, Bhind and Morena, also did not name check Scindia stating simply that the "public knows why I am here". Significantly, when Scindia made the big switch to the BJP, Pilot had tweeted that it was a loss for the Congress party. During his weeks-long rebellion, Pilot had also met Scindia, who addressed the issue by publicly talking about "talent loss" in the Congress.
The two met yesterday, according to Scindia, and politics was definitely on the menu. Kamal Nath is fighting a lone last-ditch battle to topple the BJP government. He ensures he is addressed as "bhavi mukhyamantri" (future Chief Minister) in all his public meetings.
But it is Scindia who in some sense has the most to prove. A happy byproduct of the BJP, sweeping the by-elections, if indeed that happens, would be Scindia getting even with Kamal Nath in the most public and effectual manner. Secondly, it would serve as a reminder to the Congress that had it not tried to restrict Scindia's role to one determined by Kamal Nath and Digvijaya Singh, it would not have lost one of the handful of governments it had. Thirdly, ahead of a much-anticipated cabinet reshuffle, it would emphasise Scindia's value to the BJP, making a case for a prominent ministry for him.
Digvijaya Singh, who, despite the Scindia fiasco, was rewarded with a Rajya Sabha seat by the Congress, is nowhere to be seen in the campaign for the by-elections, with Kamal Nath attributing his absence to "doing organisational work". Scindia in his speeches goes big on personal and strong attacks on the two veteran politicians.
Kamal Nath returns the favour in full measure calling him a traitor and saying Scindia was a fantasist. "He lost his own seat of Guna in the Lok Sabha elections. Scindia lost to his own Congress worker, not to any big tiger of the BJP. He wanted to be CM with 20 MLAs and I exposed his fantasy before Rahul Gandhi. Now see his desperate state in the BJP."
The Congress meanwhile has to be content with whatever satisfaction it can gather from mocking the "samman" (respect) or lack of that it alleges Scindia is accorded in the BJP. Scindia was at number 10 in the list of star campaigners of the BJP. The BJP video doing the WhatsApp voter rounds did not even have his pictures. Worse, the party posters make no reference to him, sticking to "Shivraj hai toh vishwas hai (we have faith in Shivraj)."
However, Scindia certainly fits in with the campaigning style of his new party with melodramatics aplenty at his speeches, big hand gestures and a whole lot of thundering deliveries of his one-liners against the Congress. An early glimpse of this new mien was revealed when he got his Rajya Sabha seat from the BJP and issued a video where he said "Tiger zinda hai", complete with sound effects of a tiger roaring. The line is from a Salman Khan blockbuster.
Chouhan has made it clear in his own understated way that he does not want Scindia breathing over his shoulder in MP politics. Many others in Madhya Pradesh stress that the BJP is a cadre-based party which has fought against the "mahal" (palace) of Scindia for decades and are not exactly welcoming of "Maharaj".
Within his new party, and to his old, Scindia has a lot to prove. Above all, the need to be taken seriously as a commanding leader who merits a bigger role than allowed so far.
(Swati Chaturvedi is an author and a journalist who has worked with The Indian Express, The Statesman and The Hindustan Times.)
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