Digvijaya Singh Says Like BJP, Congress Warrants "Margdarshak Mandal"

Published: April 15, 2018 06:47 IST
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The irrepressible Digvijaya Singh, 71, is back from his six-month Narmada Yatra - he traversed every constituency in Madhya Pradesh, which he has served twice as Chief Minister. Singh, who looks fighting fit, has lost six kgs in these six months, told me in an exclusive interview that he is a "changed man" and he is "not in the running to be Chief Minister of MP again". However, he firmly refused to endorse rivals Jyotiraditya Scindia or Kamal Nath as the Congress' best choice.

Singh says he will meet his boss and Congress president Rahul Gandhi and ask what he wants him to do next. Retirement is not an option. "I am a political person and I will remain in active politics. I have not returned from my Yatra to fry pakodas."
 
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Pressed to name his choice of Madhya Pradesh Chief Ministerial candidate, Mr Singh says he will tell Rahul Gandhi only. (File)

After he repeatedly said he is a changed man, I asked him what indeed is the difference. "After introspection, I have realised that I need to to be more discreet".

You can nearly hear the collective sigh of relief from the Congress party but before it gets too comfortable, it should consider this. Singh says he is from Madhya Pradesh which will vote later this year, knows it well and has a "plan to win the state which involves all the senior leaders not in the running to be Chief Minister to fan out to every assembly segment and unite all the divided factions."

Both Scindia 47, and Kamal Nath, 71, claim they will support the other if he is chosen presumptive Chief Minister. Singh, once considered the third contender for the job, declares himself out of the running but says he will share his preferred option only with Gandhi, whom he once politically tutored. Repeatedly pressed to name his choice, he is visibly irritated as he says, "I will not tell you, I will tell Rahul Gandhi".

Singh holds strong sway still over the organisation in the MPCC and personally knows local leaders in every constituency - a bond he has re-established during his Yatra. He says "I want to make it clear that my ambition to become a Chief Minister for the third time is no longer there. I am out of the race to be Chief Minister, but at the same time, I am willing to do any job that the party assigns to me. The only person I am now in competition is with myself."
 
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Senior Congress leader Jyotiraditya Scindia with Congress president Rahul Gandhi. (File)

Singh also wants a Congress version of the BJP's Margdarshak Mandal, an advisory committee that was created to host veterans like LK Advani who have not been called on once for their counsel. "It should happen, it is nature's law that when old leaves fall, young leaves take their place. So when Mr Narendra Modi sidelined most of his party's senior leaders in a mandal which has not even met once, so it has to happen. You know, there was a generational change during Nehru's time. My advise to our older generation leaders would be to find something to do which can contribute to the Congress party." When asked if he would be content with being positioned, along with other members of Team Sonia, on such a board, he indicated he would accept the party's view.

Till 2015, Singh was seen as guiding Gandhi into advanced politics to help prep him for his inevitable promotion to his mother's job, that of party president. The equation came undone after a series of controversies that climaxed with the Congress not being able to form the government in Goa despite winning the maximum seats, a debacle that was pinned to Singh's mismanagement. 
 
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Both Kamal Nath, 71 and Scindia, 47, claim they will support the other if he is chosen presumptive Chief Minister. (File)

"I was never his guru. He is the Congress president, it is his right to assign work to whoever he wants to. He has been very kind to me. He is a young man, he needs to practise young politics. After all, politics has also changed. He needs to bring in fresh ideas and new people," he said. 

Of Gandhi's new-found religious fervour and serial temple visits, he says the 46-year-old is wrongly accused of dabbling in soft Hindutva to keep up with the BJP. "He has been to temples, he has been to mosques, he has been to churches and gurudwaras, following in the footsteps of his family." Singh adds that he is a practicing Sanatani Hindu and neither he nor Gandhi, whom he describes as passionate about his beliefs, need a certificate of their Hinduism from their opponents.

While he was powerful in the Congress, Singh was attacked by opponents as a consistent promoter of appeasement politics.

Asked about Sonia Gandhi's recent comment that the Congress had been hurt by its perception as a pro-Muslim party, Singh says the  Congress party has never been pro-Hindu or pro-Muslim. "The party has followed the Indian Constitution and the idea of India and the ethos of India which is Sarva Dharam Sambhav, which is our ethos."

Singh is clear that alliance politics is the way forward for the Congress. In the recent by-elections in Phulpur and Gorakhpur, the Congress was pointedly left out of the arrangement struck between arch rivals Mayawati and Akhilesh Yadav which saw the BJP losing both seats. When asked if this highlights the irrelevance of the Congress, Singh says only this - "Ghulam Nabi Azad is the in-charge of UP."

Singh is also clear that the Congress must surrender its ego and strike an alliance as part of an ideological fight with the BJP. "We should have no problem with working with the Left, the SP, the BSP, the TMC and the NCP who are broadly anti the communal agenda of the BJP. Look at the BJP of Atal Bihari Vajpayee and look at Narendra Modi today. It is a difference between earth and sky. Modi is a divisive person and we need to unite to take him and the BJP on."

Singh says that the Congress needs to sort out its organisation and boots on the ground quickly as general elections beckon. He has a word of advise to the party to up its game on social media where he feels he has been victimised. "I have never said anything controversial but a section of the media specially close to Modi and the BJP have always sensationalised my statements. The worst of course is social media where I have been called an 'Islamist' and a 'Christian' while I have always been a Sanatani Hindu. They twisted my Osama statement," he said of his controversial proclamation that despite being a terrorist, religious rituals should have been observed for his burial. 

Despite the "changed man", expect more spokes in the MP wheel for the Congress. Perhaps sensing the impossibility of factionalism being resolved, Kamal Nath, who had become extremely active, addressing daily rallies, seems to have withdrawn. With Singh back in action, the Scindia antenna is up and pressure is building on Gandhi to take a call on naming a chief ministerial candidate. 

Singh is clear that with the "Narmada Yatra" completed, he will now go on a "Madhya Pradesh Yatra". Whatever it takes, Digvijaya Singh is ready for a marathon, so don't count him out in MP.

(Swati Chaturvedi is an author and a journalist who has worked with The Indian Express, The Statesman and The Hindustan Times.)

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.

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