Kamal Nath | Indira’s ‘third son’

The former Congress Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh has ended speculations, for now, saying he has no plan to leave the party

February 25, 2024 04:43 am | Updated 08:19 am IST

“Indira Gandhi’s third son!” The sentence reverberated from Bhopal to New Delhi in the last few days with Madhya Pradesh politics going for a storm amid speculations that former Congress Chief Minister Kamal Nath was going to join the BJP.

The sentence, used by various Congress leaders as an emotional outreach to Mr. Nath, was a reference to the 1980 Lok Sabha elections when he was contesting from M.P.’s Chhindwara seat for the first time. In December, 1979, Indira Gandhi had come for a poll rally and had said, “He (Mr. Nath) is my third son. Please, take care of him.”

Mr. Nath won the election, increasing the Congress’ margin from 2,369 in 1977 to 70,131 in 1980.

Fast forward to February 17, 2024, Mr. Nath and his son, the current Chhindwara MP Nakul Nath, were in the national capital. Reports claimed that the duo was there to meet some senior BJP leaders and finalise a deal for entry into the saffron fold.

The rumours were finally dismissed after Mr. Nath held a closed-door meeting with his supporters in Delhi after which some of his loyalists again used the reference of “Indira Gandhi’s third son” to claim that he will remain a Congressman till his last breath. They also claimed that Mr. Nath spoke with Congress leader Rahul Gandhi over the phone. On February 20, Mr. Nath also virtually attended a party meeting in Bhopal on preparations for Mr. Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Nyay Yatra.

Mr. Nath’s association with the Gandhi family goes back to his time at The Doon School, Dehradun, where he forged a friendship with Indira Gandhi’s younger son, the late Sanjay Gandhi, who later got him into politics.

In 1968, Mr. Nath joined the Indian Youth Congress and he later became a part of Sanjay Gandhi’s inner circle. Old records and senior political observers recall that Mr. Nath was one of Sanjay Gandhi’s few confidants who were handling things during the Emergency from 1975-77.

In 1979, it is said, during the Janata Party government when Sanjay Gandhi was sent to jail in a case and Indira Gandhi was worried about her son’s safety, Mr. Nath “deliberately argued” wit0h a judge and went to jail for about a week and stayed with his friend.

It is believed that he was rewarded for his friendship with Sanjay Gandhi when he was sent to Chhindwara to save one of the Congress’ bastions in the State.

Sanjay Gandhi passed away in June 1980, and Indira Gandhi was killed in October 1984, but Mr. Nath’s association with the Gandhi family continued. He is said to be among the very few Congressmen who have a “direct access to Sonia Gandhi”.

Even amid the speculations on his leaving the party, a senior Congress leader in Bhopal had told The Hindu, “It’s not as much about the Congress as it is about the [Gandhi] family. Even if he is upset about something, he does not need to put any kind of pressure on the leadership when he can directly go and talk to Sonia ji.

“As much as I know him (Mr. Nath), there is no way he will leave the Congress,” the leader had added.

Born in Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh and brought up in Kolkata, Mr. Nath does not have any roots in Madhya Pradesh but over the years, Chhindwara has become synonymous to his name and family.

Once a lesser-known tribal dominated district, Chhindwara today resembles any tier-2 city with its large car showrooms, multi-specialty hospitals, air-conditioned restaurants, branded stores, any various industries. The much talked about ‘Chhindwara model’ can be seen as one enters the district.

Mr. Nath has also held many portfolios in various Congress-led governments at the Centre, including the Textile Minister from 1995-96 in former PM P. V. Narasimha Rao’s government, Commerce and Industries Minister from 2004-09 in UPA 1, and Road Transport and Highways Minister from 2009-11, Urban Development Minister from 2011-12 and Parliamentary Affairs Minister from 2012-14 in UPA 2 under former PM Manmohan Singh. He was also the Congress’ national general secretary from 2001-04.

Road to victory

Despite being an MP from the State, Mr. Nath was only little active in Madhya Pradesh’s politics until April 2018 when he was made the Pradesh Congress Committee president, just months before the Assembly elections.

He is credited to have micro-managed the party’s poll campaign, its media management, and bringing the various regional leaders like Mr. Singh, Jyotiraditya Scindia, Arun Yadav and Ajay Singh together to present a united front against the BJP, which had defeated the Congress in the last three State polls.

With Mr. Nath leading the party, the Congress emerged as the single largest party with 114 seats, two short of majority, and formed the government with the support of the Bahujan Samaj Party, Samajwadi Party and the independents.

Mr. Nath was chosen as the Chief Minister, despite opposition from the likes of Jyotiraditya Scindia, who reportedly was seeking the top post for himself. The government, however, was short-lived with Mr. Scindia leading a rebellion with 22 MLAs in March, 2020, and bringing the BJP back to power. The Congress leadership again posed its complete faith in Mr. Nath for the 2023 Assembly polls. This time, despite a major anti-incumbency wave, the Congress suffered a massive defeat and was reduced to 66 seats. The BJP steered back to power with 163 seats.

Congress leaders and observers say that almost everything that went in the party’s favour in 2018 backfired as Mr. Nath was “too insecure after Mr. Scindia’s rebellion”. Mr. Nath again micro-managed the campaign and had an upper hand in ticket distribution to avoid a repeat of 2020. He also remained unapologetically vocal about his Hindu credentials throughout the campaign.

Days after the poll result on December 3, 2023, even though he had not been given any such indication, the Congress high-command removed Mr. Nath from the PCC chief’s post, replacing him with younger Jitu Patwari. He was also blamed for the debacle at a Congress Working Committee (CWC) meet. The moves and responses were said to have upset Mr. Nath with a State BJP insider claiming that the ruling party had been in touch with the former CM ever since.

Alok Sharma, a Congress spokesperson, during a TV interview even went on allege that Mr. Nath might have had an “understanding” with the BJP during the polls.

The speculations that began there went on to give nightmares to the Congress which is already dealing with an ongoing rout of its leaders in Madhya Pradesh and in other States. The party would have hoped to not lose two former CMs, the first one being Ashok Chavan in Maharashtra, to the BJP in such a short time.

While it is unclear what role he will be given in the Congress in future, the buzz around Mr. Nath’s exit appears to have settled now with him scheduled to join Rahul Gandhi’s Yatra which will enter the State on March 2. A news which the State Congress leaders have been constantly publicising.

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