Cover Story: Madhya Pradesh

Poaching for power in Madhya Pradesh

Print edition : March 20, 2021

Jyotiraditya Scindia with Union Home Minister Amit Shah in New Delhi in March 2020, a day after joining the BJP. Photo: PTI

There was perhaps more to it than met the eye in the drama that unfolded in Madhya Pradesh in March 2020 and ended in the unseating of the Kamal Nath government.

On March 10, 2020, amid rising speculation that the Congress in Madhya Pradesh was headed for a split, Jyotiraditya Scindia announced on social media his decision to quit the party. On that day, he tweeted a copy of his resignation letter addressed to the interim party president Sonia Gandhi, dated March 9. His 22 loyalists followed suit, turning the Kamal Nath-led government in the State into a minority.

The former Member of Parliament from Guna was to eventually join the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) along with his supporters. His resignation letter explained the reasons for his parting ways with the Congress thus: “While my aim and purpose remain the same as it has always been from the very beginning, to serve the people of my State and country, I believe I am unable to do this anymore with this party.” A Scindia aide told this reporter: “We won on a loan waiver promise to farmers. But we failed to do so within 10 days. It has been over a year since we assumed power, but we have reneged on our manifesto agendas.” Sonia Gandhi responded by “expelling” him from the Congress.

In the days that followed, it became evident that the entire plot to destabilise the Congress government in Madhya Pradesh, a State that the BJP lost to the Congress in December 2018 after three successive terms in office, was hatched with the blessings and participation of the saffron party’s top leadership. It might even have been in the making for at least a year.

Also read: BJP’s brazen ventures to topple democratically elected governments in the name of Operation Lotus makes a mockery of democracy

By the time Scindia tendered his resignation, 22 Congress MLAs had moved to a secluded haven in Bengaluru in BJP-ruled Karnataka. On March 18, senior Congress leaders Digvijaya Singh and Shivakumar tried to meet the 22 MLAs, but they were not allowed to meet them. Addressing the media shortly afterwards, Digvijaya Singh claimed the MLAs were being kept hostage. “BJP MLA Arvind Bhadoriya and an MP are holding them captive. Why can’t I meet my MLAs, my voters [for the Rajya Sabha election], my own party people? What is the BJP doing in between?” he asked.

In line with the pattern witnessed in the BJP’s toppling games, Madhya Pradesh Governor Lalji Tandon appeared to act in haste in favour of the saffron party. In a late-night correspondence on March 14, he asked Kamal Nath to prove his government’s majority in the Assembly. By this time, the strength of the ruling Congress had reduced from 114 to 108 because the Speaker had accepted the resignations of six of the 22 MLAs.

Even as the Congress made all-out efforts to win back the defectors, the BJP filed a petition in the Supreme Court demanding a floor test at the earliest. The Congress argued in court that “the floor test can happen only when all the elected lawmakers are present in the Assembly”. It also said that a trust vote could be held only after byelections to the constituencies falling vacant were held. Madhya Pradesh Legislative Assembly speaker Narmada Prajapati adjourned the Assembly’s budget session, which had been scheduled to commence on March 16, until March 26, citing the COVID-19 outbreak. But that would hardly bring any succour for the Congress. The Supreme Court ordered the floor test on March 20, stating that it could appoint an observer who would visit the defectors in Bengaluru and arrange for their interaction with the Madhya Pradesh Speaker through a video conference.

Also read: Madhya Pradesh: Losing trust

The battle for survival was over for Kamal Nath and his colleagues. He submitted his resignation to Governor Lalji Tandon around 1 p.m. on March 20, an hour before the trust vote was scheduled to be held in the Assembly. Though factionalism in the Congress is a reality and political observers tend to agree that Scindia may have been sidelined in the State Congress, as his supporters claim, the BJP’s complicity is suspected widely. Frontline has learnt from informed sources that the BJP started making overtures to Scindia soon after the Congress’ comprehensive defeat in the May 2019 general election. In that election, Scindia lost more than his family bastion of Guna, a constituency that had elected him for four consecutive terms in the past. (He lost it to former aide Krishna Pal Singh Yadav by over 1,25,000 votes.) He also lost the 27, Safdarjung Road bungalow in Lutyens’ Delhi, which had been his home for decades and to which he is believed to be emotionally attached. It was earlier allotted to his father, Madhavrao Scindia, before it came to him as an MP.

In July 2019, the Union government declined his request to be allowed to retain the bungalow. Sources from the Scindia camp and the Digvijaya Singh-Kamal Nath camp separately confirmed to this reporter that former Finance Minister Arun Jaitley reached out to Jyotiraditya Scindia sometime between May and July 2019. The rewards offered were a Cabinet berth for Jyotiraditya Scindia, plum postings for MLAs loyal to him in Madhya Pradesh, and the bungalow. More than two rounds of parleys were reportedly held between Scindia and Jaitley regarding his future role and position within the BJP before Jaitley’s death interrupted the process.

While communication between the BJP and the Scindia scion continued, the latter’s rift with Kamal Nath was increasingly assuming irreconcilable proportions. The Scindia camp maintains that though Jyotiraditya Scindia contributed significantly to the Congress’ victory in the December 2018 Assembly election, Digvijaya Singh called the shots in bureaucratic postings and in the nomination of party functionaries.

Operation Lotus, as the BJP’s poaching game is often labelled in the media, was renewed in early March 2020 when a senior State leader of the BJP was said to have flown out eight MLAs of the Congress and its allies to a hotel in Gurugram. But the Congress was able to thwart the plan. According to Congress sources, four of the eight were Congress MLAs, one was an independent, and the rest were from the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Samajwadi Party. Kamal Nath was quick to claim that his government was immune to attempts at engineering defections. “We have full faith in all our MLAs, we have no doubt about their integrity and honesty. The truth of this black money earned from corruption and scams has been revealed and all BJP’s conspiracies will fall flat on their face,” he said.

Also read: Madhya Pradesh: Power games amid pandemic

Jyotiraditya Scindia appeared to be on the same page as Kamal Nath. “This is 100 per cent an attempt to poach [MLAs]. We are united and our government is stable. We have counted the numbers and there is no threat to the government,” Scindia said as he joined Kamal Nath in lambasting the BJP’s attempt to usurp power in the State.

However, in about a week’s time, Scindia would take a U-turn and bring down the curtains on the Kamal Nath government. According to one reading of the development, the final estrangement was triggered by the last-minute denial of a Rajya Sabha berth. The Congress in Madhya Pradesh was hopeful of winning two of the three Rajya Sabha seats for which elections were scheduled. One seat was reportedly reserved for Deepak Saxena, who vacated his Chhindwara Legislative Assembly seat for Kamal Nath after he became Chief Minister in December 2018. Scindia was apparently sure of securing the other. Digvijaya Singh’s emergence as a strong contender for it is said to have eventually prompted his exit.

Congress sources contend that Scindia’s departure was motivated by pure political opportunism, fuelled by the BJP’s constant overtures to him. A senior Madhya Pradesh Congress Committee functionary, who requested not to be named, said Scindia had made up his mind to join the BJP as early as November 2019. He claimed that the BJP’s central leadership was only delaying the move to time it with Rahul Gandhi’s resumption of his role as Congress president, whenever that happened, in order to score a point against his leadership abilities. “We have incontrovertible reports that he [Scindia] had alerted his MLAs about a possible defection. We know it for a fact he had told them ‘to make the maximum out of their office’ as they might have to remit it next year [2020],” said the Kamal Nath aide.

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