AS HE GAINED in political seniority and experience working with two generations of the Nehru-Gandhi family, Kamal Nath grew into a skilled go-to man for the Congress whose services were relied upon to activate networks, source and manage finances in times of political need for the party and its leadership. It was no surprise that he was rewarded with plum ministerial posts not only in the Narasimha Rao Government of the early 90s, but later in Manmohan Singh’s Cabinet as well. As Commerce Minister, he won praise for his hard-nosed negotiations at the World Trade Organization in defending the interests of Indian farmers.
It was after Pranab Mukherjee’s elevation to the post of President, however, that Nath came into his own. His networking chops and persuasion skills with political friends and rivals as Parliamentary Affairs Minister helped the party win crucial support for a bill allowing Foreign Direct Investment into the multi-brand retail sector. Clinching the backing of BSP leader Mayawati—with whom Nath shared a friendship—in the Upper House in an early morning manoeuvre showed how good a deal-maker he was. Nath had consolidated his place in the party’s inner circle. Then Congress chief Sonia Gandhi was reportedly the only other leader who knew how BSP support was obtained.
Quickly and quietly, Nath stepped into the palpable void left by Mukherjee as the party’s troubleshooter in Parliament, and is said to have done his job by means fair or foul. In Nath’s book, it looks as if the ends always justify the means—an asset in the backrooms of politics.
Among the longest serving Members of Parliament in the country today, Nath has managed to carve out a special place for himself in the saga of the Nehru- Gandhi family’s tryst with power, having been a political player since the time of Indira Gandhi, carrying his career into the phase of Rajiv Gandhi. Nath continues with the party now with Rahul Gandhi, and on December 11th delivered his home state Madhya Pradesh to the Congress president despite an edge-of- the-seat cliffhanger of an election result. How remarkable a feat the Congress win was in a state ruled by the BJP’s stalwart ‘Mama’ Shivraj Singh Chouhan for three successive terms was clear in the wafer-thin margin of victory, despite Nath having giving it his all.
Many in his own party gave Nath little chance to wrest back Madhya Pradesh. Others were certain he would end up as an abysmal failure. Scepticism only grew when Rahul Gandhi summoned the 71-year-old in April this year, just six months before the crucial Assembly polls, to give him a succinct brief: ‘Deliver MP to us.’
Early morning on December 11th, as vote-count leads showed the Congress surge ahead, there were rare and fleeting TV visuals of Jyotiraditya Scindia, Digvijaya Singh (known to have backed Nath in a background Scindia- versus-Nath power tussle) and Nath riding a vehicle together in a potent public show of party unity in MP. Rahul Gandhi desperately needed a win in the last clutch of state polls before the 2019 General Election, and Nath having fulfilled hsi brief means the Congress president looks left with little option but to have him take charge of MP as Chief Minister.
India’s large central state being back in the Congress’ kitty now gives the party a powerful momentum in the run-up to 2019. As a candidate himself, Nath’s electoral appeal has been undiminished even through the years of BJP dominance of the state. He has won the tribal-heavy Chhindwara constituency decade after decade without an ostensible political vote base in the state.
Born in 1946 in Kanpur to a Brahmin family, Nath was a political novice in the 80s when he rose to fame as a chum of Indira Gandhi’s son Sanjay Gandhi. That was a time when slogans like ‘Indira ke doh haath, Sanjay aur Kamal Nath’ (Indira’s two hands, Sanjay and Nath) did the rounds. Unlike other Congressmen of the Indira-Rajiv era, he has survived in the party and proven himself. Despite his image as a rich industrialist, compared to a mass leader like ‘Mamaji’, Nath defeated a long- entrenched BJP leader. Nath was not projected as the official chief ministerial candidate, but whoever assumes that post will have to deal with a strong opposition with nearly as many Assembly seats.