After being removed from key posts in the Congress over the past few months and sidelined by the party leadership, former Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Digvijaya Singh is fighting back.

The Congress leader’s 3,300-km Narmada Parikrama across Madhya Pradesh, now in its second month, is making waves among party members. The former Madhya Pradesh chief minister and his wife Amrita Rai have journeyed 10 km-12 km by foot every day, stopping at villages and towns en route to meet with local Congress leaders. Supporters and locals have joined him on sections of his journey, which is expected to last for another four months.

Recognising the political overtones of Singh’s purported spiritual journey, during which he will cover at least 110 Assembly constituencies in his home state, his colleagues in the Madhya Pradesh Congress are worried. This has compelled senior Madhya Pradesh Congress leaders, including Kamal Nath and Jyotiraditya Scindia, to join the yatra.

Singh’s rally comes ahead of Assembly elections in Madhya Pradesh next year. The Congress hopes to unseat the Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan-led Bharatiya Janata Party government, which has held power in the state since 2003.

Remote control

Scindia’s participation is particularly significant as the young leader is hoping to take the reins of the Madhya Pradesh Congress from current President Arun Yadav. This would make him the top choice for the Congress’ chief ministerial candidate. Singh, a two-term Madhya Pradesh chief minister, is not in the running for the position but is batting for Nath. Singh, party insiders said, wants to ensure that one of his loyalists gets the post so that he can ensure that his nominees are placed in positions of power in the state.

Congress insiders believe Singh’s parikrama is aimed at undermining Scindia’s chances of assuming charge of the party’s state unit.

Though Singh had declared that he will not take up any post in Madhya Pradesh for the next 10 years following his humiliating defeat in the 2003 state elections, the senior leader has not distanced himself from party administration in his home state. He has been in constant touch with his network of loyal party workers, remotely controlling state politics, say party officials. “Singh has made it abundantly clear on more than one occasion that the party cannot afford to ignore him,” said a senior Congress leader from Madhya Pradesh.

For instance, when Singh found that his nominees were being ignored in the recent revamp of the Madhya Pradesh Congress, he is said to have called up a senior state leader and said, “You may do what you like, but just remember it is Digvijaya Singh who calls the shots in Madhya Pradesh.”

Growing stronger

State Congress leaders believe that the response to his yatra will embolden Singh further. After his humiliating defeat in the 2003 state elections, where the Congress won a paltry 38 seats of 228 seats, Singh had lost favour in the party as well as among the constituents. This year, he was removed as Congress’ in-charge in Goa and Karnataka and later, Telangana.

But there is a perceptible change in people’s attitude towards him after the yatra. The anger among voters had been strong since 2003 is giving way to a grudging acceptance. Wife Amrita Rai’s presence with the Congress leader on the long trek has also appeased the more conservative voters who had disapproved of his second marriage to the young journalist.

“There was a time when people did not want to even look at Singh but now you find they are actually appreciating his efforts,” a Congress leader said.

His increasing political clout has also drawn family members back to his side. His younger brother, former MP Laxman Singh, and son Jaivardhan Singh, an MLA from Raghogarh, lost no time in joining Singh on the yatra though they had virtually cut off ties with him after his marriage to Amrita Rai. Jaivardhan Singh’s presence at the yatra was clearly a bid to claim his father’s political legacy.

“Digvijaya Singh has succeeded in sending out the message to the party and his family that he cannot be wished away in Madhya Pradesh politics,” said a state party leader.