Former Madhya Pradesh chief minister and senior Congress leader Digvijaya Singh has completed an arduous six-month-long, non-political Narmada Padyatra that took him through the interiors of his home state. The yatra came to an end on Monday.

Back in Delhi after this brief break from political activities, Singh claims that he was “an activist before the parikrama but I am more of a statesman now”. He added: “No more tweets.”

This is a far cry from the past few years when the outspoken Congressman constantly courted controversy either with his tweets or his comments, providing his political opponents, chiefly the Bharatiya Janata Party, an easy opportunity to use him as a target to mount an attack against the Congress.

The BJP’s ideological mentor, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, has been equally harsh on the Congress leader for his periodic statements linking the organisation to the Mumbai terror attack in 2008 and condemning its communal agenda.

Besides taking on the BJP, Singh’s remarks have, on several occasions, also ended up embarrassing his own party. For instance, the Congress found itself on the backfoot when Singh demanded a judicial inquiry into the 2008 Batla House gunfight, in which two suspected terrorists were killed, on the plea that this was a fake encounter. Again, the senior leader had to be pulled up by former party president Sonia Gandhi in 2010 when he publicly disagreed with P Chidambaram, who was finance minister at the time, and described him as “intellectually arrogant”.

‘Rahulji will decide my future role’

It is expected that in his new avatar as a statesman, Singh will refrain from making any more contentious comments. However, he showed that he could not help but take an occasional stab at Prime Minister Narendra Modi when he spoke in February of his plans to get back to politics on the completion of his yatra. “I have always been in politics… I am not going to fry pakodas,” he said, referring to Modi’s statement that selling pakodas counted as being employed.

Similarly, Singh remains critical of the BJP, never failing to mention the party’s divisive agenda that, he says, is proving to be highly dangerous for the country. Talking about growing anger among Dalits, Singh said the Modi government had either misread the situation or it was a deliberate attempt to marginalise the Scheduled Castes, given the BJP’s Brahminical mindset.

It is perhaps in keeping with his “statesman-like” approach that Singh refuses to get into a discussion about his future role in the party and whether he intends to return to active politics in his home state, which is headed for Assembly polls at the end of the year. “Rahulji will decide my future role,” Singh said repeatedly, refusing to stray from this script.

Singh is equally circumspect when prodded about the political atmosphere in Madhya Pradesh and whether it is a sound idea for the Congress to project a chief ministerial face in the polls. According to the former chief minister, rural distress and illegal sand mining have severely dented the popularity of Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s BJP government and there is immense anger among the people. “It is now up to the Congress state leadership to channelise this anger in the coming elections,” he said.

As for projecting a chief ministerial face, Singh admitted it was a “double-edged sword” but hastened to add that it was for Congress president Rahul Gandhi to take a final view. What Singh left unsaid was the acknowledged fact that the Madhya Pradesh Congress is a deeply divided house and announcing any one leader would intensify the infighting in the state unit.

There has been growing demand from the party rank and file that the Congress declare a chief ministerial face to effectively challenge Chouhan. It is a toss-up between party MPs Kamal Nath and Jyotiraditya Scindia but the Congress leadership is wary of naming a candidate given the intense factional battles in the state unit. Emphasising “collective leadership”, the undeclared message to all satraps is that they must first deliver in their respective areas of strength before staking claim to the top job.

Digvijaya Singh is no longer part of Rahul Gandhi's charmed circle. (Credit: IANS)
Digvijaya Singh is no longer part of Rahul Gandhi's charmed circle. (Credit: IANS)

All eyes on Madhya Pradesh

Once close to the Congress president, Digvijaya Singh is no longer a member of his charmed circle. In fact, he was stripped of the charge of three states – Karnataka, Goa, and Telangana – after he failed to firm up an alliance with regional parties to form a Congress government in Goa after last year’s Assembly polls.

But Singh displayed no outward signs of disappointment or displeasure after his responsibilities as party general secretary were curtailed to a single state – Andhra Pradesh. In fact, he was quick to underline that he remains unwavering on two count: “I am totally committed to the Congress ideology and in my loyalty to the Nehru-Gandhi family.”

But the big question is whether Singh can be taken at face value. He is a wily politician, who has been a protégé of the late Arjun Singh, a seasoned political player. Singh’s Narmada yatra was essentially an exercise to re-establish his credentials and reconnect with the people who had rejected him in the 2003 Assembly polls. Now that he is back, speculation is rife about his ambition to play a lead role in Madhya Pradesh politics. It is being whispered in Congress circles that Singh prefers Kamal Nath for the chief minister’s post and that he would use his political clout to ensure Scindia does not get the job.