First, it was former Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister and senior Congress leader Digvijaya Singh who proceeded on a six-month, ostensibly non-political, Narmada padyatra. The yatra concluded on April 9. Then, on April 13, Congress MP from Chhindwara Kamal Nath took a helicopter ride to seek the blessings of Shankaracharya Swami Swaroopanand Saraswati. Soon after, his party colleague and former Union minister Jyotiraditya Scindia also dropped in at the shankaracharya’s ashram in the state for a darshan.

With Madhya Pradesh headed for Assembly elections later this year, political leaders are going out of their way to visit temples and ashrams to seek the benedictions of swamis and mahants. The frequency of these visits is likely to increase in the run-up to polls, given the influence wielded by these religious leaders. This, despite the controversy surrounding religious leaders like Asaram and Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, both convicted of rape in the last nine months.

The temple vists and darshan also cut across party lines. Earlier this month, Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan of the Bharatiya Janata Party rushed to placate five mahants by granting them the status of minister of state, after they threatened a 45-day yatra alleging corruption in the government’s plan to plant saplings along the Narmada river. The religious leaders called off their campaign following Chouhan’s offer.

This mix of religion and politics is not a new phenomenon but politicians no longer shy away from publicising their visits to temples and religious leaders. This was evident when Congress president Rahul Gandhi went temple-hopping during his campaign for the Gujarat elections that were held in December. Similarly, politicians of all hues have made it a point to visit the various mutts, associated with various castes, in Karnataka, which goes to polls on May 12.

Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan with Namdeo Das Tyagi, or Computer Baba – one of five religious leaders who have been granted minister of state status. (Credit: Raj Patidar)

Race to be CM candidate

Though such visits have become routine, Kamal Nath and Jyotiraditya Scindia have a special reason to seek the blessings of influential religious heads in their home state. Both are lobbying to be projected as the Congress’ chief ministerial face in the year-end polls but no decision has been made by Rahul Gandhi. With a little over six months to go for the elections, there is an air of desperation in both camps as supporters of the two leaders mount increasing pressure on the leadership to put an end to the suspense.

While the official word is still awaited, speculation is rife that 71-year-old Nath may be the favoured one in view of his seniority and managerial skills. This follows Nath’s meeting with Rahul Gandhi, who is learnt to have told the senior leader that he would soon take a view on the leadership issue.

The Congress chief is wary of naming a chief ministerial candidate in Madhya Pradesh in view of the never-ending factional feuds in the party unit there. It is feared that this infighting will intensify if a face is projected, as his rivals in the party will work overtime to sabotage his election. Even Digvijaya Singh, who is known to be backing Nath for the top post, told this month that projecting a chief ministerial candidate can prove to be a “double-edged weapon”.

Nevertheless, the overwhelming view in the Madhya Pradesh Congress is that the party would be at a distinct disadvantage in challenging the three-term Shivraj Singh Chouhan government if it does not project a chief ministerial candidate. State leaders maintain this election is their best chance to show Chouhan the door, given the growing anger among people, especially in the rural areas, against his government. The Congress should, therefore, not fritter away this opportunity.

“Time is running out… the party must name someone at the earliest,” said a senior Congress leader from the state.

Despite the urgency in the state unit, Rahul Gandhi has a difficult task at hand. This is because the influence of the two main contenders does not extend across the state. While Nath has a strong presence in the Chhindwara belt, Scindia’s clout is limited to areas around his Lok Sabha constituency Guna. One leader who does have a state-wide presence – Digvijaya Singh – has publicly declared that he is not in the race for the chief minister’s post. Instead, he is lobbying furiously for Nath and planning another padyatra (this time a political one) in the run-up to polls with the ostensible aim of unifying the various regions and working for the party’s electoral victory.

Digvijaya Singh (right) has announced that he is not in the race to be the Congress' chief ministerial face and has backed Kamal Nath for the job. (Credit: @DigvijayaSinghOfficial / Facebook)

The Digvijaya Singh factor

However, there is a sub-text to Singh’s plans. Having reconnected with the public during his six-month Narmada yatra and re-established his credentials as a mass leader, Singh wants to send out a message to the Congress leadership that it cannot afford to ignore him, given his clout with the people and with party workers.

Singh maintains he does not wish to return to Madhya Pradesh politics, even though the 10 years of his self-imposed exile following his defeat in the 2003 elections are long over. But this does not mean that Singh wants to bow out completely. The wily Thakur leader wishes to remain a factor in Madhya Pradesh and he certainly does not want to relinquish the remote control over his home state.

As the three leaders – Scindia, Nath and Singh – plot and plan, it is now over to Rahul Gandhi, who continues to elude them.