When the Congress chose Kamal Nath to head its Madhya Pradesh unit two months ago, his appointment was met with all-round approval in the party. It was felt that his organisational acumen would help contain factionalism in the state Congress and strengthen it enough to dethrone Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s Bharatiya Janata Party government in the Assembly election later this year.

The enthusiasm of the party’s cadre and the show of unity on display in Bhopal the day Kamal Nath took charge in May indicated the optimism wasn’t misplaced.

Two months later, however, the excitement has waned and cracks have resurfaced in the state Congress. It is becoming increasingly evident that Nath is gradually ceding authority to the old warhorse and former Chief Minister Digvijaya Singh. Indeed, senior party officials claim Nath is now only a “mukhota”, or mask, and Singh is running the show. “Digvijaya Singh is essentially the proxy leader,” said a Congress leader from Madhya Pradesh who asked not to be named. “Kamal Nath is going by what he says.”

By way of an example, the state leader pointed out that as head of the party’s coordination committee for the Assembly election, Singh constituted similar committees in every district, and then packed them with his loyalists. Nath accepted this without question. In fact, the leader added, it is an open secret in Madhya Pradesh that Singh calls the shots when it comes to planning and appointments.

Asked about this state of affairs, Congress leaders said the leadership of the coordination committee should have been entrusted to a neutral person, not a “player” in the state’s politics like Singh. They said several state leaders are growing wary of Singh’s game plan, and the disagreements could boil over when the party picks candidates for the election. Singh, his rivals fear, will likely use his influence over Nath to get a lion’s share of the tickets for his loyalists.

That could prove disastrous for the party, which is in pole position to unseat a BJP government grappling with anti-incumbency and fatigue among cadres after 15 years in power. His rivals claim it would wreck the Congress’ chances if word gets out that Singh and not Nath is controlling the party. Though it is 15 years since he was voted out as chief minister in 2003, they claim, Madhya Pradesh’s people are not willing to have Singh back in the saddle.

Power behind the throne

On his part, Singh has worked hard to connect with the voters ahead of the election, undertaking a six-month-long Narmada Yatra, which ended earlier this year, to listen to their concerns. The tour drew sizeable crowds, leading many to believe that he had succeeded in his effort and that the voters were warming up to him.

But a state Congress leader rejected the suggestions. “The people were willing to accept Digivijaya Singh as a pilgrim and a devout Hindu, but not in his role as a politician,” he said.

As chief of the coordination committee, Singh has now launched an “ekta yatra”, with the avowed aim of uniting the faction-ridden party in the state and energising workers to take on the BJP. Singh has publicly declared that he is not a contender for the chief minister’s post but many leaders seem wary that he could end up being the power behind the throne if the party wins the election.

Nath’s dependence on Singh is understandable. He is beholden to Singh for getting him his job ahead of former Union minister Jyotiraditya Scindia, thus making the veteran leader the frontrunner for the chief minister’s post. Singh lobbied the Congress leadership to appoint Nath and party chief Rahul Gandhi gave in once it became clear the former chief minister would not hesitate to sabotage the election if the party went with Scindia rather than Nath.

Nath has his limitations. He’s not known to be a mass leader; his influence in the state is largely confined to areas around his parliamentary constituency of Chhindwara, which he is now representing for the record ninth term. Unlike Singh, who is regularly in Madhya Pradesh and remains in touch with party workers even 15 years after his defeat, Nath was not a regular visitor to his home state until he was put in the saddle. Consequently, his connect with Congress workers is quite limited. Moreover, he is not a great orator and, at 71, his age is also against him.

Though faced with an increasingly restive electorate, the BJP is hoping to exploit these chinks in the Congress’ armour to stay in power for a record fourth term.