As the campaign for the Madhya Pradesh assembly election enters its critical phase, the battle lines in the Congress have increasingly become clear: it is Jyotiraditya Scindia vs the combined strength of Kamal Nath, Digvijaya Singh, and Ajay Singh.

The final line-up of candidates decided after intense discussions and acrimonious exchanges show that while each leader managed to get a fair share of the pie, Digvijaya Singh has edged past the others. Though Scindia managed to secure tickets for his 40-odd supporters, he has been effectively checkmated by his more senior and experienced colleagues who have banded together to ensure that the scion of the princely state of Gwalior is not allowed to get the upper hand.

Among them, Digvijaya Singh was at a distinct advantage as he has a loyal following among party workers across all regions of Madhya Pradesh, unlike the others whose influence is confined to a region. The former chief minister has retained his links with the party cadre even though he has been out of power for the last 15 years. He re-established this connect with the Congress rank and file during the six-month Narmada padyatra he undertook earlier this year. It is, therefore,, not surprising that Singh managed to get tickets for as many as 75-odd supporters. And those who did not make the cut have shifted to other parties with Singh’s blessings. While a host of them are contesting on a Samajwadi Party ticket, there are others who have joined the Aam Admi Party while another protégé Premchand Guddu shifted to the Bharatiya Janata Party.

Scindia vs Others

Scindia’s supporters are located largely in the Gwalior, Guna and Ujjain regions which are his areas of influence. But the others managed to poach on his territory. For instance, Scindia was keen that the Gwalior South ticket be given to Sameeksha Gupta but he was unable to have his way and the seat has gone to Pravin Pathak, known to be close to senior Congress leader Suresh Pachauri who has also joined hands with Nath and the others.

Then again Scindia was keen that his loyalist Ghanshyam Singh be fielded from the Datia assembly constituency but the seat was wrested by Digvijaya Singh for his protégé Rajendra Bharati. Scindia’s candidate was eventually accommodated but not in the seat of his choice. Similarly, Scindia wanted a seat in Bhopal for his supporter but it was eventually given to Mahendra Singh Chouhan, who is known to be close to Ajay Singh, late Arjun Singh’s son. Besides securing the inclusion of a large number of his loyalists in the final list, Digvijaya Singh also succeeded in getting tickets for his son Jaivardhan Singh, a sitting MLA, from Raghogarh constituency, and his brother Lakshman Singh, who has been fielded from the Chachoura assembly segment.

The ganging up of the three seniors was evident at the screening committee meetings, which are mandated to prepare the initial list of winnable candidates. Nath and Ajay Singh are members of this committee in their capacity as president of state party unit and the leader of the Congress legislature party, respectively. However, Jyotiraditya Scindia was asked by Congress president Rahul Gandhi to sit in on these meetings though he is not a member of this committee. In return, Nath called in Digvijaya Singh for the discussions. Congress insiders said Scindia’s suggestions were countered by Digvijaya Singh who had done his homework on the background and other details of candidates.

Then there were reports that Scindia and Digvijaya Singh got into a verbal spat over the selection of candidates at a meeting chaired by Rahul Gandhi. Though Singh later denied that there had been any argument with Scindia, Congress president Rahul Gandhi did set up a three-member committee, comprising senior leaders Ahmed Patel, Ashok Gehlot and Veerappa Moily to sort out their differences.

King or kingmaker?

The distribution of tickets for any election is inevitably fraught with tension as leaders vie with each other to corner a bulk of the tickets for their protégés so that they are in a position to call the shots after polls. This battle gets more intense when the party does not declare a chief ministerial candidate before the elections as is the case in Madhya Pradesh. In such a situation, aspirants for the top job push hard for the candidature of their respective supporters to be able to command the loyalty of a maximum number of lawmakers when it is time to pick a leader.

Having got over the first stumbling block, the leaders who fought hard for their supporters, now have the challenging task of ensuring their victory. The numbers will eventually decide who gets the top job. So far the choice is between Nath and Scindia though Rahul Gandhi has been non-committal on this issue each time he is quizzed about the party’s chief ministerial face. “Both our leaders have qualities of their own. Kamal Nath, the Madhya Pradesh Congress president, has vast political experience and Jyotiraditya Scindia, the Congress chief whip in the Lok Sabha, is young and energetic,” Rahul Gandhi told media persons recently.

Both Nath and Scindia have been accompanying the Congress chief on his campaign tours to the poll-bound state. Scindia was said to be sulking after he was passed over for the presidentship of Madhya Pradesh Congress but his constant presence at the Congress president’s programs suggests that he has been suitably placated by Rahul Gandhi. It has also given rise to speculation that Scindia is the leadership’s preferred choice for the chief minister’s post.

This has not gone down well with veteran party leader Digvijaya Singh. Maintaining that he is not in the race for the chief minister’s post, he is known to be backing Nath for the top job and simultaneously striving hard to deny Scindia a shot at power in case Congress succeeds in ousting the three-term Shivraj Singh Chouhan government. He is joined in this effort by Nath and Ajay Singh.

Digvijaya Singh has kept a low profile during the campaign. He has not been spotted at Rahul Gandhi’s programs, has not addressed any major public meeting and has not put out any controversial or embarrassing tweets. Singh has been working behind the scenes, focusing on his job as chairman of the party’s election coordination committee, dealing with rebellion and urging workers to do their best in routing the BJP government.

Several reasons have been cited for Singh’s uncharacteristic conduct. While a section of party insiders maintain he was miffed that Scindia was being given pride of place at Rahul Gandhi’s election rallies, others said Singh was specifically asked to keep low given his reputation of indulging in so-called “minority appeasement”, especially at a time when Rahul Gandhi is on a temple visiting spree to prove his credentials as a devout Hindu. Still others said Singh was being kept out as he had fallen out of favour with Rahul Gandhi.

But having succeeded in getting a lion’s share of the tickets and securing the support of the other senior party leaders, Digvijaya Singh may end up having the last laugh. He may be out of power and out of favour but in case of a Congress victory, he will play a decisive role in the appointment of the party’s chief minister.