The contrast could not be more stark. Outgoing Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Chouhan, who led the state for three consecutive terms, endeared himself to the electorate because he was seen to be a son of the soil, both accessible and humble.
On the other hand, veteran Congress leader and nine-time MP from Chhindwara, 72-year-old Kamal Nath is not exactly a people’s person. A bundle of nervous energy, the gum-chewing Nath is impossible to pin down. He employs corporate-style management techniques and is an excellent time manager, which has earned him the reputation of being an efficient administrator, a doer and a go-getter.
During his long innings in politics, his ministerial responsibilities have taken him across the world where he rubbed shoulders with important international leaders and made powerful friends. Little wonder then that a former minister, who was his junior in the commerce ministry, had once joked, “He is global while I am local.”
As he was appointed chief minister of Madhya Pradesh on Thursday night, there is some concern in Congress circles about how the international jet-setting Kamal Nath, who is hard to put down in a city or a country, will perform in his new role on a much smaller stage before a very different audience.
However, the party hopes that his inaccessibility will be compensated by his energy and legendary administrative skills as well as his ability to draw out the best from his colleagues and officials. As someone who believes in delegating responsibilities, it can be expected that he will outsource the task of dealing with party workers and the public at large to former chief minister Digvijaya Singh, who affectionately calls him “bada bhai” or big brother.
MP from Chhindwara
Though unsure about how he will fare, Nath’s colleagues are quick to point to the development work he has undertaken in Chhindwara, a tribal constituency, and depend on him to replicate the same model across the state. Nath’s obsession with his constituency is well-known. In the midst of his globe-trotting and high-flying ministerial meets, he never once lost sight of Chhindwara. He has set up an extensive establishment whose sole job is to look after the needs of the constituency, whether it is the airlifting of an ailing child, development of roads or setting up industries. He lords over the place like a virtual king, living in a plush bungalow with its own airfield, ensuring that his copy of The International Herald Tribune is flown in whenever he is in Chhindwara.
Nath exercises complete control over his constituency. When Digvijaya Singh was chief minister of undivided Madhya Pradesh (1993-2003), he would often remark jokingly that Chhindwara remained outside his purview. In 2004, when the BJP fielded a strong candidate against him, Nath only response was: “Please tell the candidate not to waste his money. He should realise every jeep owner in the constituency is known to me.”
The son of a businessman, Nath was brought into politics by Sanjay Gandhi, his Doon School classmate. It was Sanjay Gandhi who persuaded him to contest the Lok Sabha election in 1980 from Chhindwara. It is a reflection of his staying power that Nath lost no time in aligning himself with Rajiv Gandhi when he took over as prime minister in 1984. Nath also went on to hold important positions in the Congress after Sonia Gandhi took charge as party president in 1998. He has been a Gandhi family loyalist but never joined the ranks of supplicants.
Nath was inducted as a Union minister for the first time in 1991, in Narasimha Rao’s government. It was then as environment minister that he demonstrated his grasp over contentious issues when he got worldwide accolades as a chief spokesperson for developing countries at the 1992 Earth Summit at Rio de Janeiro. Given his experience and track record, he was considered a natural choice for a ministerial post when the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance came to power at the Centre in 2004. He was given charge of the commerce ministry where he earned recognition for his tough talking during the World Trade Organisation negotiations in 2009.
Political management skills
Kamal Nath has, over the years, evolved into a quintessential Congressman who has perfected the art of dispensing patronage. Like Digvijaya Singh, he also believes in “keeping his friends close but his enemies closer”. He has forged ties with leaders from across the political spectrum, including Bahujan Samaj Party chief Mayawati and Trinamool Congress leader Mamata Banerjee. The fact that he grew up in Kolkata, where his family has extensive business interests in electronics, aviation and the hospitality sector, and speaks fluent Bangla, helped him bond both with Banerjee as well as the Left. It was for this reason that he was given charge of the Parliamentary Affairs ministry in 2008. His political management skills came in handy in 2012 during a crucial debate on Foreign Direct Investment in Retail, which was being blocked by the entire Opposition. The government survived the vote as Nath persuaded arch rivals, the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party, not to go with the rest of the Opposition.
Nath’s rapport with Opposition leaders also ensured that Bills piloted by him did not run into trouble in Parliament. When a Bill was stuck in the Lok Sabha during his stint as Union Minister for Road Transport and Highways, he invited all MPs from Madhya Pradesh to his office for a discussion on pending road projects in their constituencies. He laid out the red carpet for them and was at the gate to receive BJP leader Sushma Swaraj, an MP from Madhya Pradesh. He lost no time in clearing pending projects in her constituency Vidisha. In return, Swaraj ensured the passage of his Bill. When a Bahujan Samaj Party MP wanted to challenge Nath’s decision to extend the lease of the Delhi Golf Club, he was stopped from going to court by Mayawati.
However, Kamal Nath has also had his share of controversies. When he helped lift a ban on the export of non-basmati rice as commerce minister, it was alleged that Public Sector Units outsourced the job to private companies for big profits. In 2009, he was moved out from the commerce ministry. In 2010, he also figured in the infamous Radia tapes – which blew the lid off the 2G spectrum scandal and opened a window into the backroom dealings that influence party positions and policymaking. He was also indicted by the Nanavati Commission for his role in the 1984 anti-Sikh riots but escaped punishment for lack of evidence. Though Nath insists that he has never been charged by a court, the 1984 riots continue to haunt him. Nath was forced to step down as party general secretary in charge of Punjab two years ago following an uproar by the Sikh community. These protests have been renewed after the Congress decided to appoint him Madhya Pradesh chief minister.