Scindia’s Saffron Gamble
On March 10, his father Madhavrao Scindia’s 75th birth anniversary, Jyotiraditya Scindia posted on Twitter a letter addressed to Congress president Sonia Gandhi, announcing his resignation from the party he had been associated with for 18 years. While his frustration at being denied the post of Pradesh Congress Committee (PCC) chief in Madhya Pradesh and receiving no assurance of a Rajya Sabha berth may be the immediate trigger behind Scindia jumping ship to the BJP, the Gwalior royal’s disenchantment with the Congress had begun in 2018, in the run-up to the MP assembly election.
Sources say Scindia wanted to be projected as the chief ministerial candidate or be made PCC chief, but the Congress central leadership — then president Rahul Gandhi and mother Sonia — remained non-committal. Six months before the election, the Congress made Kamal Nath — whose relations with Scindia are considered frosty at best — the PCC chief in MP. As a consolation, Scindia was made chairman of the party’s campaign committee, keeping him hopeful of being in contention for the top post. “When the high command decided to appoint a new PCC chief for MP ahead of the assembly poll, Scindia was not ready to take up the challenge, as he felt it was too late to make preparations. Nath took up the challenge and was rewarded,” says a Congress Rajya Sabha MP, on condition of anonymity.
For Scindia, Rahul’s decision to make Nath the chief minister came as a blow. He felt betrayed not only because he had always stood by Rahul but also because the Congress’s success in the Gwalior-Chambal region, which he represents, was instrumental in the party coming to power in MP after a gap of 15 years. Of the 34 seats in the Gwalior-Chambal region, the Congress won 26.
Not that Scindia was denied his share of rewards. Nath inducted eight of his loyalists in his cabinet — a handsome number considering that the Scindia camp had 25 MLAs among the 114 Congress lawmakers. He was also given a free hand in administrative matters in Gwalior and Chambal. Officials in the Nath administration claim the collectors and police superintendents of almost all districts in the two regions were changed as per Scindia’s wishes.
These measures fell short of Scindia’s expectations. His aides say that under Chief Minister Nath, their leader was systematically sidelined in the state Congress. Several Scindia loyalists, they claim, were denied ministerial berths, and the few lucky ones who made it faced resistance within the government. Scindia not only saw his party- and constituency-related requests being ignored, there was even the threat of some loyalists, who had not been made ministers, joining the Nath camp. That Congress heavyweight Digvijaya Singh allegedly joined forces with Nath against Scindia only heightened tensions. “The two leaders did not leave any opportunity to slight Jyotiraditya, within the party and in public, even as the Congress high command turned a blind eye,” claims a close Scindia aide.
A Congress Working Committee (CWC) member, however, dismisses Scindia’s aspirations for the chief ministerial chair as “disproportionate ambition”. “Only eight of the 114 Congress MLAs wanted Scindia to be chief minister while 96 supported Nath,” he says. “How could the high command have ignored the wishes of elected legislators?”
Ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha election, the Congress leadership tried to placate Scindia by appointing him as the All India Congress Committee (AICC) general secretary in charge of western Uttar Pradesh. Priyanka Gandhi was made eastern UP in-charge. Both leaders, however, failed to deliver, and Rae Bareli (Sonia Gandhi) became the lone seat in the Congress’s kitty.
The Scindia camp believes the electoral responsibility in UP came at a heavy cost as he lost from his Lok Sabha seat of Guna, in MP, by around 125,000 votes. The defeat was all the more painful as it came at the hands of the BJP’s Krishna Pal Singh Yadav, a political lightweight and one-time Scindia associate.
As Rahul stepped down in the aftermath of the Congress’s rout in the Lok Sabha poll, young leaders like Scindia saw an opportunity to rise to prominent national roles within the party. While Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh rooted for a young Congress president to replace Rahul, Milind Deora favoured Scindia or Sachin Pilot for the post. Three months on, however, the Congress old guard succeeded in getting Sonia back at the helm, further diminishing Scindia’s hopes of replacing Nath as state PCC chief. Digvijaya, however, claims he and Nath had always been open to appointing Scindia as PCC chief and even making him deputy chief minister of MP.
A cornered Scindia began gauging his political capital. He toured parts of MP and even had several showdowns with the state government. In February this year, tensions between Nath and Scindia spilled out into the open during a party meeting in New Delhi. Scindia walked out of the meeting after a tiff with the chief minister. He soon hit back, demanding an immediate waiver of farmer loans, as promised by the Congress in its assembly election manifesto. “If the Congress makes a promise, it fulfils it. Otherwise, we will have to take to the streets,” Scindia told mediapersons on February 15, prompting Nath to dare him to follow through.
THE LAST STRAW
The forthcoming Rajya Sabha election was the final nail in the coffin. Three seats in MP were falling vacant in April and the Congress had the numbers to win two. Scindia was angling for a berth, but his aides say Nath and Digvijaya were blocking it. Digvijaya, though, denies the allegation.
Trouble first erupted on March 2, with Digvijaya claiming that BJP MLA Bhupendra Singh had flown BSP MLA Rambai to Delhi. The same evening, Congress ministers Jaivardhan Singh and Jitu Patwari ‘rescued’ Rambai from a resort in Manesar, Haryana. Digvijaya claimed three other MLAs were also found at the resort, escorted by BJP leaders, and a ‘timely intervention’ had saved the day.
On March 8, two days before he quit the Congress, Scindia sought a meeting with Sonia, presumably to put forward his demand and air his grievances, but was refused an appointment. It was the end of the road for him in the Congress. Scindia, though, was prepared for such a scenario. The next day, 17 Congress MLAs from MP, including six ministers, belonging to the Scindia camp were packed off to BJP-ruled Karnataka. Two more lawmakers joined in. On March 10, the group, along with three more MLAs, sent their resignations to the assembly speaker, pushing the Nath government to the brink. Before the split, the Congress had 114 MLAs in the 230-member MP assembly (the effective strength of the assembly, however, is 228 as two seats are vacant). The BJP has 107 MLAs. The Congress crossed the simple majority mark of 115 with the support of the two Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) MLAs, the lone Samajwadi Party (SP) lawmaker and four independents. The 22 resignations will bring down the Congress’s strength to 92, way short of the simple majority of 104 in the reduced assembly size of 206. In which case, the support of the BSP, SP and independents won’t be enough to save the government.
But not the one to give up without a fight, Nath declared he would win back the rebels and prove his majority. His late-night move on March 9 to get all his ministers to resign was aimed at wooing back the rebels, with the door now open for accommodating new faces. With 29 members, including the chief minister, in the cabinet, there is room for six more berths. The Congress also decided to send its flock of 92 MLAs to the safety of Jaipur in Congress-ruled Rajasthan.
While Scindia officially joined the BJP on March 11, the political manoeuvring may be far from over. D.K. Shivakumar, new president of the Congress unit in Karnataka and a troubleshooter in such situations, is learnt to have established contact with the rebel Congress MLAs. It is even being claimed that at least half the MLAs have said that while being Scindia loyalists, they did not intend to go against their party. Anticipating counter-moves by Nath and Digvijaya, the BJP has moved its MLAs to Gurugram to rule out defections to the Congress. “There will be surprises when the floor test happens, maybe on March 18,” Digvijaya has said.
HOW THE BJP GOT HIM
For over a year now, there has been widespread speculation that Scindia would change sides. His resignation letter, too, indicated as much. “This is the path that had been drawing itself out over the last year,” wrote Scindia. Once the Congress overlooked him for the top post in MP, the BJP got into the act. Sources say Union home minister Amit Shah, then the BJP president, took former MP chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan into confidence and asked Union minister Narendra Singh Tomar and party leader Narottam Mishra to reach out to Scindia. Tomar started parleys through local intermediaries in Gwalior, but Scindia did not show much enthusiasm.
Sources also say that the late Arun Jaitley, with whom the Scindia family shared a close bond, had made overtures to him early last year. Besides being young and articulate, Scindia’s proximity to the Nehru-Gandhis made him a prize catch for the BJP, which wanted to embarrass the Congress first family. Scindia’s father was a friend of Rajiv Gandhi. Scindia is the only Congress leader to have been invited to Rahul’s private dinners hosted abroad. He was often seen dining with Rahul and Priyanka at Delhi’s upmarket restaurants. “Jyotiraditya was an insider for the longest time. His exit is a personal blow to the Nehru-Gandhis,” says a Congress general secretary.
Scindia’s defection should worry the congress in Rajasthan , given the gehlot-pilot turf war
The first indication of Scindia’s dissent came in August 2019 when he supported the Narendra Modi government’s move to abrogate Article 370 and strip Jammu and Kashmir of its special status. He had also removed all references of his association with the Congress in his Twitter account, his profile bio just reading “public servant, cricket enthusiast”. To Rajasthan chief minister Ashok Gehlot, Scindia’s dissent became apparent when he quit as AICC general secretary in July last year. “It has probably never happened before that an AICC general secretary has stepped down. Either the party removes a general secretary or one is not reappointed at the end of one’s tenure,” Gehlot told India Today.
Scindia’s defection should worry Gehlot, who is locked in a bitter turf war with Rajasthan deputy chief minister and state PCC chief Sachin Pilot. The young Pilot was overlooked for the post of chief minister even though he revamped the state Congress unit, paving the way for the party’s victory in the 2018 assembly election. The numbers, however, favour Gehlot. For Pilot or the BJP to destabilise him, it would require 40-odd resignations-a difficult task as things stand.
While the Congress government in MP had been facing turbulence from the start, the BJP, under Shah’s presidentship, had not been proactively working to breach it. One of the reasons, BJP sources said, was the party’s reluctance to have Chouhan back as chief minister. Chouhan’s stock improved when J.P. Nadda took over as BJP president, the sources said. Chouhan launched his plan along with confidants Bhupendra Singh, Arvind Bhadoria and Rampal Singh. Narottam Mishra was roped in for a wider acceptance of the plan. Scindia was approached and the negotiations began.
Two days before he quit the Congress, Scindia sought a meeting with Sonia to air his grievances
Sources close to the Scindia family say that once Jyotiraditya began exploring his options with the BJP, Shubhangini Raje Gaekwad, member of the former royal family of Baroda, helped him open communication channels with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Scindia’s wife Priyadarshini belongs to the Gaekwad royal family. Scindia also sent feelers to Tomar. Sources said that on March 6, at the wedding reception of Nadda’s son in New Delhi, Shah sat down with Tomar, Chouhan and Mishra to discuss Scindia’s induction. Also part of the meeting were Union minister and BJP’s MP in-charge Dharmendra Pradhan, state BJP president Rakesh Singh and party spokesperson Syed Zafar Islam. Scindia was sent a message with two offers — a Rajya Sabha seat or a Union cabinet berth.
The Scindia family has had a history of association with both the Congress and the BJP. Jyotiraditya’s grandmother Vijaya Raje Scindia started her political career as a Congress member and was Lok Sabha MP from Guna. In 1967, she joined the Swatantra Party, and later the Bharatiya Jana Sangh. Madhavrao started his career as a Jana Sangh MP in 1971. He later joined the Congress. Jyotiraditya’s aunts, Vasundhara Raje and Yashodhara Raje, are senior BJP leaders. Yashodhara Raje has described Scindia’s entry into the BJP as the “homecoming of the prodigal grandson”.
A THORNY ROAD AHEAD
Scindia’s political journey with the BJP is fraught with challenges. Several party leaders, including vice-president Prabhat Jha and former MP minister Jaibhan Singh Pawaiya, are bitterly opposed to him. Several of the 22 defected Congress MLAs have nursed intense rivalries with BJP leaders. Their acceptance within the BJP is not expected to be seamless. Another challenge for Scindia will be to get his camp adequately rewarded in their new party.
While Scindia has reportedly been promised a Union cabinet berth, his detractors point towards the BJP’s poor track record of rewarding turncoats — Haryana’s Chaudhary Birender Singh and Assam’s Himanta Biswa Sarma being examples. Both joined the BJP from the Congress. A minister in the first Modi government, Singh was dropped when the BJP returned to power in 2019. Sarma left the Congress after Rahul declined to make him Assam chief minister in place of Tarun Gogoi. Sarma remains a cabinet minister in the BJP government in Assam, a privilege he enjoyed under Gogoi too. He was denied a Lok Sabha ticket in 2019.
What deal Scindia can extract in the BJP remains to be seen. “The BJP may give him a lightweight ministry and, in turn, use him against the Nehru-Gandhis,” says a Congress general secretary. “He can never be the chief minister of MP under the BJP, as they have several homegrown contenders.”
(with Rohit Parihar)