Mastermind

A Man for All Seasons

Union Commerce & Industry Minister Kamal Nath has always been supremely ambitious. Yet, in nearly three decades of political life, his cherished goals have often floated on a horizon beyond his grasp. And proximity to the Nehru-Gandhis-sometimes real, sometimes fancied-has not always helped.| by Anil Tyagi

In 1980, as a contender for the chief ministership of Madhya Pradesh, he lost out to Arjun Singh. Mrs Gandhi swept the general election and the Madhya Pradesh Assembly polls as well. Three men were chief ministerial candidates-Shiv Bhanu Solanki, Arjun Singh and the young Kamal Nath. Sanjay Gandhi was opposed to Solanki, a tribal leader. So he pooled the Arjun Singh and Kamal Nath votes. And Arjun Singh was picked as CM, leaving Kamal Nath to bide his time.

When Mrs Gandhi died, there was much speculation about Kamal Nath’s future. Rajiv Gandhi wasn’t particularly enamoured of him. But he found his way into the latter’s power coterie.

Yet, if his loyalty to the Nehru-Gandhis has ensured his survival, it has also on occasion pushed him to the brink of annihilation. Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination plonked Kamal Nath at a political crossroads. Rigid ideological divisions appeared within the Congress as PV Narasimha Rao emerged the party’s candidate for prime ministership.

Many partymen aspired to the post and Kamal Nath was one of them but no one took him seriously. Asked during an interview by a journalist if he would like to be PM, he said, “Why not?” and added that the nation should be led by a young man. The senior leadership was enraged and took him to task. He was left licking his wounds. Kamal Nath then backed Arjun Singh for PM. In the eventuality, it was Narasimha Rao who became the first nondynastic Congress PM.

Narasimha Rao still inducted the young aspirant into his Cabinet as minister for forests and environment. And then the hawala scandal broke, forcing Kamal Nath to give up his parliamentary seat. But he knew he had a firm grip on his constituency, Chhindwara, and made his wife, Alka Nath, contest the vacated seat. She won and became a loyal lieutenant.

When it was time for Kamal Nath to return to the public spotlight, his wife resigned and he contested-only to lose the seat to the former BJP chief minister, Sunderlal Patwa. And, though the public façade of a happy marriage continues, insiders say the couple’s relationship has not been cordial since.

Today, Kamal Nath faces the prospect of losing the constituency he has nurtured-even building a private helipad to fly in and out easily. Under the reorganization of Parliamentary constituencies, Chhindwara might be reserved for tribal candidates. Thirteen per cent of its population is tribal and the Congress’ arch rival, the Mahakaushal Ganatantra Party, a tribal outfit, is bent on reservation. Kamal Nath is lobbying for neighbouring Baitul to be reserved instead, because he is unsure of his chances of survival outside Chhindwara. And, taking recourse to the good old ‘development’ bandwagon, he recently invited leading industrialists for a meeting to discuss investment in Chhindwara.

The ambitious politician has also been an astute businessman. His family’s company, Electric Manufacturing Company, did business with the MP government, irrespective of who was ruling in Bhopal. The firm was sold recently. It also forged his links with Arjun Singh. The latter’s son, Abhimanyu Singh, owns a factory in Bangalore that supplied power equipment to the Nath company.

His political moves have not always fructified. He recently sent a feeler to fellow MP Congressman Digvijay Singh, suggesting that he contest a Rajya Sabha seat from the state. But the Kshatriya felt insulted at this implication that he could only enter Parliament through the “back door”. Worse, he saw it as a ploy by Kamal Nath to curry favour with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh by keeping his foe, Arjun Singh, from being re-elected to the Rajya Sabha.

The former environment minister also received much flak for interfering with the flow of the Beas river in Himachal Pradesh. A family property, Span Motels, that stood on the Beas riverbank would often get flooded when the volume of water increased. A series of constructions was built to divert the river away from the resort. A PIL was filed and Kamal Nath ultimately had to pay extensive damages.

A loner within the party, Kamal Nath knows the value of displaying proximity to 10 Janpath. His house in Chhindwara is full of giant pictures of himself with Sonia Gandhi in postures suggestive of conferring, listening, and confiding. Admittedly, he is close to her political advisor, Ahmed Patel. Of late, says the grapevine, he has set his heart on the finance ministry. But the present incumbent of the post Kamal Nath covets is mounting his own defensive Volley-witness the none too charitable comments on the SEZ issue in the current Economic Survey. So, though he has proved an able minister, it seems he will continue cherishing a dream 10 Janpath is unlikely to be able to fulfil very soon.

Vol 1,Issue 1 | April 2007

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