The Tightrope Walk

In 1988, Arjun Singh, who had recently been appointed chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, had chosen Kharsia, a constituency in Raigarh district, now in Chhattisgarh, as the assembly segment he would contest the byelection from to gain entry into the House. To ensure that any stalled projects got executed before the election, Singh identified and transferred a team of offi­cers posted in the public health engineering, irrigation and public works departments in Chhindwara to Kharsia. Singh knew the best officers for the job would be in Chhindwara, as its then two-term MP, Kamal Nath, would have handpicked them for his Lok Sabha constituency. Singh went on to defeat Dilip Singh Judeo of the BJP.

Cut to 2018-19, and Kamal Nath, the newly appointed chief minister of MP, now faces the onerous task of handpicking a team for his state. In his maiden foray into state politics, not only does Kamal Nath have to rise to the challenges on the administrative side, keeping in view the tall promises in the Congress manifesto, but also deliver for the party on the political front, with the Lok Sabha election a few months away. What exactly are these challenges and how is the new CM squaring up to them?

First up, the political difficulties. Having won only 114 seats on its own and enlisting the support of four erstwhile Congress rebels who contested as Independents and won, along with one SP and two BSP MLAs, the government has a slender majority of 121 in the 230-member MP assembly. A former minister in the previous BJP government from the Gwalior region has been in touch with the Independents and a few Congress MLAs to get them to resign, to force byelections that the BJP hopes will see it across the half-way mark. Even though the Congress passed its first test on January 8, securing 120 votes in electing N.P. Prajapati as the Speaker, the going won’t be easy as the BJP, with its 109 MLAs, is likely to demand division on the floor of the House whenever it can.

Cabinet formation and portfolio allocation have proved to be a tough job, with negotiations over allocation of departments taking much longer than usual. And even though it’s now all done, it is not as if everything will be hunky-dory. As CM, Kamal Nath will be working with ministers whose presence in the cabinet has not been decided solely by him.

The BJP holds 26 of the 29 Lok Sabha seats in the state. Key to the Congress 2019 plan is to significantly reduce this number, strategising to win at least 15 seats. It won’t be easy, given that the BJP put up a good fight in the assembly election. But CM Kamal Nath is already on the job, holding discussions on potential candidates for LS polls with a special focus on fielding a maximum number of OBC candidates in general seats. The extent to which Kamal Nath plans elections can be gauged from the fact that potential donors to the party were not pushed beyond a point in the Vidhan Sabha election because the party leadership reckoned their support will be need again in the Lok Sabha election to take on the BJP’s financial muscle.

That apart, this is Kamal Nath’s first stint in state politics. He has immense experience as a central minister, but running a department at the Centre is very different from running a government in a state.

“At the central level, the minister has a secretary and a battery of joint secretaries and directors to work for him; while at the state level, the work force below the level of departmental secretaries is not of the same calibre as at the Centre,” says a senior civil servant. Besides, there are district collectors and a phalanx of babus at the state capital whose work needs to be monitored all the time.

As a central minister, Kamal Nath was seen as result-oriented and known to work through bureaucrats. Babudom in Bhopal seems happy in the hope that they will rule the roost, given that other than the CM and eight out of the 28 ministers, the rest do not have any experience in government. The CM will, therefore, need to monitor many more departments closely, even though he has said that the ministers would be responsible for their own departments, where the buck would stop at them.

Another reason for the bureaucracy’s optimism is that Kamal Nath has not effected major changes by way of transfers and postings. Only those collectors who had been found to be antagonistic towards Congress candidates in the elections, going by the feedback from party leaders, were changed.

“Working in the state often involves getting into the minutiae of things which can be avoided at the Centre,” adds another civil servant who has worked with Kamal Nath in the past. “Kamal Nath never gets into the nitty-gritty of things, something he may have to change soon.”

The CM, however, is very meticulous with detail in his interactions with people. A civil servant who called on him at his office was surprised to find the CM sitting with an Executive Record (ER) sheet, which lists all details of administrative postings. “So what do you think are your strengths and where can they be utilised?” Kamal Nath likes to ask potential recruits, CEO-style. Also, unlike his predecessor Shivraj Singh Chouhan, who always seemed to be in a hurry to go somewhere, Kamal Nath gives undivided attention for the 15-minute slot that he gives people.

What Kamal Nath does share with Chouhan is a reputation for eating frugally and sleeping little. “A CM has to be on his toes all the time and a regular work day is much longer than what it is for a central minister since it involves decision-making on both the political and administrative fronts. For a central minister, the political part is usually taken care of by the PM,” says a senior civil servant, who was formerly in the CM’s secretariat.

On the administrative front, Kamal Nath’s biggest challenge is the successful implementation of the farm loan waiver. “We will honour everything mentioned in the manifesto,” Kamal Nath said the day he was declared chief minister. But the truncating of the list of beneficiaries-keeping out income-tax payers, GST registration holders, government employees, MPs, MLAs, among others-something Chouhan never did while doling out sops to farmers, could create a rift in rural society and hurt the Congress in the Lok Sabha poll. In Chhattisgarh, the waiver is universal.

In any case, the solution is not short-term doles. The farm sector is in general distress, with fragmentation of land holdings and non-remunerative prices driving farmers to suicide. What is needed is investment in agricultural infrastructure and creating an enabling environment for rural workers to shift to the secondary and tertiary sectors.

It is estimated that the wai­ver, which is expected to benefit close to 8 million farmers, will cost the exchequer Rs 56,000 crore. Already, there are doubts about how the Congress government will foot the bill without severe implications for the state economy. The appropriation amount in the state budget in 2018-19 stood at about Rs 2 lakh crore, with the total revenue receipts estima­ted at Rs 1.5 lakh crore. The state’s own tax revenue was estimated to be Rs 55,000 crore this year, which has already seen a downward revision to Rs 45,000 crore. The borrowings by the state government stand atRs 1.9 lakh crore. Further borrowings stand curtailed by the limits imposed under the Fiscal Responsibility and Budget Management Act, 2003.

Several other Congress promises have economic implications: halving farm electricity bills, Rs 4,000 monthly allowance for unemployed youth and reducing fuel and cooking gas prices. The party has also promised Rs 51,000 to girls at the time of marriage and to increase the social security pension from the current Rs 300 every month to Rs 1,000.

Kamal Nath faces challenges on the law and order front as well. According to the Crime India Report 2016 brought out by the National Crime Records Bureau, Madhya Pradesh has the highest incidence of rapes in the country, with 4,882 cases recorded. The state does not have a very good record in preventing atrocities against Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes either. In April 2018, four Dalits were among the six people killed in the violence during a Dalit agitation in northern MP.

Former chief minister Digvijaya Singh performs an interesting role in the form of a mentor to the state government. He acts as a sounding board for Kamal Nath who knows how deep Singh goes into the Congress organisation in the state and utilises his administrative experience on state-level issues. The two go back a long way. In the 10 years that Singh was CM, Nath was a pillar of support for him, especially during the period when Singh’s mentor, the late Arjun Singh, parted ways with the Congress to join the Congress (Tiwari), threatening to destabilise the Congress government in the state. The two have in the past closed ranks to keep other challengers out and this time is expected to be no different.

Already, a couple of decisions by the new government, namely to suspend and then reintroduce the singing of Vande Mataram by employees at the Mantralaya and the suspension of a Rs 25,000 per month pension to MISA (Maintenance of Internal Security Act) detainees of the Emergency era, have generated controversy. The challenge for Kamal Nath is to stick to decisions that have political implications rather than backtrack on them and give the BJP more fodder. Former chief minister Chouhan was quick to react saying, “Decisions are being taken and reversed. It is unclear who is running the government,” in response to the revocation of certain transfer orders.

Another priority is to get the moribund industrial sector going. Job creation too demands immediate attention. The previous BJP government organised a number of investment meets, which saw attendance by top industrial houses and captains of industry, but did not fructify into investments, except for textiles which saw Vardhman and Trident setting up plants in CM Chouhan’s constituency, Budhni. Nath’s experience as commerce minister and in attracting industries to Chhindwara should come in handy.


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