Banishment or masterstroke: How to read Digvijaya Singh’s Narmada Parikrama
Digvijaya Singh's political career appears to have come a full circle. In 2003, he had taken a 10 year sanyas from public office, after being defeated by the Uma Bharti-led BJP in the Madhya Pradesh Assembly elections.
Now he has requested the Congress high command to relieve him of his responsibilities as general secretary as he wants to go one a six month padyatra across parts of Madhya Pradesh and parts of Gujarat. Singh claims that the padyatra is purely spiritual and not political.
The Congress leadership is likely to agree to Singh's request.
"On the advise of my guru, I have decided to undertake a padayatra for performing the Narmada Parikrama this time. It is a strictly spiritual endeavour, something I wanted to perform for a very long time but could not," Singh told the Economic Times.
The question that is being asked in Congress circles: is this a political banishment for Singh or a masterstroke by him?
Is it a punishment?
Some party insiders link Singh's exit to the imminent ascension of Rahul Gandhi as the party president, which according to them, could happen as early as October.
"When Akbar got ready to take over the reins (of the Mughal Empire), Bairam Khan was sent for Haj," jokes a party leader from Rajasthan.
The comparison with Mughal regent Bairam Khan is of course with reference to the period in which Singh functioned as Rahul Gandhi's close advisor in the run-up to the 2012 Uttar Pradesh elections.
But the sidelining of Singh isn’t a recent event. In 2013, he was shifted as general secretary in-charge of Uttar Pradesh and given charge of Andhra Pradesh. He was the in-charge of the state during the crucial period of bifurcation. Congress was subsequently decimated in Telangana and reduced to the status of a marginal player in Seemandhra. However, the blame didn't fall on Singh as the damage had already been done before he took over charge of the state.
Singh's biggest failure however came earlier this year, during the Assembly elections in Goa. Even though the Congress was within striking distance of forming a government in the state, slow response on the part of the Central leadership - mainly Singh and to some extent Rahul Gandhi - helped BJP seal an alliance with Goa Forward and form the government.
Congress sources say that a major reason was Singh's insistence on one particular leader as the Goa CM.
In April, Singh was removed as the in-charge for Goa as well as Karnataka, which is due for polls in 2018. Earlier this week, he was also removed as the in-charge for Telangana, which was supposedly in line with his request to the High Command.
"He figured that he would be dropped as general secretary. His padyatra, therefore, is nothing but a way to avoid a loss of face," said a Congress youth leader.
However, some say that the answer is not that simple.
....or a masterstroke?
Digvijaya Singh is one of the few remaining Congress politicians who has an ear on the ground. Those who have followed his political career say that nothing he says or does is without a reason.
Apparently, Singh's Padyatra is significant in the politics of two states - Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh - and, if successful, it might have national ramifications.
It is well known that the BJP governments in Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh are deeply unpopular but the Congress hasn't been successful in capitalising on it. Given the flooding of the Narmada, the resentment is likely to increase. The time is opportune for a sustained mass contact programme and Singh's Narmada Yatra would be an ideal way to do it without raising a hue and cry.
The Congress is facing a political vacuum in both Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh. Singh is a two-time CM of Madhya Pradesh but also has a foothold in Gujarat as his son-in-law is a Congress leader there.
The MP Congress has been faction-ridden with Singh, Kamal Nath, Jyotiraditya Scindia, Suresh Pachauri, Ajay Singh and Arun Yadav competing for space.
Party insiders say there were plans to project Kamal Nath as a consensus candidate as the Chhindwara MP is said to be broadly acceptable to most factions.
It is said that Singh is not in favour of Scindia.
"The relationship between Singh and the Scindias must be seen historically. The fort will always resent the palace. This is how the feudal system works," the Congress leader from Rajasthan said, referring to the fact that Singh's erstwhile principality Raghogarh fell under the Scindia's Gwalior State.
Though a powerful orator, Jyotiraditya Scindia is said to be an aloof leader with little popularity outside his turf in Guna.
Kamal Nath suffers a similar drawback. Nath is credited with some excellent infrastructure and development work in Chhindwara, which he has represented nine times in the Lok Sabha. But he has never been seen as a state leader.
This leaves the field open for Singh in the run-up to the MP Assembly elections due next year. His yatra will be a nearly 3000 km walk, passing through many parts of Madhya Pradesh and some parts of Gujarat. Singh would also be passing through areas inhabited by Bhil tribals as well as areas where people have been displaced due to the Sardar Sarovar Dam. This has huge potential as a mass contact programme.
By undertaking the Narmada Parikrama, one of the most difficult pilgrimages in Hinduism, Singh is carrying out an important ideological exercise - he would be playing the Hindu card without being communal.
The BJP has for long accused the Congress of being "anti-Hindu". Digvijaya Singh is one of the few Congress leaders who understood this.
Singh's yatra can be seen as a political response to Prime Minister Narendra Modi's active promotion of the Ganga cult. It must be noted that the Narmada holds immense religious significance for Hindus and it is also referred to as Shankari, the daughter of Lord Shiva.
Interestingly, Singh has consistently spoken in favour of a ban on cow slaughter.
"Cow slaughter is banned in 24 states, most of it was imposed by Congress governments," Singh had said in 2015, slamming the BJP for being insincere on the issue.
While being fiercely secular and a firm critic of atrocities against minorities, Singh is also a proud Hindu and is quite open about his religious beliefs.
The six month yatra is certainly a gamble for Singh. It could either throw him into the wilderness – making him irrelevant in MP as well as Delhi. Or it could transform him into the only Congress mass leader in the Hindi heartland after the Gandhis.