Inside Fort Scindia

Dipankar Ghose
Kamal Nath, Jyotiraditya Scindia, Madhya Pradesh Crisis, Guna constituency, Gwalior, Indian express news

At Guna, the political battlefield of the Scindias, more than 200 km from Gwalior, a majority of the Congress workers have decided the side they are on.

In Gwalior, the name is inescapable. Atop the Gwalior Fort, looking out at the sprawling city within its walls, its lights twinkling at night, is the Scindia School. On the streets below, there are other schools, lanes, universities, even a shopping arcade, all of which carry the same Scindia. The Congress office is called Madhavrao Scindia Bhavan and is located in a place called Sindh ki Chavni. Over the years, that has got distorted to ‘Scindia ki Chavni’. No one corrects you when you say that; there has never been any point. Yet, there is one building that has staunchly resisted this political legacy — a narrow, three-floor structure, bang in the middle of the city’s ‘Maharaj Bada’, and serving as the city’s BJP headquarters. Named ‘Mukherjee Bhawan’ after Syama Prasad Mookerjee, it was the one building here where the name Scindia was not taken in adulatory tones. Until 2.30 pm on March 11.

Read| Scindia’s move to BJP needs to be seen as the routine task of maximising political gains

Wearing a sharp orange shirt tucked into his trousers, a saffron tika on his forehead, BJP media in-charge of the district Pawan Sen arrived at the office a little before 11.30 am that day. With Scindia scheduled to join the BJP in half-an-hour, Sen fields a constant stream of calls and queries from journalists, repeating what seemed to be the set party line: “It is only good for the BJP that such a big leader is joining us. It shows that in the one year the Congress has been in power, they have done nothing. They have not fulfilled their promises. And Scindiaji has shown he is against this government before. He told Chief Minister Kamal Nath that he would take to the streets if teachers were not regularised. He raised issues of farmers. He even supported the abrogation of Article 370. He may have been with them, but his heart was with us.”

Kamal Nath, Jyotiraditya Scindia, Madhya Pradesh Crisis, Guna constituency, Gwalior, Indian express news

Scindia’s grandmother and a founder member of the BJP, Vijayaraje Scindia’s photograph stands along with other BJP legends at the party office in Gwalior. (Photo: Gajendra Yadav)

To the inevitable follow-up question too, there is a ready answer. Journalists point out that Scindia made numerous speeches against the BJP during his Congress days, including against Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah; said the BJP spread poison; and that it formed governments through the backdoor (an allegation now being levelled in Madhya Pradesh). One mediaperson notes that BJP leaders made statements against Scindia from the press briefing room in the very building Sen is sitting in. Quickly, Sen, a leader in his 30s, who joined the ABVP as a student, leads the journalist to the second floor of Mukherjee Bhavan and switches on the lights. Above a door in a large hall are framed photographs of BJP legends. Right at the centre is Vijayaraje Scindia, Scindia’s grandmother and one of the founder members of the BJP. “In politics, when you are on opposite sides, many things are said,” Sen says, pointing to the bust. “This (Scindia’s entry) is not a shift, this is a homecoming.”

Read| Inside Track: Scindia story

However, underlying this confidence is unsaid uncertainty about the ramifications of the political change. Even as Sen fields questions on his own for two-and-a-half hours, the rest of the rooms in the BJP office are locked and deserted. There is no joyous celebration, no bevy of supporters with posters. One journalist comments, “Lag raha hai BJP mein koi aa nahin raha, BJP se koi jaa raha hai (It seems somebody is leaving the BJP, rather than joining it).”

Explained

Faultlines, uncertainty

on the GROUND, in the Gwalior-Chambal belt, while Jyotiraditya Scindia’s move to the BJP from the Congress marks a seismic shift, there are still faultlines that need ironing out for both parties. The BJP might have to soothe frayed nerves at the karyakarta level, and even though Scindia got a big starry welcome in Bhopal, the Congress worker may not get the same in the BJP. Much of these decisions will also hinge on the future of the Kamal Nath government and whether any rebel MLAs return.

As the live telecast of Scindia arriving at the BJP headquarters in Delhi finally begins, Sen settles down, his eyes trained like a hawk on his smartphone playing the video. He approves of the absence of Amit Shah, noting that with the BJP “a disciplined party”, it is but right that only president J P Nadda is present. “Scindiaji ko yeh seekhna padega (Scindiaji will have to learn this),” he says, in a swipe at the Congress’s apparent and hidden chains of command.

Sen claps when Scindia thanks Nadda, PM Modi and Shah, and then again when he speaks of the ills of the Congress state government. Towards the end, as Scindia gets up from his chair, Sen’s eyes narrow, observing that the royal scion has placed his hand on Nadda’s back. The only office staff who is around articulates what Sen is thinking. “Nadda is president. Scindia should not think they are equals yet,” he says.

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Only hours earlier, at the Madhavrao Scindia Bhavan 2 km away, a smattering of Congress workers sat dejected in a hall, amidst walls covered with the royal family’s photographs, including Scindia’s posters. One has Scindia’s father Madhavrao with Indira Gandhi, and her sons Rajiv and Sanjay. The Scindia posters, from the 2018 Assembly elections, highlight him as the face of the Congress in the family’s stronghold of Gwalior-Chambal belt — one particularly large one says “Congress ka haath, Scindia ke saath”.

Kamal Nath, Jyotiraditya Scindia, Madhya Pradesh Crisis, Guna constituency, Gwalior, Indian express news

In Guna, the flag atop Mahendra Singh Sisodia’s home is changed from Cong’s to BJP’s. A Labour Minister in the Kamal Nath government, Sisodia is a staunch Scindia loyalist and among the 22 ‘rebel’ MLAs. (Photo: Gajendra Yadav)

Most of those in the hall still nurse the hope, small as it may be, that Scindia, or “Maharaj” as they refer to him, will stay back — taking heart from the delay in the BJP’s official announcement. “First they said they would announce it (Scindia’s joining) yesterday. Then at 12:30 pm today. Now it has been pushed further. Maybe...,” says Mahant Singh, trailing off. After a moment, Singh, who has been with the Congress since 1978, adds that there is no question of him leaving the party in Scindia’s wake.

However, this has not been an easy decision, he admits. “The cadre is divided. In this region, Maharaj has always been our leader. We have loved him. But now he has turned his back on us. We were here, in this hall, before he was born and we will die here. But, it is true, not everyone thinks like this. Some have resigned, others have not.”

Hours after Scindia’s defection becomes official in Delhi, a group of Congress workers burn his effigy in front of the office. But, they number “only 20”. A few kilometres away, at a memorial to Madhavrao Scindia, called Scindia ki Chhatri, a relatively larger number collects to sign a register as an act of resignation. Nearby, a guard at the white marble memorial to ‘Rajmata’ Vijayaraje Scindia jokes, “One (memorial) was the BJP’s, one was with the Congress. Now the BJP has both.”

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The images from the two party offices though are not the complete picture. While BJP workers are obviously happy that the Kamal Nath government may finally fall after Scindia’s revolt (many believe the BJP was cheated of power), there is some disquiet within old-timers about what his entry means for them in the region.

Kamal Nath, Jyotiraditya Scindia, Madhya Pradesh Crisis, Guna constituency, Gwalior, Indian express news

At the Madhavrao Scindia Bhavan in Gwalior, hours before the press conference at BJP headquarters in Delhi, a few Congress workers sit dejected, hoping that Jyotiraditya Scindia will stay back; the walls of the office are covered with the royal family’s photographs, including Scindia’s posters. (Photo: Gajendra Yadav)

At his home called Seva Ghar in the city, former Gwalior MP as well as ex-MLA Jai Bhan Pawaiya sits surrounded by a group of supporters. The former president of the Madhya Pradesh Bajrang Dal, Pawaiya has been one of the loudest opponents of the Scindia family here — for their “feudalism”, he says — and is even credited with “sending Madhavrao” to the Guna Lok Sabha seat, from his Gwalior constituency. Jyotiraditya Scindia incidentally lost the Guna seat in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, to former protege K P Yadav, who fought on a BJP ticket.

Choosing his words carefully, Pawaiya tells The Sunday Express, “Ours is a party driven by ideology. Agar (If) Scindiaji has had a change of heart and ideology, then he is welcome. We will then together chant ‘Jai Shri Ram’ and go to Ayodhya. Agar that has happened, then it is good that another karyakarta has joined the party.”

Pawaiya emphasises the ‘agar’, as well as that he is not using the word leader for Scindia. “I am saying karyakarta, not neta,” he tells a reporter.

Outside, a group of BJP leaders are more vocal. “It is okay that he is joining, but why should he be given so much importance?” says one. “He needs us more than we need him. The government would have fallen anyway. What happens to the worker that has spoken against feudalism for so long? Why should these Congress leaders and their supporters be given importance over us? They are not from our ideology.”

Drawing attention to Scindia’s speech at the BJP headquarters, a party leader adds, “I don’t think he believes in Hindutva... He didn’t even mention the Citizenship (Amendment) Act. He only spoke about the ills of the Congress. This is rank opportunism and we have fallen for it. If Scindia’s MLAs are given tickets, will the karyakarta work for them?”

Close by, at the bungalow of Union minister Narendra Singh Tomar too, where there is warmer welcome for Scindia’s entry, a tinge of doubt remains. Points out a Tomar supporter, “Pawaiya’s politics has been built on baiting Scindia... Tomarji has always had a good relationship with Scindiaji. But still. Now at the state level, there is Tomarji, Shivraj Singh Chouhan and Scindia. In Gwalior-Chambal itself, there is Tomarji, Narottam Mishra, V D Sharma, who is originally from here, Pawaiya and now Scindia. Ek hi sher ho sakta hai ek jungle mein (There can be only one lion in a jungle).”

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At Guna, the political battlefield of the Scindias, more than 200 km from Gwalior, a majority of the Congress workers have decided the side they are on. Mahendra Singh Sisodia, the party’s Bamor legislator, who belongs to Guna, is a Labour Minister in the Kamal Nath government but a staunch Scindia loyalist. He is among the 22 Congress MLAs believed to be ready to defect to the BJP.

Says Mukesh Bhargava, a close aide of Sisodia and the “vidhayak pratinidhi (MLA representative)”, “Here in Guna, 95% of the party has resigned along with Maharaj. He has always been our leader. Wherever he goes, we will go, as will our minister. There is no doubt in anybody’s mind.”

On Thursday morning, Bhargava is among those lining up with vehicles to head to Bhopal for a roadshow to welcome Scindia as he arrives from Delhi. The crowd at Sisodia’s home, greeting each other loudly, includes local block presidents, district presidents, district general secretaries, etc, all of whom have resigned.

As one person greets the other with a “Jai Shri Ram”, the group breaks out in laughter. “Hans kyun rahe ho bhai? Jai Shri Ram toh pehle bhi bolte thhey (Why are you laughing? Didn’t we say Jai Shri Ram earlier too)?” he responds, going on to add, “But yes, now we will have to say it louder. For our politics too.”

Bhargava as well as other leaders like Mahendra Singh and Uday Raj argue that there is no other way. Says Uday Raj, “Maharaj was the reason we won Madhya Pradesh. If Kamal Nath had been the face, the Congress would not have won. In the Gwalior-Chambal range, we won 24 of 32 seats. After all that, forget chief minister, Kamal Nath and Digvijaya Singh didn’t let Maharaj even be state Congress president. He had to even struggle for a Rajya Sabha seat. Is that not disrespect?”

Mahendra Singh, a polling agent from Bamor, takes charge of changing the party flag atop Sisodia’s home. Barking orders as the Congress’s hand is replaced with the BJP’s lotus, Singh repeats that Scindia was left no option by Digvijaya Singh and Kamal Nath. “For instance, back in the BJP government, Sisodiaji had done a dharna asking for a sports stadium in Guna. The first project he asked for as a minister in the Congress regime was creation of three lakes for farmers, a long-standing demand. On the first thing, nothing has been done. On the second, despite Sisodiaji pushing for it, money for the first lake may have been sanctioned but nothing has moved. At the ministry level, all the officials are Nath and Digvijaya Singh’s men and are actively working against Scindia and his people.”

As he speaks, he gets a WhatsApp alert. Reading it, Singh says, “Look, Scindiaji has left and they have transferred the collectors of Guna and Gwalior. This is how petty they are.”

This “pettiness”, Scindia’s backers say, is also why he lost the Guna seat, considered a Scindia fortress, in 2019. “There were various reasons. One may have been a little overconfidence, and the Modi wave. But Guna has eight Assembly segments, some have our people as MLAs or district presidents, and the others have Digvijaya Singh’s people. We never hurt them, but they worked against us... Here, people admire Scindiaji so much, even BJP leaders were hurt that he lost,” Bhargava says.

A kilometre away, at Sushil Jat’s tea stall, one of Guna’s oldest, the consensus is that Scindia’s move will help the BJP. Jat points out that while he voted for the BJP in the 2019 elections, till Wednesday, his shack sported a Congress flag. “I love Scindiaji with all my heart, and it hurt when he lost,” he says. However, Jat adds, the loss was inevitable because the Kamal Nath government failed on its promise of loan waiver to farmers. “Ninety per cent of Guna’s population is farmers. They were angry. So people decided that while we love Scindiaji, we will vote for the BJP and Modiji. Now that they have come together, the BJP will be unstoppable.”

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By Thursday evening, much of the conversation both in the BJP and Congress offices in Gwalior has shifted to the future, about the possibility of fresh elections and the fate of grassroot workers. At the BJP headquarters, still suspiciously devoid of any enthusiasm, the conversation is about the karyakarta and whether Scindia ‘the Maharaj’ “will fit in”. Says a BJP leader, “There are certainly problems to resolve. Now that he has come, he will want his people to get tickets... We don’t see people as Maharaj. Even Yashodhara, his aunt, is only a worker for us. This Congress system where he would appoint his people, or have his ministers, cannot happen. Samantvaad (feudalism) has no place here, and if we give in, the karyakarta will not be happy, and that can affect the elections. Scindia has to prove his loyalty.”

At the Congress office, all the Scindia posters have been removed overnight, and lie in an untidy heap in a store room. District Congress chief Devendra Sharma is asking his supporters a question he has been repeating for two days: should he resign? Every possible answer seems fraught with risk. Considered a Scindia man, as any district Congress chief in Gwalior is, not jumping ship will mean the label of a Digvijaya man for Sharma. But in the BJP he fears the prospect of no post and no respect.