Why Jyotiraditya Scindia, Friends With Rahul Gandhi Since Age 4, Crossed the ‘Laxman Rekha'

While Jyotiraditya Scindia did not cover himself in glory by defecting to the BJP, he managed to unseat arch-rival Kamal Nath as chief minister. Beaten for the first time in an electorate battle in May 2019, Jyotiraditya, (Bal to friends and close family friends) turned restless and edgy in December 2018 when the Congress leadership (Sonia and Rahul Gandhi) picked veteran Kamal Nath as state party chief ahead of him. Jyotiraditya sulked and sulked but sources close to Sonia maintained that an informal headcount conducted among newly elected Congress MLAs had given Nath a thumbs up.

Sitting in central hall of parliament, Maharaja Bhanu Pratap of Narsingarh (Bhanu Pratap died in January 2019), one of the subjects of erstwhile Gwalior empire, had succinctly explained why Jyotiraditya had lost the battle for chief minister’s post. “There are two reasons for it,”

Bhanu Pratap, himself a former parliamentarian, had told veteran journalist Nirmal Pathak and few others: “Everyone knows Maharaj Jyotiraditya Scindia in Madhya Pradesh but he knows very few there. Secondly, the maharaja’s kurta reportedly does not have pockets”. The reference to kurta and pockets was an allusion to Scindias’ (in)famous inability to spend money and extend patronage.

It just seemed the other day when during March-April 2018, Scindia and Nath had teamed up to keep Digvijaya Singh out. This was the time when Madhya Pradesh state polls were round the corner. They often spoke with a sense of camaraderie. “We are one. You can check with Jyoti...,” Nath would often tell me.

Jyotiraditya, a little more guarded, would say he is open to the idea of supporting anyone that the party high command entrusts responsibility. At that juncture, these regional satraps seemed making a conscious bid to keep Digvijya, who was busy doing a 1,100-mile long Narmada river parikarma on foot, out of race.

In early December 2019, the Congress emerged victorious in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh. Virtually everyone in the Congress and outside expected Rahul, who was 87th president of the grand old party, to usher in some young blood. However, his three-act play turned out to be a disaster. The Congress’ three leaders — Kamal Nath, Ashok Gehlot and Bhupesh Bhagel — earned their jobs in Bhopal, Jaipur and Raipur, respectively, not just through grit and hard work, but because of some last-minute, behind-the-scene deliberations as well.

Regardless of Maharaja Bhanu Pratap’s uncharitable comments, Jyotiraditya kept counting heavily on Rahul. They had known each other from the age of four, went to Doon School and St Stephen’s College together. Both left their respective courses (Jyotiraditya was enrolled in BA Pass and Rahul in History Hons).

However, as the 87th president of AICC then, Rahul turned a tad neutral. The weighty office of Congress president perhaps deprived him from currying a favour to his friend. This was crucial to the events that unfolded in early March 2020. As someone had remarked once, “Friendship is the most beautiful gift of God. If you have a loyal best friend, you are the happiest person in this word, but if that one loyal friend betrays you, you get disappointed and hurt.” For dispassionate observers, Jyotiraditya’s subsequent moves were a curious mix of him creating his own heartbreak through expectations or nursing a deep grudge against Gandhis for honouring their promises.

For the record, the choice of Madhya Pradesh Congress chief minister on December 13, 2018 was strictly on the basis of number-crunching. Jyotiraditya supporters till date claim that they had won 26 of the 34 seats in the Gwalior-Chambal region, as against Nath’s 24 out of 38 Assembly seats in the Mahakaushal region. That was when former CM Digvijaya Singh took centre-stage, sharing a photograph of 31 newly-elected MLAs calling on his son Jaivardhan, who had won from Raghogarh principality falling under erstwhile Gwalior Empire. The subtle message was that Jyotiraditya’s support of 26 MLAs meant little when a “non-contender” like Jaivardhan had 31 MLAs behind him.

While this battle carried on, Kamal Nath, in Bhopal, messaged party bigwigs to say over 80 MLAs from various Congress factions, smaller parties and independents were with him. Rahul went public demonstrating his confidence in Jyotiraditya by ensuring that he was by his side when he travelled from Delhi to Jaipur, Bhopal and Raipur for the three swearing-in ceremonies. The idea was to showcase the “young face” of the party when, in effect, the old guard was calling the shots.

The story of old guard’s grip on the Congress and Sonia Gandhi is fabled and without any plausible explanation. By the time Rajya Sabha polls were announced, Jyotiraditya had already negotiated his political future with the BJP. The Stanford-educated MBA turned out to be far more pragmatic than his father Madhavrao who, despite having lived a large of his life under the Jan Sangh influence, had chosen to make his destiny. As authors Vir Sanghvi and Namita Bhandare wrote in their biography, Madhavrao chalked his own destiny, remained liberal and one of the most secular politicians in the country.

The Congress’s preference for Digvijaya Singh remained puzzling. Here is a politician who has been twice chief minister, parliamentarian, AICC general secretary, MPCC chief, state minister to nagar palika head. His son and nephew were ministers in the Nath cabinet, while another 15 ministers owed allegiance to him. If the high command urged him to vacate Rajya Sabha seat for Scindia or let some of his camp followers to step down, disgruntled Scindia loyalists would have found berths in the state cabinet. But somehow, Sonia and Rahul chose not to turn proactive. They kept believing that either BJP would not take a dynast or Jyotiraditya would not cross the laxman rekha. Jyotiraditya turned out to be a kite who decided to fly against the wind, not with it. Sonia's masterly inactivity boomeranged.

(ORF Fellow and Journalist Rasheed Kidwai is Author of Neta Abhineta, Bollywood Star Power in Indian Politics. Views expressed are personal)