Rajya Sabha MP, Digvijay Singh, astute politician and one of the wiliest Congress leaders, may have bitten off more than he can chew by accepting the party's candidature for the Bhopal Lok Sabha seat, a constituency the party has never won since 1984.

Close family friends of the Raja of Raghogarh confided in this correspondent that they had urged, even pleaded, that he play safe by contesting from his old seat, Rajgarh, from where he had thrice been elected. But the former chief minister of Madhya Pradesh felt that, given his seniority and political stature, he needed to switch to a more prestigious seat — the logic being that, given his present lot in which he continues to be seen as an electoral liability, a chance victory in Bhopal would restore his image as a match winner. 

Feelers sent earlier to the dynasty's close advisers that he was ready to take on Narendra Modi or Amit Shah, should the party want him to, were ignored. Such was the extent to which he had fallen out of favour with the high command that they wanted him confined to Madhya Pradesh, and his ambitions kept under close watch.

The raja's stocks in the party crashed after he led the party to a humiliating defeat in the 2003 Madhya Pradesh Assembly poll, and never really recovered. Which is why his role as AICC general secretary remained confined to routine party work. 

Singh’s standing took a further beating after the Goa ‘fiasco’ following the Assembly poll in 2017 in which the BJP pipped the Congress to power despite the latter emerging as the single largest party. The blame for the failure to cobble up a majority was laid at his door as the party observer. Efforts to retrieve his political mojo by going on a six-month long circumambulation of the river Narmada in 2017-18 did not yield the desired result. Though he claimed the purpose of the parikrama was spiritual cleansing, most felt the hidden aim was political.

Memories of the 2003 electoral disaster coupled with the widening trust deficit compelled the high command to forbid Singh from participating in the poll campaign, and confine himself to backroom strategising instead. Making outrageously controversial statements (“Pulwama attack was an accident” etc. being the most recent) from time to time has been his only way to stay in the limelight.

The decision to contest from Bhopal was not exactly thrust upon him by chief minister Kamal Nath as the raja would have us believe. It was a conscious move aimed at getting back into the thick of things. In reality, it remains a gambit at best.

Nath, on his part, may have laid a goodly trap by prodding him to go in for the big kill.

The general view that the raja has been running the government by remote control has not gone down well with Nath and his loyalists. The chief minister, on his part, has been circumspect about showing any outward sign of displeasure either in word or deed at his behind-the-scenes power play. This is largely because Nath still needs the raja's political savvy to run the state.

Winning the Bhopal Lok Sabha seat is, of course, quite another matter. Close watchers of the raja's political innings feel that his reputation as a compulsive minority appeaser has always stood in the way of expanding his voter base. Barring pockets of influence in the minuscule Rajput community whom he may have obliged in the past, Hindu voters, by and large, do not trust him. His visceral disdain for the RSS continues to cloud the clarity of his thinking. While his popularity among party workers and the bureaucracy remain intact, it has never extended to the public at large.

The 30% odd Muslim vote will thus be the raja's mainstay. Getting the votes of the rest will be a struggle in what remains a saffron bastion regardless of whom the BJP nominates (though the names of Shivraj Singh Chouhan and Sadhvi Pragya are doing the rounds). That is why the party has not betrayed even an ounce of concern at his candidature. Five of the eight assembly seats within the Lok Sabha constituency were won by the BJP in the 2018 poll. A sixth was lost due to the party's foolish adamance in retaining a non-performing MLA.  

The nature of the Bhopal Lok Sabha seat is such that political biggies of the Congress have rarely risked a contest in the last three decades. The party's over-reliance on the Muslim vote is evident from the fact that candidates from the community were thrice nominated. Each one kissed the dust. The most famous was ‘Tiger’ Pataudi who contested in 1991; he was trounced by over a lakh votes.

Ironically, the Congress’s best performance was in 2009 when its nominee (a non-Muslim) lost by the lowest ever margin of around 65,000 votes. Otherwise, the BJP has consistently polled 50-60% of the popular vote, with its winning margin ranging from a low of a lakh to over 3.5 lakh in 2014.

Added to the disproportionate dependence on the minority vote is the factionalism within the state Congress. It will almost certainly queer the pitch for the raja despite his esprit de corps with party workers. The coup de grâce, however, will be the religious polarisation. Predictably enough, it will almost certainly be sharper than ever. Not many Congress leaders arouse divisive passions as much as the raja. His remarks post 26/11 that the late ATS chief Hemant Karkare was under threat from right-wing radicals or that the Batla House encounter was fake still rankle.