Narendra Singh Tomar: Treading between farmer protest, bypoll preparation

It is MP politics which is going to preoccupy Tomar in the days to come as he and his former adversary will have to sink their differences before a common enemy — Kamal Nath
Guess who hasn’t said a word about the three farm Bills that the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government pushed through in Parliament over which farmers in large swathes of north India are in an uproar? Newest BJP entrant and Rajya Sabha MP Jyotiraditya Scindia.


Scindia’s views on the Bills are not known. But here’s the thing — until a few months ago, his biggest political adversary in the Gwalior-Guna-Morena region was Narendra Singh Tomar, Union agriculture minister, who piloted the farm Bills. Tomar was moved to adjoining Morena in the 2019 Lok Sabha election. He won that as well. In 2014, he contested the Gwalior Lok Sabha seat and defeated the Congress’s Ashok Singh.


After years of attacking Tomar in public meetings and other fora, Scindia is bound to feel uncomfortable in supporting his Bills now.


And that isn’t the end of the story. Scindia’s move to the BJP from the Congress has led to a 28-seat hole in the Madhya Pradesh Assembly. The date for the bypolls will be announced on September 29.


Winning these elections is going to be crucial for the stability of the Shivraj Singh Chouhan-led BJP government in Madhya Pradesh. Most of these bypolls are in the Gwalior-Guna-Morena region — for which Scindia will have to work with Tomar.


There’s no escaping Narendra Singh Tomar. But who is this man?


An MP cadre IAS officer said: “Tomar doesn’t stray in areas that could land him in any kind of controversy”. The three farm Bills are probably the most contentious public policy issues he has ever faced in his political career.


“He’s a consensus man,” said an officer who has worked with Tomar. “He is never rude to officers and is always sober. But he’s not very open to new ideas. His approach is: ‘If it ain't broke, why fix it?’”


One reason for this may be that Tomar is more comfortable in state politics than at the Centre. But even in the state, he has rarely gone beyond his own area of eastern Madhya Pradesh.


This region could do with some advocacy. It is largely underdeveloped and has a substantial tribal population, and while Bhopal and Indore have seen urbanisation, eastern MP remains neglected even on agricultural indices. The region has slid further after the Congress went out of power – at least under Arjun Singh (who belonged to Rewa-Zidhi, a part of this region), there was someone to speak for the area and its neglect. But that was many decades ago. The BJP has never thrown up a major leader from this area after Vijayaraje Scindia.


Tomar has contributed little to the regional disparity debate. He began life as a youth leader of the BJP in the 1980s, heading the local unit of the party's youth wing from 1980 to 1984. He was involved in local corporation politics and entered the Assembly for the first time in 1998. He became a minister in the state government in 2003 and served until 2007 when he was made chief of the Madhya Pradesh unit of the BJP. Under his leadership as, the party won two Assembly elections in a row, testifying to the fact that he was much more successful as an organisational backroom boy than the visible face of the party. Many see him as a politician cast in the vision of Chouhan: Never letting his ego come in the way of his work.


In 2014, Tomar won the Lok Sabha election, and rather to everyone’s surprise (including possibly, himself), he was made a Cabinet minister, with several portfolios including mines, steel, labour and employment, and rural development and panchayati raj. In 2019, when the party advised him to shift to Morena because his victory from Gwalior was uncertain, he complied. When he was made farm minister, most people thought there would be no ripples here. They were right – until recently.


“He is not a communicative person. Maybe this is a reason the agri-reform Bills have generated so much heat. What could save the situation is his strong belief in consensus as a way of taking decisions,” said an officer. But in going to Punjab and Haryana and meeting farmers, he will need a nudge.


However, it is MP politics which is going to preoccupy Tomar in the days to come as he and his former adversary will have to sink their differences before a common enemy — Kamal Nath, who is campaigning aggressively in the region. Tomar may need to take off his minister’s hat for the moment which means the firefighting on the farm Bills fallout will have to be done by someone other than the agriculture minister.

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