Debating India

CONGRESS

The resignation and after

Saturday 5 June 1999, by RAMAKRISHNAN*Venkitesh

The events that followed the revolt by Sharad Pawar and two other CWC members have made it clear that Sonia Gandhi has consolidated her pre-eminent position in the Congress(I).

in New Delhi

"WE are riding the wave of victory," Sonia Gandhi said on May 6 at a meeting of Congress(I) leaders from various parts of the country, who had gathered in New Delhi to discuss preparations for the Lok Sabha elections. Addressing her first important meetin g after the dissolution of the 12th Lok Sabha, the Congress(I) president asserted that the party’s election plank of providing political stability and establishing a "cohesive, purposeful, one-party government" would prove to be a clear winner over the " bickering, quarrelsome" and "multi-headed monster" alliance that the Bharatiya Janata Party fielded.

Nineteen days later, on May 25, when the All India Congress Committee (AICC) held an urgent session to "welcome her back" after she withdrew her resignation as party president, Sonia Gandhi’s demeanour had changed. No longer was it marked by the confiden ce of May 6. In its place there was a unique brand of aggression, which perhaps emanated from a sense of hurt and anger. Addressing the AICC, she said: "The very people who came before me a year back, pleading that I save the Congress, the very same people today are seeking to create a climate of suspicion about my patriotism. The very same people are today seeking to plant seeds of doubt about me in the minds of my compatriots." She also said: "I stand before you today as a proud Congressperson, doub ly resolved to lead the fight for our beloved country. No longer shall we tolerate the negative forces that seek to target the dignity of a woman through calumny and falsehood." She observed that the events of the nine days that preceded the session shou ld help party persons to recognise the friends of the party; the political churning that took place on these days had to be converted into a new opportunity, she said.

The nine days that Sonia Gandhi referred to were characterised by a series of intra-party convulsions, which began with the revolt by three members of the Congress(I) Working Committee (CWC),- Sharad Pawar, P.A. Sangma and Tariq Anwar, challenging the projection of her as the party’s prime ministerial candidate, ostensibly on the grounds account of her foreign origin. This move resulted in the resignation of Sonia Gandhi from the presidentship of the Congress(I), apparently in a fit of righteous indigna tion, and the expulsion of the trio from the primary membership of the party for a period of six years.

In her resignation letter (prepared on May 15, according to senior leader Pranab Kumar Mukherjee, but delivered to the CWC on May 17), Sonia Gandhi stated that she was "pained by the lack of confidence (of some party leaders) in my ability to act in the best interests of the party and the country." In a direct reference to the nationality question, she stated that "although born in a foreign land I chose India as my country" and would remain an Indian "till my last breath". "India is my motherland, dear er to me than my own life."

HIGH drama followed the announcement of the resignation. It triggered a sensational agitation by the rest of the leadership and also the rank and file. The four Congress(I) Chief Ministers - Digvijay Singh of Madhya Pradesh, Sheila Dixit of Delhi, Ashok Gehlot of Rajasthan and Giridhar Gamang of Orissa - and AICC office-bearers and leaders of the Congress(I)’s front organisations, including the Youth Congress, sent in their resignations to "madam", saying that they did not want to "enjoy the fruits of office" if she did not remain the party’s president.

Outside the AICC office and in front of 10 Janpath, Sonia Gandhi’s residence, hundreds of party workers launched hunger-strikes and dharnas to "pressure" her into withdrawing her resignation; some party workers in Delhi, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra at tempted to immolate themselves; and effigies of the three dissidents were burnt, accusing them of being hand in glove with the BJP and other anti-Sonia forces such as former Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao and controversial godman Chandraswami. Some ac tivists assaulted former party president Sitaram Kesri and former party vice-president Jitendra Prasada in front of the AICC office, accusing them of being agents of the dissidents although the two had rallied around Sonia Gandhi and castigated the "betr ayal" by Pawar and Co.

Pressure from the rank and file and the leadership and the expulsion of the three rebels on May 20, however, failed to make an immediate impact on Sonia Gandhi. (She informed the CWC members only on May 24 that she would reconsider her decision.) The rea son was that she was not convinced of the sincerity of many of the leaders who took up her defence. She reportedly castigated CWC members such as R.K. Dhawan and Rajesh Pilot, who failed to put up a strong defence for her when Pawar and Co. raised the na tionality question at the May 15 CWC meet. The fact that the CWC could not take a unanimous decision on the expulsion, with some leaders, including A.K. Antony and Kesri, raising procedural objections such as the need to give a show-cause notice, was als o not viewed positively by persons close to Sonia Gandhi, son Rahul included. The decision to expel the trio was finally taken on the strength of a majority vote.

According to several leaders, including AICC spokesperson Ajit Jogi, what made Sonia Gandhi change her mind was her concern about certain technical problems that would arise at the AICC session convened by the CWC members. The question of who should chai r the session in the absence of the party president created a divide between some CWC members and AICC office-bearers. Secretaries of the AICC, including Mani Shankar Aiyar and Ramesh Chennithala, who are considered close to 10 Janpath, warned against ma king "any alternative arrangements, even of an interim nature, as Sonia Gandhi is the sole, authentic and undisputable leader of the party irrespective of whether or not she holds any party post." Clearly, they were against looking for an alternative lea der. The anger displayed by party workers against Sitaram Kesri and Jitendra Prasada began to be directed also against other leaders who wanted to hold the session. This concretised in the form of a slogan, "No Sonia, no AICC", and in a sense consolidate d her pre-eminent role in the party. Sonia Gandhi apparently wanted to prevent an unsavoury situation at the AICC.

While this is the quasi-official version from the party headquarters, her detractors, including the expelled leaders and leaders of rival political parties such as the BJP, have described her resignation and the events that followed it as "stage-managed" and "orchestrated" to whip up sympathy in order to ensure Sonia Gandhi’s total control over the Congress(I). Her loyalists, however, believe that the public display of emotions by party persons was the people’s response to the malicious campaign against her.

Whatever the truth, the developments between May 15 and May 25 have reiterated some important facets of the internal organisational dynamics of the Congress(I). They indicated the clout Sonia Gandhi has gathered in the party organisation within a year of active politics. They also emphasised that the majority of Congress(I) leaders - Pranab Mukherjee, Arjun Singh, Ghulam Nabi Azad, R.K. Dhawan and so on - were heavily dependent on Sonia Gandhi’s mass appeal in advancing their political interests. Also, the Congress(I)’s convulsions have shown that notwithstanding the fact that leaders such as Antony and Pilot have a mass base and a soft corner for Pawar, they too have also accepted the leadership of Sonia Gandhi, essentially because she has come to re present the party organisation.

THE AICC session, which greeted Sonia Gandhi’s return with great enthusiasm, also cautioned her against promoting a coterie. The censorious speeches made by Nagaland Chief Minister S.C. Jamir and former Uttar Pradesh Minister Ammar Rizvi and the resoundi ng reception that they got at the session were indicative of the mood. While Jamir asked Sonia to initiate discussions at various levels before arriving at important decisions, Rizvi pointed out that the leader’s ultimate strength lay in the people, the ordinary worker. He said that Sonia Gandhi could forget this only at the cost of her own popularity and credibility. It was the first time that she received such friendly warnings in her one year as the leader.

Vital questions about the party’s political prospects and Sonia Gandhi’s own standing on the national political scene came up for discussions between May 15 and 25. The revolt of Pawar and Co. has certainly given greater strength to a campaign on Sonia G andhi’s foreign origin, which was initiated by the BJP. In a sense, the charge that the three rebels are in league with the BJP and its allies on the issue sounds plausible. Notwithstanding Pawar’s vehement denial (see interview), the fact remains that t he BJP’s anti-Sonia campaign has gathered force in the background of the revolt.

This scenario is bound to affect the Congress(I)’s electoral prospects. However, Pranab Mukherjee feels that the "hurt caused by the BJP and the betrayers of the Congress(I) has endeared her more to the masses." He is of the view that the Congress(I) wou ld stand to benefit by the controversy. Mukherjee claimed that the expelled leaders had not harmed the organisational strength of the party in Maharashtra or in the northeastern States, the vote bases of Pawar and Sangma respectively.

NOTWITHSTANDING these assertions, the departure of Pawar and Sangma is bound to impair the Congress(I)’s prospects in Maharashtra and the Northeast. Even in Bihar, Tariq Anwar’s home state, the response to the debate on Sonia’s foreign origin has reporte dly gone beyond the Congress(I)’s expectations. The alacrity with which the Congress(I) readmitted former Union Minister Suresh Kalmadi, who had left the party during the last Lok Sabha elections, is indicative of the party’s felt need to bolster itself in the strongholds of the rebels (Kalmadi’s support base is in Pune). According to sources close to Pawar, the Maratha leader had asked a private agency to conduct a comprehensive survey in his State on the nationality issue before raising the banner of revolt; more than 70 per cent of the respondents had rated Sonia Gandhi’s foreign origin as a major security threat to the country, he said.

Pawar and Co. have announced the launch of their party, the Nationalist Indian Congress, at a convention in Mumbai on June 10. Despite allegations that he is colluding with the BJP, Pawar says that his primary concern is to unite all secular and regional forces against the BJP and the Sonia Congress to uphold the values of secularism, provide social justice, and eradicate of regional and social imbalances in development.

The convulsions have also impeded the finalisation of electoral alliances. Before his revolt, Pawar was accorded an important role in developing and finalising tie-ups. With the personality factor playing a prominent part in the formation of these allian ces, it needs to be seen how far the Congress(I) will be able to progress in this direction.

Amidst the struggle to recover from the swift developments in the party organisation, the Congress(I)’s only consolation is that the run-up to the elections is pretty long. Party leaders believe that the four-month period will enable the party to get ove r the reverses caused by the nationality question well before polling.

See online : Frontline

P.S.

Volume 16 - Issue 12, June 05 - 18, 1999

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