Debating India

CONGRESS

Into Battle

Saturday 28 August 1999, by RAMAKRISHNAN*Venkitesh

As the Congress(I) under Sonia Gandhi launches itself on a tough campaign, keeping its options open in respect of its post-election leadership and possible coalitional arrangements, questions about the party’s electoral fortunes loom large.

in New Delhi

ON August 19, an atmosphere of intense gloom, witnessed never before in the 17 months that Sonia Gandhi has been Congress(I) president, enveloped 24 Akbar Road in New Delhi, the headquarters of the All India Congress(I) Committee. Everyone present, from grassroots-level workers to middle-level leaders to senior members of the Congress(I) Working Committee, was in its spell. Huddled in groups inside and outside the AICC office were hundreds of them, discussing only one topic: the pointless and politicall y damaging hide-and-seek drama that had preceded Sonia Gandhi’s filing of her nomination for the Lok Sabha election from Bellary in Karnataka the previous day. There was much loud tut-tutting and expressions of disbelief that their leader, whom they look ed up to to lead the Congress(I) to the leading position in national politics, had exhibited political naivete and virtually advertised her electoral insecurities. Some even made bold to raise serious doubts about Sonia Gandhi’s leadership qualities.

At one clumsy stroke, the Bellary episode had inflicted damage at several levels to the party and its organisational apparatus. It also sent out the message that the Congress(I) and its leader suffered extreme political diffidence in the run-up to the el ections. By resorting to a hide-and-seek stratagem to try and keep her nomination from Bellary a secret, Sonia Gandhi had exposed her insecurity vis-a-vis the Congress(I)’s chances in the Lok Sabha elections. That the whole charade was intended to ensure that the leader, who was being projected as a tough-as-nails political battler, would have an easy passage into the Lok Sabha and not face a strong a challenge from the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) led by the Bharatiya Janata Party was not lost on anyone. Congress(I) workers were left wondering how their top leader could lead the party to victory if she was not sure of her own personal victory and was looking for weak opponents.

That the attempt to mislead mediapersons and political opponents into believing that Sonia Gandhi would file her nomination for the Cuddappah Lok Sabha constituency in Andhra Pradesh had fooled nobody except Congress(I) workers all over the country too c ame as a setback. On August 17, Congress(I) leaders, including CWC members Pranab Kumar Mukherjee and Ghulam Nabi Azad, who had accompanied Sonia Gandhi to Hyderabad and later to Bellary, pointedly said that the Congress(I) president would contest from C uddappah. If this feint was intended to throw the BJP off-track, it clearly failed. The BJP, which had evidently got wind of the Congress(I)’s ruse, despatched former Delhi Chief Minister Sushma Swaraj to Bellary in order to challenge Sonia Gandhi. Sushm a Swaraj filed her nomination minutes after Sonia Gandhi did. For Congress(I) workers, the inability of the party leadership to carry out a "secret mission" successfully was highly demoralising.

At another level, the fiasco showed up the party organisation in poor light. The script, including the plan to offer Cuddappah as a red-herring, was known only to a handful of people who are considered close to 10 Janpath: the majority of CWC members wer e themselves in the dark about it. This reinforced the message that had gone out on numerous occasions - that the party organisation was not overly important for Sonia Gandhi and that she continued with her "coterie politics" despite the criticism it had drawn in recent times.

Apart from all this, the Bellary misadventure has dealt a body blow to the Congress(I)’s claim that the party is undergoing a "great revival" in the North Indian States of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Party workers wondered how if Sonia Gandhi herself was no t confident of contesting from Amethi in Uttar Pradesh, considered the pocketborough of the Nehru-Gandhi family and represented in the past by Rajiv Gandhi and Sanjay Gandhi, the party could talk of such a revival? Party workers, who had gathered at the AICC office on August 19, debated these questions over and over again and repeatedly gave expression to their extreme sense of dejection.

IN the wake of all this, Sonia Gandhi loyalists moved into the damage-control mode and promptly announced that she would contest from Amethi too. However, this announcement was not enough to clear the mood of despondency.

At a personal level, the Bellary episode eroded Sonia Gandhi’s stature as a serious politician and the regard she received from associates and fellow politicians. Signals of this erosion were aplenty in the next few days. The Bihar Pradesh Congress(I) Co mmittee virtually revolted against Sonia Gandhi when it said that the seat-sharing deal brokered by her with the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) led by Laloo Prasad Yadav was not acceptable to it. This compelled Sonia Gandhi to go back on the word given to th e RJD leadership and initiate fresh discussions on a seat-sharing formula.

More humiliation was in store for the party president. On August 22, the Congress(I)’s alliance partner in Tamil Nadu, the mercurial Jayalalitha, who was to have addressed a joint meeting with Sonia Gandhi in Villupuram, failed to turn up for the meeting . After being kept waiting for a while, Sonia Gandhi gamely addressed the meeting, son Rahul Gandhi by her side. No Congress(I) president, in particular one from the Nehru-Gandhi family, had been treated with such disdain by any fellow politician.

The Bellary episode also served to heighten the aura of secrecy and inaccessibility surrounding Sonia Gandhi and is certain to add to the swadeshi-vs-videshi slogan raised by the BJP and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP). Such a campaign, which portra ys Sonia Gandhi as a political entity who is not seriously committed enough to India’s interests and causes, will place her in a position where she is the party’s star campaigner and simultaneously a major political liability.

A CWC member who is known for his forthright views on party affairs told Frontline that the Bellary episode could prove a costly mistake in Sonia Gandhi’s political career. Coming on top of a series of blunders since March, "it could even prove to be the proverbial last straw," he said. Another senior leader, who shared this perception, said that these "blunders" had first manifested themselves in the days following the first anniversary of Sonia Gandhi’s takeover as party president and had progr essively become more frequent and more grave. This leader pointed out that right up until the November 1998 Assembly elections in four States and Delhi, Sonia Gandhi had consistently said that she would not topple the BJP-led government but would instead concentrate on rebuilding the party machinery. "During the post-anniversary period," the leader said, "along with a plethora of mistakes there were some initiatives that seemingly sought to correct them. But their net result was not positive." There wer e several highs and lows during this period, all of which left the party disoriented: as one CWC member termed it, a "Trishanku feeling" existed in the party. Even so, there was the hope that the Congress(I) would still be able to get its act together ah ead of the elections. However, the Bellary misadventure has dashed all such hopes.

The first of these mistakes, party leaders say, came immediately after the fall of the Atal Behari Vajpayee-led government when Sonia Gandhi claimed that her party had the support of 272 Lok Sabha members and would be able to form a minority government. The CWC member said: "It was this faux pas that upset the party’s chances of being invited to form the government on the strength of its being the second largest party." Had Sonia Gandhi desisted from making this claim, the CWC member added, she would no t have faced the ignominy of having to tell President K.R. Narayanan later that the Congress(I) did not have adequate support in the Lok Sabha and was giving up its claim.

In the perception of several leaders, these mistakes came about because Sonia Gandhi was misguided by a coterie in 10 Janpath, particularly former Union Minister Arjun Singh. Following growing criticism on this count within the CWC and elsewhere, Sonia G andhi made some moves in late April and early May, evidently to send across the message that she was not bound by coterie politics. As part of these moves, leaders with a mass base, such as Sharad Pawar and A.K. Antony, were given a key role in party aff airs. Pawar was appointed chairman of the election strategy committee and given the responsibility of negotiating alliances with the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) in Tamil Nadu, the RJD in Bihar and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) in Ut tar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh.

Then came the revolt by Pawar, P.A. Sangma and Tariq Anwar, who raised the issue of Sonia Gandhi’s foreign origin, and once again Sonia Gandhi flipped. The theatrics that followed - Sonia Gandhi’s resignation from the party president’s post, her supporte rs’ show of sycophancy which came in the form of self-immolation attempts and assaults on senior leaders such as Sitaram Kesri - did not go down well with the public, which found the events farcical. Her return as party president at the May 25 AICC sessi on without much demur only served to heighten this perception, although she was able to assert her supreme control over the Congress(I).

The principal issue raised by Pawar and Co. was what they described as the inadvisability, owing to Sonia Gandhi’s foreign origin, of projecting her as the Congress(I)’s prime ministerial candidate. With hindsight, many senior leaders point out that the party would not have been enfeebled by a split if the present decision not to project anyone as the prime ministerial candidate had been taken at that time. Sonia Gandhi loyalists such as Arjun Singh and Pranab Kumar Mukherjee pushed hard for the expulsion of the dissident leaders. Many in the party believe that the handling of the Pawar revolt was steamrolled by Arjun Singh and Mukherjee in order to settle scores with their opponents. Whatever the truth, the net result of the Pawar-led revolt is that t he Congress(I), apart from being weakened in Maharashtra and the northeastern region, is now wary of projecting Sonia Gandhi as its prime ministerial candidate.

The Congress(I) was in much the same predicament ahead of the 1998 elections, and this showed in the verdict: it won fewer seats than it had in the previous elections. As it did then, the Congress(I) leadership says that the party will decide on its choi ce for Prime Minister after the elections. Under normal circumstances there would have been no doubt on this score: Sonia Gandhi would have been the obvious choice. But the possibility of having to depend on pre- and post-election allies, if at all the p arty comes within striking distance of power, has compelled the Congress(I) to give up any idea of projecting her as its candidate. The decision to nominate former Finance Minister Manmohan Singh from the South Delhi constituency is significant in this c onnection.

Some senior Congres(I) leaders have been critical also of Sonia Gandhi’s responses to the Kargil crisis in its initial stages. Former vice-president Jitendra Prasada and others are reported to have said in private that Sonia Gandhi had rushed to criticis e the government even as the war was on. According to sources close to Prasada, his view was that the party should have waited for the crisis to be resolved before questioning the government’s failure to prevent the infiltration.

NOTWITHSTANDING all this, however, the party was able to formulate a well-conceived strategy to fight the elections. The strategy, which was evolved at the July 20-21 meeting of the CWC, focussed on four political-organisational tasks:

1. to expose as fa lse the claims of the BJP and its allies on the government’s role in the victory achieved by Indian soldiers in Kargil;

2. to project the Congress(I) as the only party equipped to form a stable government and emphasise the importance of a stable governme nt in safeguarding national security;

3. to initiate moves to neutralise the organisational damage caused by the Pawar-led revolt and by faction feuds in various States; and 4. to finalise poll alliances and seat adjustments in regions where the party is weak.

However, on each of these issues, the party was unable to match promise with performance. Its initiatives betrayed a lack of ideological and political cohesion and organisational integration. This was visible in almost all areas, barring the formulation of the election manifesto. What was particularly galling was its efforts to harmonise two concerns - of projecting the idea of single-party rule and of entering into alliances in States where it is organisationally weak such as Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and T amil Nadu.

Immediately after the CWC session of July 20 and 21, some efforts were made to expose the government’s failure to prevent the infiltration in Kargil. On July 22, the party revealed, with documentary evidence, that the government had specific information about the intrusion in Kargil as early as August 1998. Party spokesperson Kapil Sibal disclosed the reference number of a letter written by the Brigadier who was in charge of the Kargil sector at that time, which talked about "enhanced threat perception" in the region. However, this initiative was not pressed further as the Army establishment denied the existence of the letter.

Similarly, the party backtracked on its pledge to streamline the organisational network. The process of choosing candidates was bogged down in the usual allegations of favouritism, nepotism and corruption. The AICC office witnessed protests by different groups, and also occasional fisticuffs, which were discounted as "not serious" in the charged election atmosphere. Protests by various groups, such as backward castes in Andhra Pradesh, the Youth Congress(I) in Karnataka and a large section of the party in Uttar Pradesh, marked the selection process. In between all this, former Kerala Chief Minister K. Karunakaran, Punjab Congress(I) president Amarinder Singh, Uttar Pradesh Congress(I) president Salman Khurshid, Orissa Chief Minister Giridhar Gamang and former Union Minister K. Natwar Singh ensured that a few of their relatives were given the party ticket.

The special organisational plan that was to be implemented in areas such as Maharashtra, the northeastern region and certain parts of Rajasthan, where the NCP had dented the Congress(I)’s organisational structure, failed to take off. The selection proces s in the northeastern region was held up by allegations that some persons who sought the party ticket were mafia leaders. In the meantime, the NCP leadership tied up alliances with various Opposition groups and disgruntled sections within the Congress(I) . Clearly, the Congress(I), which has traditionally won a sizable number of seats in the northeastern region, faces a challenge this time.

In Maharashtra too, insufficient attention was paid to the need to forge alliances with like-minded parties and select good candidates in order to counter the NCP’s growing influence. An understanding was finalised with two groups of the Republican Party of India (RPI), but the method adopted by the Congress(I) in the allocation of seats to these parties led to strains. Many winnable seats were denied to alliance partners, and a section of the State party leadership felt that the entire exercise was sel f-defeating.

Party leaders complained that there was no effort to settle faction feuds and address other problems in the party units in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. The most serious situation was in Rajasthan, where the Ashok Gehlot Ministry’s failure to deliver on its promise to extend the benefits of reservation to the influential Jat community has led to an erosion in the party’s support base.

AMIDST all these developments, there was one area where the Congress(I)’s campaign was elevated beyond the mundane level: the release of the manifesto by Sonia Gandhi on August 13. The manifesto, which was drawn up with the help of academicians after int eractions with various sections of society, is quite a comprehensive document. It addresses vital questions in respect of the need for a stable government, the promotion and preservation of secularism, social justice, panchayati raj and fiscal discipline . In keeping with the line adopted at the CWC on July 20, the correlation between national security and stable governments was taken up as the central theme of the manifesto. As for the minorities, it promises constitutional changes to enable the establi shment of a commission for minority educational institutions. The pledge to give 33 per cent reservation to women in legislative bodies is repeated.

A special feature of the function at which the manifesto was released was the manner in which Sonia Gandhi handled the media: she showed no signs of floundering and gave direct and bold replies to questions. Seasoned leaders of the party and many observers said that the manifesto and Sonia Gandhi’s performance were a confidence-booster and an appropriate launch-pad for the party.

However, from all indications, it was one of Sonia Gandhi’s statements at this function that was at the root of Jayalalitha’s snub on August 22. Asked if the Congress(I) would form a coalition government if it did not get a majority on its own, Sonia Gan dhi replied in the negative.

With reverses being the order of the day and even allies playing oneupmanship games, the Congress(I) has moved far away from Sonia Gandhi’s spirited statement of May 6, in which she said that "we are riding the wave of victory". Personally, she has come a long way since the time she was hailed - during the first anniversary of her elevation as party president - as the person who transformed the Congress(I) from a "moribund, non-creative, leaderless and directionless establishment into a vibrant organisa tion capable of leading the country on the right path by taking up important national and global concerns."

A leader close to former Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao conceded that Sonia Gandhi’s leadership had revived the party at the national level but said that the coterie around her had more or less frittered away any gains that may have accrued to the par ty. The Congress(I) organisational network has improved all over the country during the last 17 months and this has raised hopes that the party will improve its position in Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka, Punjab, Tamil Nadu and Kerala. But these gains may be more than offset by losses in Maharashtra, Rajasthan and the northeastern region, which accounted for 64 of the 141 seats won by the Congress(I) in the 1998 elections.

According to independent estimates by a group of party leaders, the party may gain an additional 45 seats in the seven States but lose between 30 and 35 seats in the other three regions. The net result may be that the party will make no significant gain despite the fact that a viable organisational machinery has been developed all over the country. And if misadventures like Bellary get repeated, the party’s image will be dented further.

In this context, Sonia Gandhi’s repeated assertions that the Congress(I) is well on the road to victory and is set to provide single-party rule do not sound plausible. The scene as it exists today leaves the Congress(I) with only two possibilities; eithe r support the idea of a non-BJP coalition government or accept the role of a responsible Opposition party by conceding defeat to a BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) regime. The latter scene seems to be far more likely to unfold.

See online : Frontline

P.S.

Volume 16 - Issue 18, Aug. 28 - Sep. 10, 1999

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