Debating India


Behind the scenes

Saturday 28 August 1999, by RAMAKRISHNAN*Venkitesh

WHO exactly are Sonia Gandhi’s advisers? This question had no clear answer until November last year, when as Congress(I) president she started a process of restructuring the party organisation and formed various task forces and committees for the purpose. It was already known that her personal assistant Vincent George and Congress Working Committee (CWC) member Arjun Singh had a special advisory role. During this phase, Sonia Gandhi apparently adopted a classical academic approach by entrusting specific jobs to various leaders on the basis of their interest and areas of specialisation. Thus Manmohan Singh was in charge of a committee to look into economic policy, P.A. Sangma and A.K. Antony had responsibility for a task force entrusted with the restruc turing of the organisation, K. Karunakaran headed a committee to review the party constitution, and Sharad Pawar, then the party’s leader in the Lok Sabha, had a role in parliamentary affairs.

However, after the November Assembly elections, in which the Congress(I) registered thumping victories in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Delhi, the priority shifted from restructuring to taking proactive measures against the Bharatiya Janata Party-led gov ernment. Realpolitik games were a natural part of these, and it is at this point that her set of advisers became more and more visible.

According to sources close to 10 Janpath, there are three layers of advisers around the Congress(I) president. The most proximate group is what is termed the gang of four, comprising Arjun Singh, former Minister M.L. Fotedar, Vincent George and former bu reaucrat R.D. Pradhan. This group apparently handles day-to-day matters. There is no specific job description for any of them - they handle everything from correspondence to the formulation of political strategy.

The second layer essentially comprises CWC members R.K. Dhawan, Pranab Mukherjee and Ghulam Nabi Azad, who are supposed to organise special trouble-shooting operations. Dhawan and Azad performed similar jobs for former Congress(I) presidents P.V. Narasim ha Rao and Sitaram Kesri. Sometimes this involved putting "troublesome" leaders such as Pawar, Rajesh Pilot, J.B, Patnaik and A.K. Antony in their place during crucial meetings or while deciding important issues.

The members of the third layer, consisting of K. Natwar Singh, Mani Shankar Aiyar and Jairam Ramesh, prepare speeches, articles and other policy documents. The one distinguishing characteristic that members of all three layers share is their lack of a mass base.

At the May 15 CWC meeting that paved the way for the expulsion of Pawar, Sangma and Tariq Anwar, Dhawan’s trouble-shooting skills were in evidence. It was he who cut short the arguments of Pawar and Co. and made the suggestion that the CWC record its approval to making Sonia Gandhi the party’s prime ministerial candidate.

Dhawan played his part in organising many of the dramatic scenes of agitation after Sonia Gandhi’s resignation from presidentship following the Pawar-led revolt. Mukherjee handled the legal and constitutional issues involved in the expulsion of the rebels.

The first layer is the most influential one. Most of the problems that have faced the Congress(I) and its president recently can be traced to the members of this layer. The list starts with Sonia Gandhi’s erroneous claim after the fall of the Vajpayee go vernment that she had the support of 272 Lok Sabha members to form a minority Congress(I) government and includes the recent Bellary nomination fiasco. Many Congress(I) insiders say that it was Arjun Singh who gave the feedback to Sonia Gandhi, which mad e her stake her claim to form a government. Vincent George and Azad, the general secretary in charge of Karnataka, managed the Bellary expedition. The suggestion to file the nomination in stealth was reported to have come essentially from the duo and lat er approved by Arjun Singh and Pranab Mukherjee. The idea was to take the BJP by surprise so that it would not be able to field a strong candidate.

Arjun Singh’s role in messing up the efforts to form an alternative government after the fall of the Vajpayee Ministry had caused some Congress(I) allies to take a strong position against him. These included All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam supre mo Jayalalitha and Rashtriya Janata Dal leader Laloo Prasad Yadav. Consequently, Arjun Singh was not included in the team to negotiate electoral deals. Manmohan Singh and A.K. Antony were deputed to Tamil Nadu, and Madhavrao Scindia and Pranab Mukherjee were in charge of Bihar.

But the Arjun Singh-led group’s influence in ticket distribution was evident in States such as Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Rajasthan and in Delhi. Even in a State like Kerala, where the Congress(I)’s organisational machinery almost matches that of the Left parties, Arjun Singh managed to nominate someone like M.P. Gangadharan, though the former State Minister has not been in active politics for quite some time. However, neither Arjun Singh nor the other members of the group were able to wield much inf luence in the selection of candidates in Madhya Pradesh and Punjab, where second-time Chief Minister Digvijay Singh and Pradesh Congress Committee president Amarinder Singh respectively called the shots.

The free hand given to leaders such as Digvijay Singh in the selection of candidates and certain developments before and after the Bellary fiasco have been interpreted by some Congress(I) insiders as a bid by Sonia Gandhi to free herself from the group’s influence. The appointment of Ahamed Patel as a special authority at 10 Janpath and the diminution of R.D. Pradhan’s role in policy discussions are seen as part of this effort.

There are also reports that Sonia Gandhi is increasingly consulting Dr. Manmohan Singh. How far this stage would last for Manmohan Singh is to be seen, especially in the background of Sonia Gandhi’s own insecurity vis-a-vis leaders with a mass base. Inci dentally, Pawar too had gone through a similar phase of increased proximity with the Congress(I) president before being thrown out of the party.

See online : Frontline


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

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