Debating India

CONGRESS

The hand shakes

Sunday 12 February 2006, by VOHRA*Pankaj

The Congress appears to be as worried about its prospects in the elections to five state assemblies later this year as about the acute factionalism and lack of strategy that is threatening to weaken its foundations in Maharashtra and Delhi. All this comes close on the heels of the toppling of a secular government in Karnataka, which has put the BJP in power in a southern state for the first time.

The party faces an uphill task in Kerala and West Bengal where it is pitted against the Left. It is also hugely dependent on its alliance with the DMK in Tamil Nadu, where it will face a stiff fight. In Pondicherry, it is the same old story of one faction against the other, and in Assam, last minute attempts to salvage the situation have been initiated. Fortunately for the Congress, the BJP, which constitutes the nucleus of what is left of the NDA, is not in the race in any of the five states and the battle is virtually going to be against the Left and regional parties. But since there is still some time, the party’s poll strategists may try some new tricks to improve their prospects in the electoral confrontations that most political analysts have already written off for the Congress.

In Maharashtra, the seemingly casual remark by Sharad Pawar that he would not mind if the Congress replaced Vilasrao Deshmukh with Narayan Rane was clearly aimed at fanning a factional feud in the Congress so that the NCP could derive a psychological advantage. Pawar has always been uncomfortable with Deshmukh in the chair and, therefore, would want the chief minister to feel insecure. The NCP strongman never makes a statement that is not carefully thought out. Whatever he says has a political message in it. He is one of the most hardened politicians in this country and usually speaks in an idiom from which several interpretations can be derived.

Pawar has no love or affection for Narayan Rane but wants to use him in his power game, knowing fully well that the former Shiv Sainik has a strong lobby supporting him among the top Congress leadership. Pawar is a master at this game and realises that since Deshmukh was Sonia Gandhi’s choice, if he is able to destabilise him, he will score some brownie points.

His timing coincides with the run-up to the polls to the five assemblies and he realises that the Congress may not be in much of a position to retaliate due to its pre-occupation with the polls. Someone in the Congress should do some plain speaking to drive home the point that his comments about a leadership change in the Congress should be best kept to himself in the larger interests of the alliance. Pawar knows that this won’t happen so he is likely, in the future too, to make some well-considered comments on Deshmukh.

As far as Delhi is concerned, the Congress seems to be losing out without realising that its questionable and ambiguous approach on water, power and now demolitions will prove costly in electoral terms. Despite having control over the MCD, the Delhi government and the Centre, the party is finding it hard to handle the situation. It has also not been able to plead the people’s case adequately in the court, which has rightly taken a stern view of the unauthorised constructions and encroachments on government land.

The prevalent view is that the current demolition drive has demolished the Congress in Delhi in the same manner as a similar demolition drive unleashed by the NDA government had once defeated the BJP politically. In the 2002 municipal polls, the BJP, which was on the ruling side in the civic body, had received a drubbing from the Congress, which bagged as many as 108 seats in the 134-member House. The possibility of the reverse happening this time cannot be ruled out when the civic body goes to elections next year.

The handling of the entire issue seems very strange. On the one hand, Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit overrides the Lt. Governor and her cabinet colleagues and talks about an ordinance, which Union Development Minister Jaipal Reddy says is not possible. And on the other hand, vested interests promote a bureaucrats-inspired move of dividing the civic body.

And then, the prime minister is pushed into the scene and he convenes a meeting of senior functionaries from the central and Delhi governments and announces the formation of a committee, headed by yet another retired bureaucrat from the Punjab cadre. But at the ground level, apart from statements made by some politicians, the drive continues.

What the trouble-shooters of the party seem to forget is that the demolitions were being carried out on a court order and till the time the court provides relief, nothing can happen. Bringing the PM into the picture is being seen as an attempt to unnecessarily involve him in a controversy. The PM’s credibility is high and he should not be made party to meetings where no solution can be found. And in any case, the demolitions have assumed a high profile because some influential people were hit. Some of them may now start targeting the PM instead of those responsible for the mess.

Obviously, the Congress president is also concerned about the damage being done to the party by lesser minions holding important positions in the organisation and the local government. This was indicated by her stern warning to warring Delhi leaders. But then, there is a growing tendency to involve her in any issue that normally should be tackled by the general secretary concerned or other party colleagues. As things stand, the Congress does not seem to be in a happy state.

See online : The Hindustan Times

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