Debating India



Bhavdeep KANG

Sunday 14 December 2003, by KANG*Bhavdeep

Article paru dans Outlook India, ?dition en ligne du 14 d?cembre 2003.

Introspection, strategising, revamp. Congress mulls over its all-too-familiar mantras.

Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s cup of woes brimmeth over. Facing the most trying phase in her political career since the party’s split in 1999, she is under pressure on multiple fronts. The clamour for re-strategising and revamping the party in the wake of the recent poll debacle is becoming too insistent to be ignored. Then the Ajit Jogi episode erupted. If that were not enough, after Karunakaran in Kerala, Rajinder Kaur Bhattal has openly challenged Amarinder Singh’s leadership in Punjab.

The footsoldiers are deeply concerned about the weakening of the party’s hold over traditional votebanks.

But the party brass has been too preoccupied to notice the signals from the weaker sections among the electorate. The party’s defeat in the tribal belts of MP, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh and the loss of a chunk of SC seats-the BJP won 60 out of 77 SC and 77 out of 99 ST seats in the three states put together-is seen by many MPs as a grave concern. Likewise, the Congress debacle in the Jat belt of Rajasthan, once its greatest strength, has alarmed leaders from the community.

Although the party was in damage limitation rather than introspection mode last week, Sonia found time to set up yet another panel (headed by veteran Pranab Mukherjee) to probe the reasons for the rout. A move greeted with cynicism by second-rung leaders, who recalled how the Antony report, which analysed the 1999 Lok Sabha failure, had been junked.

Credible "strategic and personnel changes" aimed at Lok Sabha 2004 are necessary, admits party spokesperson Abhishek Singhvi. For the pro-alliance lobby, a change in strategy implies actively seeking electoral allies rather than waiting for them to come. This faction believes secular forces must "hang together or be hanged separately". Mani Shankar Aiyer’s formulation of a Secular Progressive Alliance (SPA) to take on the NDA has struck a chord among the fence-sitters with no firm view on alliances.

"Rather than addressing the weaker sections directly, the effort will be to seek alliances with parties like the BSP," says a CWC member. According to Aiyer, the policy shift has already taken place in terms of willingness to seek pre-electoral alliances. What’s more, the Congress is no longer untouchable, with potential alliances awaiting a nod in at least seven more states. "That’s the difference between Panchmarhi (1998) and Shimla (2003)," Aiyer says.

The immediate test for the Congress is the Andhra Pradesh assembly elections likely in March. It will test the party’s ability to forge a pre-electoral adjustment with the Telangana Rashtra Samiti (TRS), which has a significant following in 108 of the state’s 294 constituencies. Congress general secretary Ghulam Nabi Azad was in Telangana last week, ostensibly for a party function but actually to undertake negotiations. A Congress-TRS-Left-mim "secular" front would be a formidable combination in the Andhra polls, but a difficult one to forge.

The votaries of a "secular front" would like immediate talks with the dmk in Tamil Nadu and the NCP (along with the PWP and RPI) in Maharashtra. In Uttar Pradesh, the Congress could align with the BSP, Ajit Singh’s RLD or even Kalyan Singh’s RKP. In Madhya Pradesh, the emerging Gondwana Ganatantra Party is a potential ally. "A credible formation which looks as if it could form the government might even wean away ’secular’ members of the NDA," says Aiyer.

Congress leaders are unanimous that ’transferability’ of votes should be the bottomline in negotiating alliances. No ally can be allowed to gain at the expense of the Congress or to poach its votebase. "Alliances are not a one-way street," points out Singhvi. There are differences over the leadership issue too: the anti-alliance lobby wants the question of who should lead the secular front (and thereby be its candidate for prime minister) settled first.The other camp feels this can be taken up post polls.

While some Congress leaders like S. Jaipal Reddy and Aiyer feel alliances in themselves will "electrify the political atmosphere", others believe the Congress will have to do much more in terms of election management. As UP leader Hariskesh Bahadur says, "We have to aggressively communicate our achievements, our agenda and the NDA’s failure". Sonia herself admits that the party was woefully short of campaigners in the assembly elections. But given Sonia’s style of functioning and her admonitions against finger-pointing at the Congress Working Committee last week, few believe there will be any drastic changes.

Despite Sonia’s insistence on avoiding the blame game, CWC member Natwar Singh couldn’t help criticising the party’s poor media management in the recent polls. Many saw it as an indirect attack on media committee chairperson Ambika Soni, who was also in charge of Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. The veteran leader had constantly warned the party against taking the Jat vote for granted. He was ignored. And the Jats proved to be the party’s nemesis in Rajasthan.

In Soni’s defence, she has repeatedly asked Sonia to lighten her load. Apart from the two key states, she also holds charge of the Congress president’s office. Although the knives are out for Soni, few believe Sonia will sack her. But the feeling is that Sonia will have to shed some deadwood to send a positive message to the party. "I certainly hope there will be changes," says Rajya Sabha MP Kapil Sibal. "One-third of the CWC, including non-performers and ’token’ members like Mahabir Prasad, Meira Kumar, Mohsina Kidwai and Sarojini Pulla Reddy, could disappear tomorrow and no one would miss them," says an AICC office-bearer. After the fashion of the BJP’s live-wire second-rung, the Congress too has to build up people like Digvijay Singh, Ashok Gehlot, P.R. Das Munshi, Prithviraj Chauhan, Salman Khursheed, Vilasrao Deshmukh, Mukul Wasnik and Kumari Selja, he points out.

Also, many believe, Sonia has to be more firm in putting down dissidence. The week-long rigmarole over the election of a CLP leader in Delhi made the party a laughing stock, particularly as the BJP already had three governments up and running. Likewise, Sonia is yet to quell trouble in Kerala and Punjab. Her reluctance to take tough decisions was manifest in Chhattisgarh where she wanted to remove Ajit Jogi even before the polls but didn’t because she thought he would split the party. Now, partymen hope she can persuade V.C. Shukla to return to the fold.

But Sonia took just 20 minutes to suspend Jogi from the party as commerce minister Arun Jaitley’s sensational disclosure about Jogi being led on to offer money to ’rebel’ BJP MLAs made headlines. She would need the same alacrity in dealing with the other sticky issues confronting the party.

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