'We are trying to correct our mistakes'

Print edition : July 18, 1998

Congress(I) Working Committee member A.K. Antony believes that Sonia Gandhi has brought about a dramatic change in the party's prospects. "From a party which was thought to be doomed, we have become a party of future hope," he says. The Cong-ress(I)'s priority, in his view, is not to capture power "by hook or by crook". The party will act "only when we feel that there is a possibility for a stable alternative government." Excerpts from an interview he gave R. Krishnakumar in Thiruvananthapuram.

What impact has Sonia Gandhi had on national and party politics? How do you see her style of functioning?

Sonia Gandhi is a true democratic leader. This is evident in the many decisions she has taken in party matters. I think she is moving step by step, not in an arbitrary manner, but through democratic dialogue, giving all sections of partymen an opportunity to express their opinion. In the matter of changes in the PCC(I)s, for example, she sent teams to various States to garner the opinion of all sections of partymen. She has not taken a single decision sitting in Delhi. So far, all her decisions regarding the party and the country have been taken after such democratic dialogue. She acts a bit carefully, maybe, in the sense that she does not take hasty decisions.

There has been no miracle, I agree. And nobody expects miracles in the present difficult situation. When she came the party was about to disintegrate. After the dissolution of the previous Lok Sabha, a massive exodus had begun from the party. Her coming into the arena has enthused new life, new confidence, because she represents the Nehru family. This family always had a magnetic influence on the Congress. People may call it dynastic rule. But there are these sentiments, attachments to that family, and nobody can deny them.

That is why her entry, as a representative of the Nehru-Gandhi family, has totally changed the atmosphere in the party. Now the exodus has been halted. Gradually, step by step, the Congress is improving its position. A while ago, people were saying the era of the Congress has ended and the next stage is a political battle between the BJP and the United Front. The same people are now saying the Congress should take the leadership. So that kind of a new optimism has come. Congressmen also think they have a better future now. If not now, tomorrow. Even those in the non-BJP parties think that tomorrow should come soon. So from a party which was gradually moving towards disintegration, the Congress has re-emerged as a party waiting to take over at an appropriate time. But it has not fallen prey to the temptation of toppling the Government. It has not taken any abrupt decision. That itself shows that the Congress leadership is acting in a mature manner.

There is an opinion within the Congress(I) that Sonia Gandhi does not understand the possibilities as well as limitations of realpolitik and that she has adopted a corporate management model to run the party.

She is acting in such a manner that various sections of the people are given the opportunity to express their views and opinions. If she acts differently, people will say she is acting in a dictatorial manner. So far, her actions have been very mature. But she is also learning. She does not pretend that she knows everything about India. If she is moving carefully, it may be because she is learning, and one must realise that it took years for Gandhiji or Nehru to know India fully with all its diversity. She knows her limitations.

Do you think Sonia Gandhi has been able to control factionalism in the party?

She has certainly been able to contain factionalism, if not control it fully. Nobody can wipe out such tendencies totally. It is a part of the Congress, part of social life. Even in a large family there are factions. Look at the other parties, the BJP, for example. They have been in government for just over four months. Their Delhi unit is divided, Rajasthan unit is divided. There are similar divisions in Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat. Look at the CPI(M). For the first time in a cadre party, a Polit Bureau meeting has been scheduled in New Delhi to discuss the factionalism in its Kerala unit. So factionalism is everywhere. It is inevitable. You can see such tendencies in every religion, every caste, not just in politics. There are no blind followers in any party any longer.

We are trying to resolve our problems. From a party which was thought to be doomed, we have become a party of future hope. But for that, the Congress also ought to change. The Congress must correct itself... Sonia Gandhi has brought about a dramatic change.

Does not the experience of the Rajya Sabha elections in Maharashtra show that middle-level leaders in your party are no longer ready to follow unquestioningly the directions from the Central leadership?

I am a member of the AICC(I) committee that looked into the issue in Maharashtra. So I do not want to comment on that.

But is this indicative of a trend all over India, where the middle-level leadership is reluctant to obey the party's diktat?

In Maharashtra, defections took place not in the Congress alone, but also in the BJP, the Shiv Sena, in all the parties. I do not want to go into the details of what happened in Maharashtra.

But is such a trend now becoming predominant in the Congress(I)?

As I said, these kinds of lapses occasionally happen in all parties. It is not confined to the Congress. Democratic politics is now not completely based on principles alone: money power, muscle power, casteism, communalism... these factors have also started playing a major role. We have to find a solution to all this. But this is not a disease confined to the Congress(I). It is not the majority which is involved in all this, either. But we take such instances very seriously and that is why we are dealing with it seriously.

Ever since Sonia Gandhi took over as president, the Congress(I) seems to have been concentrating on intra-party matters rather than on taking political initiatives, say, against the BJP-led Government. There is also this feeling that it has squandered a few opportunities to topple the Government and come to power.

We have not shrunk away from reacting to national political issues. But we do not have the numbers. So toppling the Government is not our priority. Pushing the country towards another mid-term election is not our aim. Only when we feel that there is a possibility for a stable alternative government will we act. Otherwise, whenever this Government falls on its own, then after that, we will act. We do not want to do anything in a hasty manner.

The Congress has shown the maturity to wait for the ideal situation to form a government and not yield to temptations. But while waiting for that day we are also trying to rebuild our party. Not just the organisational structure, but our programmes, policies, style of functioning. We are trying to give importance to norms in public life. That is why we are not showing any undue haste to pull down the Government. We are trying to improve the functioning of the party. We are trying to put the emphasis back on some basic issues like ethics in public life. We are trying to rebuild the moral fibre of the party. We realise that over the years, because we were the ruling party, we lost some of that moral force, without which no leader, no political party, can survive or effectively control the country. We are therefore trying to correct our past mistakes and to fix some norms of public life for our leaders and workers. This is our first priority, not trying to capture power by hook or by crook.

And, meanwhile, let others come out openly with their policies. I am from Kerala where even now the Left parties say the Congress is their main enemy. They want the Congress to be finished. How can I tell my leadership that we must take their support when I find every day that these people have this anti-Congress attitude? So let them come out openly. We do not have the necessary numbers. Earlier our critics were saying the Congress is power-hungry. Now some of them are asking 'Why is the Congress not taking an active role in toppling the Government?'

Sonia Gandhi has not been concentrating on inner-party affairs alone. She has shown an equal interest in major national affairs as well and has toured many States. It was not for party matters alone. She was also trying to understand the problems of the people. It has only been four months. So far she has conducted herself with maturity, with fairness, and as a true inheritor of Congress-Gandhi-Nehru tradition. But she has not performed miracles, I admit. Nobody can perform miracles. But under the given circumstances she has managed well and she has already generated a hope for the future. Not just Congressmen, but all those who believe in the policies and programmes formulated during our freedom struggle believe that under Soniaji's leadership the Congress is gradually, if not today but tomorrow, again going to take the centre-stage and guide this country. That kind of hope she has been able to generate. That is her greatest achievement.

There is this question in Kerala, where you have played an active role, of a party like the Congress avoiding the issue of organisational elections altogether. Given the present threat of renewed factionalism that has led to the appointment of an ad hoc PCC(I) president in Kerala, do you think it is better for Congress unity that it avoids elections altogether? Do you think an arrangement by consensus would be more sensible at present?

The party will take its decision at the appropriate time. We are in the process of sorting out issues. I do not want to say anything more. I will not make any other comment on this.

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