On the defensive

Print edition : July 18, 1998

The setback the Congress(I) suffered in the Rajya Sabha elections and the subsequent shadow-boxing in the party in Maharashtra have had the effect of easing the pressure on the BJP-Shiv Sena combine.

IN the process of the recent Rajya Sabha elections, the Congress(I) in Maharashtra lost whatever advantage it had gained by trouncing the Bharatiya Janata Party-Shiv Sena combine in the Lok Sabha elections.

The ruling saffron combine, which is none too united, has reason to feel relieved. Had the Congress(I) camp (including the Samajwadi Party and some independent members of the Legislative Assembly) displayed some unity of purpose in the elections to the Upper House, the Shiv Sena-BJP Government in the State could well have been in serious trouble: independents and disgruntled elements in the Shiv Sena and even a few BJP legislators might have changed sides. But now the disenchanted members in the Shiv Sena-BJP alliance can be expected, barring unforeseen developments, to adopt a "wait and see" policy until the next elections to the State Assembly. (The term of the present Assembly expires in March 2000.)

In fact, the result of the Rajya Sabha elections was a setback to the Shiv Sena-BJP as well. Indications are that about 13 Sena MLAs and at least a couple of BJP legislators voted in defiance of party whips.

Senior Congress(I) leader Sharad Pawar and his prominent supporters in the party in Maharashtra - particularly former Shiv Sena leader Chhagan Bhujbal, Leader of the Opposition in the Legislative Council - had established a line of communication to the malcontents in the saffron camp. But the setback that the Rajya Sabha elections dealt to Pawar has meant that this connection is unlikely to benefit the Congress(I) in the near future.

The defeat of veteran bureaucrat-turned-politician Ram Pradhan in the Rajya Sabha elections involved a loss of face for Congress(I) president Sonia Gandhi (Frontline, July 17). The nomination of Pradhan had been an exercise of Sonia Gandhi's prerogative as party chief. As is only to be expected in such a situation, questions relating to the weight that the party president's authority carries, accountability for the defeat and party discipline have taken precedence in the Congress(I) agenda over the question of taking on the Shiv Sena-BJP alliance.

Pawar has called for a campaign against the underworld-led violence that has virtually become an everyday affair in Mumbai and for the despatch of a Central investigation team to the State, and for a campaign against the alleged neglect of the rural sector - in the context of reports that a substantial number of farmers in Maharashtra had committed suicide. Even though sources in the "loyalist" (anti-Pawar) group in the State Congress(I) told Frontline that such a campaign would receive support from all sections of the party, neutral observers say that it would probably prove to be a damp squib as long as an atmosphere of mutual distrust prevails in the party.

At the root of the distrust is this question: was the defeat of Pradhan the result of deliberate design or miscalculation on the part of Pawar, who had masterminded the party's preparations for the electoral contest in the State?

Observers belonging to the Left discount the "deliberate design" theory; they believe that Pawar is too shrewd and too prudent a politician to go in for foolhardy operations. In their opinion, the feedback that Pawar had received - of dissidence in the saffron camp - had misled him into adopting an approach to the election - an attempt to get an independent candidate, the newspaper magnate Vijay Darda, as well as the Congress(I) nominees elected - which proved overambitious in the context of the operation of money power.

When this correspondent asked these sources whether they considered the Congress(I) incapable of employing money power, they said that it might not have considered it necessary. Prior to the election, they explained, political circles had generally believed that all the five party candidates (including BJP leader Pramod Mahajan and the two Sena nominees) would get elected and that the only point at issue was whether the sixth seat would go to Darda or Pawar's friend-turned-foe Suresh Kalmadi, the other independent in the fray.

Irrespective of whether miscalculation or design had been at work, they said, Pawar had to reckon with the fact that Sonia Gandhi was surrounded by people who did not seem to be well disposed towards him.

For the record, at any rate, "loyalist" sources concede that Pawar was guilty only of miscalculation. But they harp on the principle of accountability. As Pawar took the credit for the Congress(I) triumph in the Lok Sabha elections in the State, they say, it is only fair that he take the blame for the setback in the elections to the Upper House.

The sources say that the action taken by the central leadership of the Congress(I) in the wake of the electoral setback has been welcomed by the rank and file - an assertion that need not be taken too seriously. The reference is to the despatch to Mumbai of a fact-finding team comprising K. Vijayabhaskara Reddy, A.K. Antony and Rajesh Pilot, the serving of show-cause notices on Lok Sabha member Praful Patel and State legislator Satish Chaturvedi (both believed to be Pawar supporters), the suspension of the latter from the primary membership of the party and the removal of Ranjit Deshmukh - who has reportedly been supporting Pawar without, however, going overboard - from the presidentship of the Maharashtra Pradesh Congress(I) Committee.

Indications are that Pawar is opposed to disciplinary proceedings against Patel. Chaturvedi, however, will probably have to swallow the bitter pill. Meanwhile, the search for a successor to Deshmukh is on. The "loyalist" sources say that the high command (read Sonia Gandhi) is consulting State party leaders of various shades of opinion. Whatever decision the high command may take will be accepted by all sections of the party in the State, they add.

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