In search of direction

Print edition : March 27, 1999

The Congress(I)'s recent responses to political developments and its manner of managing internal affairs show it up as a party that is largely undecided on which way to go, despite the flashes of combative spirit it has exhibited.

BEARING flowers and singing paeans, Congress(I) leaders queued up to pay obeisance to party president Sonia Gandhi at 10 Janpath on March 14. In this season of "first anniversaries", even as the Bharatiya Janata Party-led Government was preparing to celebrate what can only be called a year of precarious existence, the Congress(I) indulged itself in its own little festivity to mark the completion of a year with Sonia Gandhi at its helm. And, characteristically, much of the proceedings were given over to eulogising the supreme leader for the many miracles she had supposedly performed. A "congratulatory statement" released on the occasion claimed that "Soniaji has transformed the party into a dynamic force" and that "those who branded (her) an outsider have themselves become outsiders before the people." On March 16, at a "celebration" dinner hosted by Congress(I) Parliamentary Party (CPP) secretary T. Subbirama Reddy, another round of felicitations were offered to Sonia Gandhi for having "revived the organisation from political morass".

The celebrations doubtless served another purpose: they unambiguously demonstrated Sonia Gandhi's hold on the party. However, the political signals that came from the party during this period showed it up to be somewhat circumspect. Both in its public posture, most visibly in its interactions with the BJP-led coalition Government and with other Opposition parties, and in its management of internal affairs, clarity of purpose was absent. In fact, in the context of the political stand adopted by the party on one or two issues and the effects thereof, some sections within the party even made bold to question Sonia Gandhi's leadership qualities.

Overtly, during the Budget session of Parliament, the Congress(I) appeared ready to take a more aggressive position against the Government by joining hands with secular Opposition parties on, for instance, the controversies relating to the dismissal of Chief of the Navy Staff Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat and the exit of Mohan Guruswamy as adviser to Finance Minister Yashwant Sinha. A united Opposition offensive, starting with the demand on March 16 for an inquiry by a Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) into Bhagwat's dismissal, led to a situation where both Houses of Parliament could not function.

On Bihar too, the Congress(I) continued to adopt an anti-BJP stance - as reflected in its earlier decision to oppose parliamentary ratification to the imposition of President's Rule - by abstaining during the vote of confidence sought in the Bihar Assembly by the reinstated Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) Government on March 17. This seemed to offer further evidence that the Congress(I) considered fighting the BJP as one of its primary tasks.

However, after the massacre on March 18 of 35 Bhumihars in Senari village in Jehanabad district of Bihar by activists of the banned Maoist Communist Centre (MCC), the Congress(I) appeared to be thrown off balance. The party perhaps felt compelled to adopt a strong anti-RJD stand; Sharad Pawar, leader of the party in the Lok Sabha, issued a statement calling for the resignation of Chief Minister Rabri Devi.

This flip-flop was of a piece with the party's stand in relation to specific issues over the past few months when, despite unequivocal expressions of support from secular parties, it has seemed overly reluctant to make any moves to pull down the A.B. Vajpayee Government and facilitate the coming to power of a secular formation.

IN respect of inner-party affairs too, the Congress(I)'s position has been characterised by extreme indecisiveness and this has had the effect of sending out confusing signals. The most recent manifestation of this was the Congress(I) Working Committee's (CWC) move to dilute the import of the "momentous" declaration made by the party at its Pachmarhi camp in September 1998. The declaration related to the proposal to reserve 33 per cent of party posts for women and 20 per cent for the Scheduled Castes, the Schedule Tribes and minorities. Further, it sought to ban the return to the Congress(I) of "defectors and opportunists"; in exceptional cases, if they were to be readmitted, it would only be after a "considerably long waiting period", the declaration held. It also called for planning and implementing radical programmes for the eradication of social evils and economic backwardness.

These were touted as "policy declarations" and the Congress(I) made claims to the moral high ground, but now the CWC has diluted the status of the declaration by stating that it is only a "reference document". As a result, these proposals will now be put on hold.

According to many CWC members, there was a felt need to allow the return of a large number of former Congress(I) leaders who sought re-entry and this forced the leadership to dilute the Pachmarhi declaration. Many senior leaders felt that the conditions for re-entry should be relaxed at least for a while in order to facilitate the return of those who sought it. "And," added a CWC member, "Soniaji was going along with them." Another reason for the dilution was the perceived need to accommodate the interests of the backward classes in the matter of reservation of party posts, in much the same way that provision had been made for the Scheduled Castes, the Scheduled Tribes and the minorities. Leaders such as Meira Kumar and Madhavsinh Solanki felt that the Pachmarhi declaration did not address this issue.

P. Shiv Shankar, deputy leader of the Congress(I) in the Lok Sabha, told Frontline that the change in the status of the Pachmarhi declaration was only a temporary shift made in the interests of tempering political idealism with a measure of pragmatism. "We know that the best thing is to follow the idealistic proposals given by the Pachmarhi declaration," he said. "But while tackling day-to-day political matters one needs to mix idealism with pragmatism." And this, in his view, is what the CWC has done.

However, not everyone in the party is swayed by this argument. According to several middle-level leaders from North India who are close to Uttar Pradesh Congress(I) president Salman Khurshid and CWC member Arjun Singh, the so-called pragmatic approach had first been invoked when the party decided to oppose the ratification of President's Rule in Bihar, and from then on, they said, Sonia Gandhi had made one mistake after another. In fact, Khurshid and some others had argued - before the party decided to oppose the imposition of President's Rule - that it would be wrong for the Congress(I) to do so, especially since Sonia Gandhi had said, immediately after the Narayanpur massacre on February 10, that the RJD Government had lost the moral authority to rule. They said that the party should take on forces like the RJD even at the risk of being seen in the same camp as the BJP.

"The overall effect of the decision (to oppose the imposition of President's Rule) is negative," said a leader from U.P. According to him, it conveyed the impression that Sonia Gandhi was not overly interested in the revival of the party in North Indian States such as Bihar. The decision, he added, had generated hope among Congress(I) activists that the party was about to topple the Vajpayee Government and come to power at the Centre, "especially as it was preceded by Sonia Gandhi's message in the journal of the All India Congress(I) Committee (AICC) that the challenges in the New Year would be of a different nature and that the country's responsibilities would fall on the Congress(I) sooner than later. This promise too did not materialise." So, both ways, the leader pointed out, the decision was a failure.

According to this section, Sonia Gandhi's flip-flop on the Bihar issue was in direct contrast to her focussed efforts to rebuild the party ahead of the Assembly elections in a few States in November 1998. A senior leader said: "Remember, it was the steadfast refusal to fall for the temptation of putting together some sort of a secular coalition to pull down the BJP-led coalition Government and form a hotch-potch alternative that paid handsome dividends in the Assembly polls." Sections of the Congress(I) in Uttar Pradesh, who were on a high after the Chintan Manthan Shibir (brainstorming session) organised by the State unit at Hardwar between February 8 and 10, where the Samajwadi Party (S.P.) and the RJD were criticised, view the Congress(I) line on Bihar as a mistake.

Echoing these views, Khurshid and some others have repeatedly demanded that the Congress(I) withdraw support to the RJD Government at the first opportunity and chalk out its own political path at the earliest. But a section of leaders in the Bihar unit of the Congress(I), who are seen to be close to former party president Sitaram Kesri, oppose this line. Their contention is that the RJD is required as a buffer before the Congress(I) can build up its organisational base, which now stands decimated, in the State.

Leaders such as Shiv Shankar believe, however, that pragmatism will pay. According to them, the Congress(I) is capable of using its unique position as a party on the path of revival to create politically embarrassing situations for the BJP as well as secular forces. This, they say, is what the Congress(I) decision on Bihar has proved. "It has shown that we can upset the Centre's plans even while forcing parties like the RJD to change their ways," a senior party leader told Frontline. In his opinion, the promise made by reinstated Chief Minister Rabri Devi and RJD leader Laloo Prasad Yadav that they would endeavour to protect the interests of Dalits and implement land reforms was made only under Congress(I) pressure. "Ultimately, we might even force the RJD to change the Chief Minister. That would give us greater legitimacy before the people and time to rebuild the party," a former CWC member from Bihar said.

According to another senior leader, Bihar and some other matters had had the effect of upsetting the schedule set by Sonia Gandhi for the Congress(I) to capture power at the Centre. According to this leader, left to herself Sonia Gandhi would have brought down the BJP-led Government in March, after the passage of the Budget, and enabled an interim government to be formed. "She would have wanted to build up the party organisation for the Lok Sabha elections during the October-December period." But the imposition of President's Rule in Bihar and related developments upset this schedule. It hustled Sonia Gandhi to take an antagonistic stand vis-a-vis the Central Government at a much earlier date - in February itself - and she was not able to carry this decision to its logical conclusion and bring down the Government.

In the light of recent political developments, Sonia Gandhi apparently has a revised schedule. According to sources in the Congress(I), this involves another waiting period to capture power at the Centre and primary attention to States where Assembly elections are due by the end of the year. This will mean that the Vajpayee Government might have a smooth run until the beginning of next year, notwithstanding the show of aggression by the Congress(I) in the current session of Parliament. But, as many leaders in the Congress(I) themselves point out, things could take an unexpected, positive turn just as the Bihar developments upset Sonia Gandhi's earlier plans.

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