The politics of blackmail

Published : Nov 29, 1997 00:00 IST

The United Front stands up to the Congress(I)'s politics of blackmail over the Jain Commission's Interim Report - and pays the price of unity.


"BEHIND you is a bottomless well," a Congress(I) politician is believed to have told party president Sitaram Kesri recently, "but ahead lies an impassable swamp." The fall of the second United Front Ministry in New Delhi might best be read as an illustration of the Congress(I)'s ideological demise. The party's determination to use the Justice Milap Chand Jain Commission's Interim Report on the events leading up to the 1991 assassination of Rajiv Gandhi to exert leverage over the U.F. - leverage that the Congress(I) had lost following its Uttar Pradesh debacle in October - generated a wholly unproductive political crisis. With the political landscape fundamentally divided among three political formations and with almost no chance that fresh elections will change this situation, the Congress(I)'s decision to initiate the blackmail that has led to the destabilisation of the U.F. Government is mystifying. At the core of this mindless course of action lies a pantomime of 'loyalty' to the memory of Rajiv Gandhi: a 'loyalty' which in fact articulates the belief that his name is no more than electorally encashable capital.

The winter session of Parliament ought to have focussed on the sordid game of defection played by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Uttar Pradesh in October. The session also had important legislative business on hand; it was to deal with the Anti-Defection Act (Amendement) Bill, the Women's Reservation Bill, the Lok Pal Bill, the Prasar Bharati Act (Amendment) Bill, the Insurance Regulatory Bill, the Money Laundering Bill, the Foreign Exchange Management Bill and the Central Electricity Regulatory Commission Bill, among others.

It was instead hijacked through an ill-conceived and insincere parading of loyalty to the memory of Rajiv Gandhi. Farcically, the Congress(I) assault was led by luminaries like the leader from Madhya Pradesh, Arjun Singh, who not long ago claimed that fighting communalism was the principal item on his agenda. That the wholly serious issues confronting Indian democracy were displaced by Jain's Interim Report, appropriately described by former Prime Minister V.P. Singh as a rehash of the Congress(I)'s affidavit before the Jain Commission, and also as "justice retired," is tragic.

The Interim Report had been almost universally attacked in the media - editorially and by independent commentators - for its politically fraught enterprise of conflating fact with fiction. Observers, cutting across party lines, attacked the Commission's reign of error and omission. Predictably, none of this studied criticism appears to have influenced those in the Congress(I) who have chosen to dethrone the U.F. Government.

The delivery on November 24 of the U.F.'s letter, in which it refused to comply with the Congres(I)'s demand that it eject the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) from its ranks, marked the end of one of India's most pointless political crises. The crisis had its origins in the Congress(I)'s obsessive determination to bring down Prime Minister I.K. Gujral's Government and it can only be explained in terms of its inability to forge a meaningful political - or for that matter social and economic - agenda. Many in the Congress(I) believe that the revival of Rajiv Gandhi's memory is the only seed that can flourish into a suitable electoral harvest. Heartened by the prospect of electoral alliances with Laloo Prasad Yadav's Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) in Bihar and Defence Minister Mulayam Singh Yadav's Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh, some Congress(I) leaders from northern India believe that they can redeem their crippled apparatus. In the southern States, and in States such as Haryana and Rajasthan, local discontent is seen as offering the potential of electoral gains. The unifying theme for this enterprise is, of course, the seemingly emotive image of Rajiv Gandhi's widow asking India's people for vengeance against her husband's murderers. That this vision, like the Interim Report, is founded more on fiction than fact has largely been ignored by the Congress(I).

FEW in the U.F. leadership understood the depth of desperation in the Congress(I) when the first threats against the Government were made after the media leak of the Jain Commission's Interim Report. As late as November 11, when Kesri addressed a party rally at the Netaji Indoor Stadium in Calcutta, there was little reason to believe that the Report had been accorded such a level of importance as to lead to the party's withdrawal of support to the U.F. Kesri devoted his speech to attacking the Left Front in West Bengal and the BJP in Uttar Pradesh. The Congress(I), he said, supported the U.F. Government "because the people had not given us a mandate to rule"; but, he added, it might have to reconsider this situation since "this Government has no courage to rule the country."

On the same day in New Delhi, Congress(I) vice-president Jitendra Prasada made some noises. "The Union Home Minister," he said, "should not stand in the way of exposing the face of Rajiv Gandhi's assassins." His party colleague K. Karunakaran, the former Chief Minister of Kerala, declared that "no Congressman can allow the killers of our beloved leader to go scot-free."

Kesri's political attack appeared to be more indicative of the Congress(I)'s intent than the polemic unleashed by Jitendra Prasada, Karunakaran and Arjun Singh in New Delhi. There were several good reasons to reach such a conclusion. For one, the Arjun Singh group did not appear to have the support of his power rivals Sharad Pawar and former Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao. While both leaders believed that Kesri's position on the U.F. was soft, neither appeared keen to provoke a crisis. Instead, they looked to a long-term arrangement that would enable the Congress(I) to join the Government.

Then, the Interim Report did not deal with the possible conspiracy behind the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in the first place. Arjun Singh himself said on November 11 that his party's response to the Action Taken Report (ATR) of the Government would rest in part "on the totality of circumstances." U.F. leaders privately described the statements from Rajiv Gandhi 'loyalists' as designed for party consumption rather than as serious statements of political intent.

The U.F. and Kesri, by all accounts, worked to resolve a crisis that both knew would serve no purpose. Gujral invited the Congress(I) president and other senior party functionaries for dinner on November 13. Kesri, who had returned from Guwahati, had been studiously evasive when it came to establishing any linkage between the Interim Report and the U.F. Government's future. Sources told Frontline that he appeared receptive to Gujral's argument that the content of the Interim Report, whatever its findings, was not of relevance to relations between the U.F. and the Congress. Kesri also accepted assurances that the Report would be tabled in Parliament.

The Prime Minister, however, made it clear that he could make no commitments on the Front's relationship with the DMK. U.F. convener and Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister N. Chandrababu Naidu had stated just a day earlier that his formation would not abandon the DMK. The Congress(I), for its part, put off further action until the Congress Parliamentary Party (CPP) meeting scheduled for November 17. Although the dinner had no firm outcome, sense appeared to have prevailed; it would have prevailed - had it not been for the overweening ambition of the Arjun Singh group.

ON November 14, Kesri invited top leaders of his party, including Arjun Singh, Pranab Mukherjee and Jitendra Prasada, to a meeting to discuss details of his discourse with Gujral the previous day. Kesri appears to have made a major tactical error here. Having underestimated the strength of Arjun Singh's resolve to overthrow his control of the party, Kesri opened the Jain Commission issue to debate. The U.F., he said, was prepared to concede ground to the Congress(I) on the Report issue. This would enable the party to regain much of the authority it had lost when its Uttar Pradesh Legislature Party split in October. Gujral should, he argued, be therefore given time to work out a suitable arrangement among the Front's constituents, an arrangement that would strengthen the Congress(I)'s hands. Although he did not explicitly say so, Kesri appears to have had in mind his comments last month calling for the Congress(I) to join the U.F. Government.

Arjun Singh and Jitendra Prasada seized the opportunity to attack the Congress(I) president. Rajiv Gandhi's memory, they said, was being bartered away for personal power. If the argument cut both ways, since Arjun Singh stood to gain not inconsiderably by dealing in the former Prime Minister's memory, the fact remained that this position had the sanction of Sonia Gandhi. For many Congress party functionaries and much of its rank and file, Sonia Gandhi's blessings, implicit or otherwise, have hallowed status.

By November 15, Arjun Singh's campaign against Kesri had begun to tell. 'Loyalist' storm-troopers like Rajya Sabha MP S.S. Ahluwalia demanded harsh action against the DMK for its alleged links with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), responsible for the death of Indian soldiers in Sri Lanka. The 'loyalists' were joined by disgruntled regional leaders such as Jagannath Mishra of Bihar, who had been sidelined by Kesri. The Congress(I) president, by now outmanoeuvred, was forced to visit Sonia Gandhi at 10 Janpath to explain his position.

What exactly happened at 10 Janpath, no one but those present know. But events tell their own tale. At the CPP meeting of November 17, some were led to believe that Kesri's position prevailed owing to a poor turnout of MPs. The fact, however, was that the poor showing did not reflect disinterest. Kesri himself borrowed from hardline polemic, promising that "on no account will there be a compromise on the issue of Rajiv Gandhi's assassination."

Despite such language, Kesri was attacked in no uncertain terms. H. Hanumanthappa, once Kesri's ardent supporter, insisted on a discussion of the Congress(I)'s stand. Mamata Banerjee of West Bengal demanded that Kesri act to address "the deeply hurt and agitated sentiments of the Congress(I) workers." Other MPs, like the Seva Dal's Suresh Pachouri, let it be known that there could be "no compromise" on the DMK's removal from the U.F. At depositions made by a wider section of MPs before the Congress(I) general secretaries the next day, Kesri's isolation became clear.

AT this stage, the seriousness of the polemic had still not dawned on the U.F. Several leaders privately described the events at the CPP as a pressure tactic to gain leverage over the U.F. Kesri's decision to elicit the opinions of individual MPs was read as a sign that he would retain control over events. But in fact, the besieged leader was being pushed to endorse an agenda that he understood to be fraught with risks.

The United Front responded with an equally firm public position. Communist Party of India (CPI) general secretary A.B. Bardhan said after a meeting of the Core Committee of the U.F. that the unity of the grouping would not be compromised. "Nobody is leaving the U.F," he announced, "and nobody is being driven out either." Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi, after a meeting with Chandrababu Naidu, also let it be known that his party was prepared to face a debate on the Interim Report in Parliament, and provide a "point-by-point rebuttal with documentary proof."

Behind this polemic, however, was a certain degree of uncertainty. At least some people understood that the increasingly powerful Arjun Singh group was determined to precipitate a crisis. Key U.F. figures like Mulayam Singh Yadav were less than keen that the Gujral Government 's future be compromised for the DMK's benefit. Mulayam Singh argued that the raison d'etre of the U.F. was to fight the communal platform represented by the BJP. Since the battle against the BJP was principally in Uttar Pradesh, where the support of the Congress(I) was vital for the Samajwadi Party to gain ground, the survival of a U.F. understanding with the Congress(I) was of critical importance. As late as November 19, when the Samajwadi Party chief left for a youth convention in Hardwar, he appeared optimistic that such a deal would be possible, and that the U.F. Ministry could be saved. Another weak link in the U.F. was believed to be the Tamil Maanila Congress (TMC), whose leader G.K. Moopanar was stunned into a more than usualinability to speak out.

sine die.

THIS optimism ignored the increasing hold of a bloody-minded mentality on the collective imagination of the Congress(I). Events were outpacing mediation efforts. After the deposition of Congress(I) MPs on November 18, Mukherjee promptly left for 10 Janpath to inform Sonia Gandhi of the results. The vast majority of MPs had insisted that the removal of the DMK should be a precondition for continued support to the U.F. Government. Those like Sharad Pawar, who had previously hoped to reach a deal involving the Congress(I) joining the U.F. Government, also fell in line. Shortly afterwards, the Congress Working Committee (CWC) met to decide its course of action. Even as party spokesperson V.N. Gadgil called for "restraint from all sides," a draft letter was prepared to be sent to Gujral the next day. The draft demanded that the U.F. expel the DMK, dismiss the Tamil Nadu Government, take unspecified action against V.P. Singh, initiate punitive measures against Narasimha Rao, and, finally, initiate proceedings against Union Finance Minister P. Chidambaram.

That Chidambaram, curiously enough, is a member of the board of trustees of the Rajiv Gandhi Memorial Trust run by Sonia Gandhi was evidently lost on the authors of the draft letter, notably Pranab Mukherjee. Logic was evidently the last thing on the Congress' mind.

Parliament collapsed in pandemonium after the tabling of the ATR in Parliament on November 20. No discussion on the Interim Report was possible, suggesting that the Congress(I) was well aware of its weaknesses. The CWC letter that finally reached Gujral later that day only contained the first of the five demands contained in the draft. "An early response from your end," the letter concluded, "is expected."

Those with a commitment to fighting communalism in Uttar Pradesh had tried earlier to secure a compromise that would save the U.F. Government. Mulayam Singh desperately lobbied his friends on the Left, pointing to the potentially disastrous consequences of the Gujral Government's collapse for secular forces. The Congress(I)'s conduct in Parliament and its subsequent letter showed, however, that it was fundamentally uninterested in efforts to resolve the issue through dialogue.

On November 21, the U.F.'s Core Committee finally did what had long been expected: it formally rejected the Congress(I) demand that it expel the DMK. Chandrababu Naidu, in particular, argued strongly that the U.F. support Karunanidhi in the interests of the Front's unity. "We yield to none in punishing the killers of Rajiv Gandhi," U.F. spokesperson S. Jaipal Reddy said. "Rajiv Gandhi was the former Prime Minister of this country and we are committed to bring out the truth behind his assassination and punish the guilty." Karunanidhi thanked his U.F. partners. Mulayam Singh Yadav left New Delhi before the Core Committee meeting ended.

The U.F. now deliberated on an appropriate response to the letter. One option was for Gujral to recommend dissolution of the Lok Sabha. The other was to let the Congress(I) withdraw support and move a motion of no-confidence; the U.F. would use the debate in Parliament to demolish Justice Jain's tissue-thin grasp of fact, debunk Congress contentions and seize the initiative. Gujral, who wanted to explore every possibility for compromise, appeared by his actions to suggest that the second course was the appropriate one. The Left, on the other hand, moved to a position that recommending dissolution before the Congress(I) formally withdrew support would be a more decisive course of action.

EVEN as the debate over pre-emptive dissolution versus facing a no-confidence vote raged in the U.F., the Congress(I) displayed last-minute signs of developing cold feet. A bizarre game of waiting for the letter from Gujral now began. Jitendra Prasada began to talk about a non-BJP, non-DMK alternative. Karunakaran, for his part, said that "the leaders of the U.F. and Congress(I) could sit together and work out an arrangement." On November 22, both leaders asserted that "the threat of the communal BJP was indeed strong," and that the U.F. and the Congress(I) "could still find ways and means to counter this unitedly." It appears likely, in retrospect, that barring some persons owing personal allegiance to Arjun Singh and K. Vijayabhaskara Reddy, the bulk of the Congress never expected the U.F. to hold together. The backtracking was also prompted by the very real possibility of Congress(I) defections to the BJP - Uttar Pradesh style.

But the doors had slammed shut even as the Congress(I) sought to pull back. Both the CPI(M) and the CPI rejected moves to eject the DMK, and the next day they formally demanded that Gujral ask President K.R. Narayanan to dissolve Parliament. Until the very last moment, the Congress(I) could not summon a consensus to withdraw support to the Government. Both former Prime Minister H.D. Deve Gowda and Chandrababu Naidu came around to supporting the Left's position. All that remained was for Prime Minister Gujral to drive to Rashtrapati Bhavan.

MEANWHILE, in Tamil Nadu, the DMK was in a fighting mood. The ruling party in the State is pleased no end with the U.F. constituents' firm rejection of the Congress(I) demand to drop the DMK Ministers in Delhi. Chief Minister Karunanidhi made it clear that rather than submit to the Congress(I) demand, his party would face elections to the Lok Sabha. This assertive mood was in evidence from the day the content of the Interim Report became clear in the leaked excerpts. On that day, Karunanidhi declared that the DMK "will not wilt" under the allegations and called the Report "old wine in a new bottle."

But the DMK's State-level ally, the TMC, continued to be confused. Unsure of its own stand, it remained silent on the demand that the DMK Ministers be jettisoned. The relationship between the two parties, which was under stress, became even more strained. Karunanidhi coolly declined to comment on the TMC's silence but clarified that TMC president G.K. Moopanar did not suggest at U.F. meetings that the DMK Ministers leave.

Placed at a clear disadvantage in comparison with the DMK in Tamil Nadu politics, the TMC equivocated. If its leadership was openly to say that the DMK Ministers need not quit, it would appear that the TMC was backing a party Congresspersons blamed for the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi. (P. Chidambaram, after all, had made the strongest and most virulent accusations against the DMK, in an earlier avatar.) sIf the TMC were to take the stand that the DMK Ministers should quit, then its alliance with the DMK would come apart. A top TMC leader said: "It is of greater advantage to the DMK for us to remain silent than for us to comment on the situation." The TMC's options are limited with regard to a poll alliance too. It is too late in the day for the party to find a new electoral partner.

ON the evening of November 24, Prime Minister Gujral delivered his response, as approved by the U.F.'s Core Committee the night before, to Kesri's letter. It made four specific points. The first was that trial proceedings before the Designated Court in Chennai would establish who Rajiv Gandhi's killers were and it would be irresponsible to prejudge the outcome in a political forum. Second, the letter stated, on the basis of the U.F.'s study of the Jain Report, it did not believe that the DMK was guilty of abetting the LTTE. Therefore, the third point stated, the Front was unwilling to expel the DMK from its ranks. Finally, the U.F. expressed its willingness to continue any political dialogue based on the first three points as preconditions.

The letter followed a last-minute request to the President by some 40 MPs from among non-Left parties, including the Janata Dal, the Congress(I), the Samajwadi Party and the BJP, seeking to prevent a dissolution of Parliament. The dissolution of Parliament was, however, on the agenda even before the Congress(I)'s response to the U.F. letter, when the Left parties issued statements earlier in the day demanding that the issue be now taken to the people.

THE end of the drama has raised more profound questions for the future of the U.F. than emerged during its time in power. The Congress(I)'s course of action is not wholly without rationale. If the party manages to remain united despite allurements from the BJP to a section of Congressmen, its future cannot deterministically be held to be bleak. Alliances with the RJD and the Samajwadi Party could bring it a better electoral result than in the past, while regional discontent in Haryana, Rajasthan, Karnataka and Maharashtra might similarly improve its representation in Parliament.

Crucially, if Sonia Gandhi does in fact manage to generate a limited sympathy effect by actually participating in campaigning, key U.F. States in the South might conceivably be hit.

The U.F. will have to shape a coherent political agenda, built on its core commitments to securalism, federalism and social justice if it is to withstand these challenges. Having held ground against blackmail by the Congress(I), it will now have to shape up for electoral battle early next year.

With inputs from T.S. Subramanian in Chennai.
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