A party in disarray

Print edition : December 13, 1997

Lacking ideological and organisational coherence, the Congress(I) finds that it has no real issue to fight the elections on.

"DEFINITELY." This was how Congress(I) president Sitaram Kesri responded when he was asked by mediapersons whether he was confident of leading the party to victory in the Lok Sabha election. Kesri was addressing his first press conference after the dissolution of the Lok Sabha on December 4. Coming from the leader of a party that is licking grievous self-inflicted wounds, Kesri's reply drew guffaws all round and the Congress president himself joined in the laughter. Developments within the Congress(I) had made in clear that Kesri could not quite have meant what he said.

On December 5, the day after Kesri's press conference, the Congress Working Committee (CWC) met in Delhi. The apparent objective of the meeting was to make preparations for the elections but the CWC ended up preparing a list of the party's woes. The list included the absence of a vote-catching leader and of real campaign issues. The mood was one of despondency. The refrain of many CWC members in informal conversations with mediapersons was that the country as well as the Congress(I) could well have done without elections at present.

It had become increasingly clear to the Congress(I) leadership that the party has no real issue to fight the elections on. Kesri has already rejected the idea of making the Jain Commission's Interim Report an election issue. He told the Delhi press conference that the party's enemy number one would be communal forces represented by the Bharatiya Janata Party and that the "indictment" of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhakam by the Jain Commission for the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi would not be an election issue.

According to a CWC member from South India, the party is worried by the realisation that it cannot claim leadership in the fight against communalism any longer. If the primary objective of the Congress was to fight the BJP, he said, it really could not explain why it had toppled the government.

Even leaders like Arjun Singh, K. Vijayabhaskara Reddy and Jitendra Prasada, who were initially hopeful of making political capital out of the Jain Commission's Interim Report, are no longer so sure of its effectiveness as an election issue. These leaders advocated a tough line against the United Front Government, especially against the DMK, and said that the "emotional appeal" of the Rajiv Gandhi assassination issue would help the party's electoral performance. They were also of the view that Sonia Gandhi, who had taken an active interest in the proceedings of the Jain Commission, would campaign actively for the party. The ultimate aim of these "Rajiv loyalists" was to sideline Kesri and his associates and take control of the party.

At the Congress Working Committee meeting in New Delhi.-ANU PUSHKARNA

But their hopes receded when it became clear that the U.F. would not buckle under pressure from the Congress(I) and would remain united. Also, to their dismay, the Jain report, far from creating any great emotional upsurge, became a target of wide public criticism and even ridicule. Their disappointment was compounded by the lack of any firm indication from Sonia Gandhi that she would campaign for the party in the coming elections. She reportedly told Arjun Singh, after it became clear that the country was moving towards elections, that she would consider campaigning in a few, selected constituencies. Such limited campaign, the hardliners realised, would hardly help their cause, within the party or outside.

Nevertheless, indications are that these reverses do not mean the end of the effort of the hardliners to take control of the party leadership. Their next attempt is likely to be to gain the highest possible number of parliamentary seats for their group. With a relatively weak leader like Kesri at the top, the struggle for supremacy within the organisation is likely to intensify.

Even as the CWC meeting was on, there were signs of revolt against the leadership. For instance, former Karnataka Chief Minister S. Bangarappa, who had rejoined the party during the "reunification drive" launched by Kesri after taking over as party president last year, left the party. The indications are that Bangarappa will align either with the Janata Dal or the BJP. This will create more than a little unease in the Congress(I), since Karnataka is a State where the party wants to make gains in the general elections.

According to many CWC members, it will be a major gain if the party actually manages to retain its present strength in the next Lok Sabha. The party hopes to make marginal gains in Andhra Pradesh, Orissa and Rajasthan. It expects the incumbency factor to work against the Telugu Desam Party in Andhra Pradesh and the BJP in Rajasthan. In Orissa, it hopes that the BJP will cut into the votes of the Janata Dal, the Congress(I)'s principal opponent in the State. But the party does not expect an improved performance in the rest of the country. CWC members say that while the party may be able to maintain its present position in Kerala and Karnataka, the boomerang effect of the Jain Commission's Interim Report will decimate the party in Tamil Nadu.

In the North, the party is trying to form alliances with the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) in Bihar and the Samajwadi Party (S.P.) in Uttar Pradesh. But being parties that have tasted power at the Centre, the RJD and the S.P. may not concede many seats to the Congress(I). The party also may try to revive its alliance with the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), especially in Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Punjab and Madhya Pradesh. The BSP, however, has also made it clear that it will not go out of its way to accommodate the Congress(I).

The Congress party today lacks ideological and organisational coherence as never before. As things now stand, the leaders of the Congress(I) will not be able to put aside their differences and work to improve their party's strength in the next Lok Sabha.

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