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Print edition : Jan 24, 1998 T+T-

Sonia Gandhi's entry on the campaign scene is seen to have strengthened the position of the Congress(I) vis-a-vis other parties, but it has also exacerbated factional conflict within the Congress(I).

ON January 16, after Sonia Gandhi's first four campaign meetings in South India were rated a success by the Congress(I), party spokesperson Salman Khursheed made a very large claim at the Congress(I)'s daily press conference. He said that Sonia Gandhi had practically set the national agenda for the coming years, that "Mrs. Gandhi has pitched for national unity as the pre-requisite of stability and a stable government" and that she had "relaunched the nation's quest for the 21st century." While non-believers would find that a hard one to swallow, Khursheed's statement does indicate the excitement that Sonia Gandhi's early performance has created in the Congress(I). The way she conducted herself on her first foray into the campaign as well as the public and media response to it have more than satisfied the party hierarchy. The worries of her supporters and her detractors in the party about her decision to campaign actively appear no longer to exist.

When Sonia Gandhi decided to campaign, the Congress' central worry was whether she would be able to conduct herself as a political campaigner, one who addresses real issues of politics. That she would attract crowds on account of the "curiosity factor" was not really in doubt. But her understanding of political issues was considered suspect, as were her skills in dealing with them.

The predominant impression in the Congress(I), especially among sections close to party president Sitaram Kesri, was that Sonia Gandhi's comprehension of contemporary political issues started and ended with the Jain Commission. The Kesri camp as well as leaders not associated with any particular faction, such as A.K. Antony and J.B. Patnaik, had fears that Sonia Gandhi's campaign would focus on the Commission's Interim Report, and that she would push all other issues that the party wants to be identified with - the fight against communalism, economic liberalisation and social justice, for instance - to the background.

However, the general perception in the Congress(I) now is that Sonia Gandhi does indeed have the acumen to address questions other than the Jain Commission and also to put the Opposition on the defensive. As a matter of fact, she did not speak about the Jain Commission at any of the early campaign meetings. Referring to her statement in Hyderabad that Rajiv Gandhi would have protected the Babri Masjid with his life, Congress Working Committee (CWC) member Antony said that with that statement Sonia Gandhi had expressed the Congress(I)'s commitment to secularism more forcefully than anybody else could have done.

According to Salman Khursheed, Sonia Gandhi's demand in her Bangalore speech that the names of the recipients of illegal payoffs in the Bofors-India deal be made public is a master-stroke, one that has taken the battle right into the camps of the Bharatiya Janata Party and the United Front. Although political commentators have held that aggressive posturing on the Bofors issue will boomerang on the Congress(I), leaders like Arjun Singh do not agree (see interview on Page 12).

The Congress(I) leadership also believes that the crowds at her meetings were there not just because of the curiosity factor, that they were generally impressed by Sonia Gandhi's presence and that the meetings have had a positive political impact. Even the response to her first meeting at Sriperumbudur, attended by only about 10,000 people, is rated by the Central Election Committee as having been "enthusiastic". The meetings at Bangalore and Hyderabad were well-attended.

According to several CWC members, the "foreigner factor" sought to be highlighted by the BJP has not become a handicap at all. Overall, the assessment is that Sonia Gandhi has some of the Nehru-Gandhi family's crowd-pulling abilities and has given the party an all-India campaigner who can match the mass appeal of senior leaders of other parties. That is a feat that no other Congress leader, including Kesri and "heavyweights" such as Arjun Singh, Sharad Pawar and Jitendra Prasada, can hope to achieve.

BUT is all this really enough to turn the fortunes of the Congress(I) around? There is no unanimity to the answer to that question, either within the Congress(I) or among recent defectors from it. According to a senior Congress(I) leader from South India (who wished to remain anonymous), it would be unrealistic to expect Sonia Gandhi to make good, in a month and a half, the loss of credibility that the Congress has suffered over the last five years. "The real issue," he said, "is how far Soniaji can help increase the number of seats that the party wins." He said that the Congress(I)'s electoral performance also depended on the selection of good candidates and on containing factional struggles in the State units of the party. Factionalism is the norm in almost every State unit, and there is little that Sonia Gandhi can do about it.

According to this senior leader, had Sonia Gandhi not campaigned, the Congress could at best have won 20 seats less than it did in 1996. "If Soniaji's campaign helps the party retain its seat-count in the Lok Sabha or to win 10 to 15 seats more than it did in 1996, that would be a major contribution to the party." And that statement appears to reflect the general opinion in the Congress(I). Dominant sections of the party clearly do not expect Sonia Gandhi to perform a miracle and take the party to a majority in the Lok Sabha.

Rangarajan Kumaramangalam, former Congress(I) Minister and now a member of the BJP, says that Sonia Gandhi's campaign will not help the Congress(I) fulfil even this limited objective. According to him, Sonia Gandhi could have changed the entire situation had she decided seven or eight months ago to take an active part in politics; her entry now really comes too late to help the Congress(I) (see interview on Page 16). Kumaramangalam, who professes high esteem for the Nehru-Gandhi family and Sonia Gandhi despite his defection to the BJP, is of the view that Sonia Gandhi has entered politics essentially to keep a hold on the Congress(I) as a political vehicle for her children. He also says that Sonia Gandhi's entry into the campaign will not result in dramatic returns to the party by those who have left it in the recent past, basically because she will not be allowed by the present leadership to control the party organisation.

Kumaramangalam points to Sonia Gandhi's failure to keep Mamata Banerjee in the party, despite having intervened well before the West Bengal dissident's formal expulsion. These views are endorsed by Suresh Kalmadi, another former Congress(I) Minister who has left the party. According to Kalmadi, the reason why Rajiv loyalists like Mani Shankar Aiyar and Kumaramangalam have not returned to the Congress(I) is because Sonia Gandhi will not have any real say in organisational matters.

INDEED, Kesri has given clear signals that he will not allow Sonia Gandhi and her supporters, such as Arjun Singh, to have their way in party affairs just because her campaign meetings have been well received. Indications are that the preparation of the Congress(I)'s list of candidates will result in a bitter contest, involving not only supporters of Kesri and Sonia Gandhi, but also other leaders such as former Prime Minister P. V. Narasimha Rao, Antony and Patnaik.

The first sign of Kesri's belligerence came when he nominated CWC member R.K. Dhawan to be the party's candidate for the New Delhi parliamentary seat. The decision was announced just a few days after Sonia Gandhi's decision to campaign was announced. Sonia Gandhi was not consulted before the nomination was announced. According to party insiders, Kesri made the announcement because his supporters, including Dhawan himself, were worried that Sonia Gandhi would oppose Dhawan's candidature. Sonia Gandhi is reported to have summoned CWC member Ghulam Nabi Azad to express her displeasure at this development. The response from the Sonia Gandhi camp did not stop with this. On January 6, while speaking at a convention of the National Students Union of India (NSUI, the student wing of the party) at the Talkatora Stadium in New Delhi, Kesri was interrupted continuously. Slogan-shouters demanded that he resign from party presidentship and that Sonia Gandhi be made president instead. The convention degenerated into violence between pro-Kesri and anti-Kesri groups, and party leaders finally left the convention in a huff.

A major consequence of the hasty announcement of Dhawan's candidature is that the Congress(I) has had to change its schedule with respect to the finalisation of candidates' names. Earlier, in order to get a headstart in the campaign, the party's Central Election Committee (CEC) had decided to complete the selection of candidates by January 11. The controversy created by Dhawan's candidature upset that scheme and in all likelihood the party is likely to be able to finish the process only by the end of the month.

The effort to select candidates has been marred continuously by disputes between various groups. A major problem arose on January 17, when the party attempted to finalise a list of 16 candidates. The names included that of Narasimha Rao. The Kesri group had decided to deny the ticket to Narasimha Rao, and Kesri supporter Madhavrao Scindia made an announcement to that effect at a press conference on January 12.

At the meeting of the CEC on January 17, however, several senior leaders, including Jitendra Prasada, Antony and Patnaik spoke in favour of Narasimha Rao's candidature. The argument went on for five hours. Kesri and his supporters finally relented and cleared a list that had Narasimha Rao's name on it. Despite all this, the list was withheld on express instructions from Kesri. What position Sonia Gandhi will take on this issue is not clear, since she is close to neither Narasimha Rao nor Kesri. However, what is significant in the episode is that neither those in favour of Narasimha Rao's candidature nor those against it sought Sonia Gandhi's "guidance" in the matter.

IT is clear that regional leaders want to retain their power in the party. This is true of those leaders who took a position on the Narasimha Rao issue as well as those who remained non-committal, such as Pawar. The ambitions of State-level leaders will certainly be an obstacle to the efforts of Sonia Gandhi and her group to take total control of the party.

In the midst of all this, Sonia Gandhi said in an interview with a private television channel that she had no disagreements on any issue with Kesri or any other leader of the party. She also added that she did not want to be party president for now.

By all indications, Sonia Gandhi is indeed waiting to take over the organisation, in all likelihood by propping up a person like N.D.Tiwari or Arjun Singh. For the time being, however, her objective is likely to be to get as many of her supporters as possible to be candidates in the election. What turn disputes in the Congress(I) will take in the days to come is to be seen. Nevertheless, it is clear that while Sonia Gandhi's entry into active politics has helped the Congress(I) in its electoral battle against other political parties, it has exacerbated factional conflict within the Congress party itself.