Power struggles in the Congress(I)

Print edition : March 21, 1998

Sitaram Kesri's announcement of his "decision to resign" as Congress(I) president may be an indication of the intensification of the power struggle in the party in the post-election situation.

WINDS of change are sweeping across the Congress(I) after the Lok Sabha elections, in which the party failed to live up to even its own modest expectations. Even as the last results from Jammu and Kashmir were coming in on the evening of March 9, party president Sitaram Kesri dramatically announced his "decision to resign" from the top organisational post. More than anything else, the announcement signified a new dimension to the power struggle that is going on in the party in the post-election situation.

Under normal circumstances, Kesri's declaration would have been seen as a carte blanche to Sonia Gandhi, widow of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi who had emerged as the Congress(I)'s star campaigner in the elections, to take over the leadership of the party. This would have been especially so because Kesri's announcement came barely days after the Congress Working Committee resolved to leave the choice of the Congress(I) Parliamentary Party (CPP) leader to Sonia Gandhi. However, significantly, Kesri's announcement represented no such offer to Sonia Gandhi. On March 9, Kesri announced not that he was actually resigning, only that he had decided to resign.

Kesri explained at the press conference that his decision was not occasioned by the Congress(I)'s failure to do sufficiently well in the elections to form a government at the Centre. He added that he wished to convene an urgent session of the All India Congress Committee (AICC) to place the reasons for his decision before it.

At the press conference Kesri said that only a charismatic leader like Sonia could add glitter to the party president's post. But separately talking to reporters afterwards, Kesri seemed to make veiled references against Sonia Gandhi: he referred to differences between Mahatma Gandhi and Subhash Chandra Bose during the pre-Independence period and said that Bose had resigned from the party presidentship because of the differences.

Sonia Gandhi campaigning in Amethi. Also on the dais are (from left) Congress(I) vice-president Jitendra Prasada, party candidate in Amethi Satish Sharma, and president of the Uttar Pradesh unit of the party N.D. Tiwari.-SUBIR ROY

Commenting on the development, a Sonia loyalist leader told Frontline that Kesri "is trying to play a new game to retain some position of power within the party." The leader further said: "If Kesri wanted to accept Soniaji's leadership, he would have merely announced his resignation or placed it before the CWC without making a call to convene a special session of the AICC."

UNDOUBTEDLY, Kesri's announ-cement was influenced by the dramatic changes that the election results has brought about in the Congress(I). After the elections, the faction led by Kesri, and the "Rajiv loyalists", who are considered close to Sonia Gandhi, found themselves on a relatively weak wicket; on the other hand, leaders such as Sharad Pawar and Rajesh Pilot, who had been sidelined in the organisational elections and who are not much in favour with Sonia Gandhi, had emerged powerful. During the campaign, the general assessment was that "Rajiv loyalist" leaders, especially Arjun Singh, would take over the party after the elections. The fact that the Congress(I) depended heavily on Sonia Gandhi to advance its campaign was considered an important factor in Arjun Singh's favour. However, the electoral defeat of all the leaders in the Sonia Gandhi camp, including Arjun Singh, N.D. Tiwari, Mohsina Kidwai, Sheila Dixit, Satish Sharma and Salman Khurshid, upset this group's calculations.

At the same time, the gains for the Congress(I) in Maharashtra and Rajasthan improved the standing of Pawar and Pilot within the party. The Congress(I)'s spectacular gains in Maharashtra boosted Pawar's chances of becomming the CPP leader, although the CWC had left the choice to Sonia Gandhi.

Pawar, sensing his chance to become CPP leader, and even Prime Minister, in the event of the Congress(I) and the United Front working out a post-poll alliance, argued in favour of the Congress(I) staking its claim to form a government. Pro-Sonia Gandhi leaders such as Arjun Singh opposed the idea. Other leaders, such as Madhavrao Scindia and A.K. Antony, who are wary of Pawar's dominant position in the party, were also reportedly against the party staking its claim to form the government. According to Scindia, the Congress(I) had no mandate to form the government and it would be best for the party to sit in the Opposition and build up the organisation.

According to a CWC member who spoke on the condition of anonymity, Kesri's announcement of his "decision to resign" must be seen in this background. He was of the view that the thrust of Kesri's plan was to retain the CPP leadership and prevent Pawar from emerging as a leader greater than him. "What Kesri seems to be aiming," the leader said, "is to give the party president's post to Soniaji, retain the CPP leadership himself and limit Pawar's authority by making him the leader of the party in the Lok Sabha, a post the Maratha leader held in the previous Lok Sabha too."

It is to be seen whether the "Rajiv- Sonia loyalist" faction of the party will go along with this plan.These loyalists can either go along with Kesri or join hands with Pawar to deliver a knockout punch to Kesri. What option they will choose is not clear. But what is certain is that the developments after Kesri's announcement will create new upheavals in the Congress(I), even as it negotiates with the UF to form a non-BJP government.

ACCORDING to sources in the Congress(I), before Kesri's announcement of his decision to resign, there was an effort by leaders opposed to Pawar, such as Scindia, to form a broad anti-Pawar alliance and upset the Maharashtra leader's chances of becoming CPP leader. The idea was to pit MPs from all other States against him. However, with Kesri's March 9 announcement this game was taken to a new level. But despite their opposition to Pawar, dominant sections of the Kesri faction were of the view that the party should try to form a government.

The Kesri faction calculated that its standing in a Congress(I) that is dependent on pre-poll allies and some U.F. constituents would be better than that in a Congress(I) sitting in the Opposition. For Kesri has better personal equations with leaders of allies such as the RJD and some U.F. constituents such as the S.P. than leaders of the Sonia faction such as Arjun Singh have.

In the midst of all this, there is also the apprehension whether the party will split with one section deciding to join hands with the BJP. As of now, the most important factor that militates against such a possibility is that the number of wavering, BJP-inclined MPs, does not add up to one-third of the CPP, the number required to effect a formal split.These MPs essentially come from Andhra Pradesh, where the Congress(I)'s fight is essentially against the Telugu Desam, which is a U.F. constituent. However, party leaders themselves admit in private that the equation may change once the BJP and its allies assume power.

Clearly, the Congress(I) is in a dilemma. If it does not come to power, the party may split; if it does, the power struggle within will intensify, especially considering the fact that all the major players have their areas of strengths. The strength of the "Rajiv loyalists" is that they are supported by the party's only major crowd puller; the Kesri faction is that it has good equations with allies such as the RJD; Pawar has the leverage of having come up with a powerful electoral performance. How all these games within the Congress(I) will develop is to be seen. The only certain thing is that the power struggle within the party has risen to a new level, one in which even Sonia Gandhi's standing as the supreme, yet unofficial, authority is facing a challenge.

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