Sonia Gandhi takes charge of the Congress(I) and speaks of revamp and revival, but evidently it will be a long haul.
EVEN if a supreme leader no longer exists in keeping with past traditions, compulsions create one. That seemingly was the theme of the All India Congress Committee (AICC) session of April 6, which formally ratified Sonia Gandhi's ascent to the leadership of the party. In some senses, the AICC session was the logical culmination of the build-up that began with Sonia Gandhi's entry into the election campaign on behalf of the party early this year.
The mood at the session was sober. The new leader's early affirmation that the Congress(I) would be entering a phase of introspection and reconstruction, rather than exploring any short-cuts to power by destabilising the A.B. Vajpayee Gover-nment, restrained expectations of an immediate change in the party's fortunes. "I am not a saviour, as some of you may believe," said Sonia Gandhi. Rather, said she, the "revival of our party is going to be a long-drawn process involving sincere hard work from each and every one of us."
As a statement of intentions, the newly installed Congress(I) president's speech left little room for contention. But the details of the proposed revamp remain to be worked out. The AICC's endorsement of the seven-page political resolution which granted Sonia Gandhi unfettered power to rebuild the party from foundations upwards, is of a piece with several such exercises in the past. And in their tone and content, many of the speeches only seemed a repeat of several others that have been heard in recent times in Congress(I) circles.
On display once again was a familiar Congress tendency - the readiness to spread the blame for the party's declining fortunes all over the subordinate levels of leadership, while leaving the apex untouched. P.V. Narasimha Rao and Sitaram Kesri have also heard the same protestations of undiminished faith and allegiance from the flock. But that did not help them avert two of the most disastrous electoral debacles in the history of the party. The problem with the Congress(I) is that the cries of loyalty it periodically emits do not reverberate far beyond the narrow confines of its occasional conclaves.
SONIA'S speech dealt with a wide range of remedies for the revival of the party. There would be a "task force" to ensure the implementation of the political resolution. There would no longer be any unilateral appointments from Delhi in the State units of the party. Priority would be accorded to reviving the party in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu. Dalits, religious minorities and tribal communities would be restored to pivotal positions within the organisation. There would be a series of special party discussions on the northeastern region and a new focus on Kashmir. And the culture of sycophancy would be decisively stamped out. Electoral alliances that involve short-term benefits but long-term dangers will not be imposed, said Sonia.
Another theme that she brought up was unity at all costs, which has often enough turned out to be an adverse prescription for the Congress(I). The alternative prescription was that top party officials must perform if they were to retain their leadership in a united party.
Any notion of infallibility nurtures sycophancy. Sonia Gandhi's determination to stamp out the culture of servility may have stood scrutiny if her own elevation to the post of Congress(I) president had not been an outcome of the party's desperate urge to milk the dynastic aura she has inherited for all it is worth. The echoes from her speech had hardly died down before the delegates in attendance at the AICC session resumed doing what they know best - lobbying and manoeuvring for position and advantage, utilising their real and imagined proximity to the power centre as a weapon of battle.
Sonia Gandhi's intention clearly is to keep the party together. She is not inclined at this stage to seek redress for the slights that she may have suffered during P.V. Narasimha Rao's stewardship of the organisation. The former Prime Minister was a prominent speaker at the session and his presence on the dais all through the proceedings evoked comment.
As the Congress party begins a new chapter in its fortunes, it remains to be seen how far the gestures of its new leader can be backed up with substantive changes. During her first post-election foray into grassroots campaigning, Sonia Gandhi addressed a rally at Motihari in Bihar on April 17. She followed it up with a visit to Champaran - an elaborate act of obeisance at the site where Mahatma Gandhi began his campaign against colonial rule in 1917. Bihar is a political arena where the Congress confronts an acute dilemma. The Congress(I)'s alliance with Laloo Prasad Yadav's Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) brought it limited dividends in the recent elections, and helped it avoid the kind of rout it faced in Uttar Pradesh. But the ranks remain divided on the sustenance of this alliance as Sitaram Kesri discovered when he rose to speak at the Motihari rally. Confronted with the raucous mood of the crowd which accurately held him responsible for the pact with the RJD, Kesri quickly concluded his speech and withdrew in some pique.
The mood within the Congress(I) is clearly in favour of an independent course in Bihar. But this could further fragment the opposition to the Bharatiya Janata Party-Samata Party consolidation and pave the way for a saffron takeover of yet another State. That does cause some misgivings in the inner councils of the Congress(I), indicating that the line of least resistance could be the preferred option - a continuation of the current uneasy coexistence. This influences the initial conditions for the revamp of the party in a fairly decisive fashion, limiting and constraining it within certain narrow grooves. The magic wand of the dynasty would have to recognise these restrictions in the sweep that it imparts to the organisational revival.
AS in the past, specific details of the organisational revamp are being worked out through a number of committees. Principal among these would be the "task force" headed by former Lok Sabha Speaker P.A. Sangma, which submitted its report to the party president just before she left on her Bihar tour. The committee approach has invited some sceptical comment within the ranks, evident even during the AICC session. Members from Rajasthan and Maharashtra, where the party showed dramatically improved results in the recent elections, were especially unconvinced. Their reading is simple: that the key to organisational rejuvenation lies in working out appropriate alliances and retaining a certain unity of purpose in political campaigning.
This reading is buttressed by the provisional findings of certain other committees appointed by the Congress president. For instance, Sushil Kumar Shinde, a senior Congressman from Maharashtra, has come up with the less than earth-shaking finding that infighting led to the party's rout in U.P. The same diagnosis with varying degrees of emphasis has come from West Bengal, Punjab, Himachal Pradesh and some of the southern States. In some cases, the failure to work out appropriate local alliances has also been identified as a contributory factor.
The possible courses of action that Sonia could adopt on the basis of these diagnoses are unclear. In States where an organisational revamp was felt necessary, there are well-entrenched factions with their own vital interests to protect. For long, the Congress president retained the moral and political authority to manage these factional conflicts in the manner that was deemed best for the party. The decline in the Congress(I)'s fortunes began when the central leadership lost this ability and began increasingly to adopt the ad hoc course of appeasing the factions.
There was a prognosis of some of these difficulties at the AICC session, in the content of the speeches made by certain aggrieved members. Priya Ranjan Dasmunshi, the voluble Congressman from Calcutta, publicly ventilated his grievances against the faction of the party led by Pranab Mukherjee. That was a frontal assault. But Madhavrao Scindia, party general secretary, chose a more oblique style of expression. By warmly praising former Himachal Pradesh Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh for having owned up responsibility for the party's defeat in that State, he left few doubts about who his target was. Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Digvijay Singh's stated view that he bears no part of the responsibility for the Congress(I)'s rout in Madhya Pradesh, has not gone down well with other powerful politicians from the State.
Sonia Gandhi has before her the unenviable task of containing these burgeoning conflicts while simultaneously bringing in members of her late husband's inner circle into key positions. Individuals like Arjun Singh, K. Natwar Singh and Sheila Dixit are likely to be specially favoured, as also largely apolitical personalities such as H.Y. Sharada Prasad, Suman Dubey and Jairam Ramesh, who served the Rajiv regime in various administrative positions. Those likely to be consigned to the margins include Jitendra Prasada, Ghulam Nabi Azad and Pranab Mukherjee.
At the top the Congress Working Committee may see a few changes. The losers in this round could well find accommodation in the committees that have been proposed by Sangma's task force, for monitoring the performance of the Vajpayee Ministry in certain key areas. In the spirit of conciliation that Sonia is seeking consciously to foster, there would seem to be little room for causing offence or pique. Also likely are changes in State-level leadership in Orissa, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh and Delhi. Congress front organisations, such as the Seva Dal, the Mahila Congress and the National Students Union of India, could also be vehicles for the rehabilitation of the less favoured or for the initiation of the more favoured.
The more hard-headed among Congress(I) leaders have no illusions about Sonia's potential. As Sharad Pawar put it, without her active campaigning the Congress(I) could well have plunged below the 100-seat mark in the Lok Sabha. But then, it has also registered deeply in the psyche of most Congressmen that all her efforts in U.P., Kerala, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh produced only indifferent results.
Sonia Gandhi has today recognised the pivotal significance of rebuilding the Congress(I)'s crumbling political base by recruiting the goodwill and loyalty of the party's regional satraps. The latter in turn have made their peace with factional rivals in the anticipation that the new balance of forces within the organisation will protect and preserve their vital interests. With the adhesive of power being absent, it is the hope of a restoration of past glories that binds together this fractious group. Even if she can deal with the threat of a judicial dissection of Bofors and other scandals from her husband's tenure, Sonia Gandhi would have to ensure that the promise of power never quite vanishes from the horizons of her party colleagues.