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Waves of protest

Print edition : Jan 14, 2011 T+T-

Outbursts by delegates at the Congress plenary expose the problems in the party in various States.

at Burari in Delhi

THAT some serious issues agitating Congress workers in various States have been brushed aside for too long by the central leadership came to light at the party's two-day plenary at Burari on the outskirts of Delhi. Speakers and delegates demanded that the central leaders pay heed to the voices of ground-level workers, exposing the organisational malaise facing the grand old party at the grass-roots level.

It was party workers from Bihar who first dared to air the dirty linen. This was followed by a vigorous articulation of the problems faced by the party in West Bengal vis-a-vis its alliance partner the Trinamool Congress. Workers from Tamil Nadu protested against the loss of self-respect as a result of the party's alliance with the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), and not to be left behind, Congress leaders from Andhra Pradesh raised the long-suppressed demand for a clear stand on the Telangana issue.

The simmering discontent among the delegates and party leaders from Uttar Pradesh at the choice of speakers from the State at the plenary was contained following some hurried behind-the-scenes work by senior leaders as any dissent from Uttar Pradesh would have done irreparable damage to the Hail Sonia, Hail Rahul campaign that tops the party agenda.

It was obvious that things were falling apart and the central leadership could not hold it together. The State units have been plagued by problems, and the tensions that exploded caused much embarrassment to the party high command. But, predictably, there was no response from the central leadership except the routine claim that ours is a truly democratic organisation and everyone has a right to speak and vent out their grievances.

The skeletons started tumbling out on the first day of the plenary, December 19, itself when the delegates from Bihar heckled Mukul Wasnik, general secretary in charge of the State. The party suffered a humiliating defeat in the Assembly elections in the State; it won just four seats (down from the 2005 tally of nine) despite hectic campaigning by party president Sonia Gandhi and general secretary Rahul Gandhi. The delegates demanded an opportunity to express their views on the party's debacle. When they were not allowed to go on the dais, they started shouting slogans against Wasnik and other senior leaders. They accused Wasnik of selling the party ticket, which resulted in deserving candidates being left out and the party performing badly. Although senior leader Oscar Fernandes managed to pacify the shouting delegates, they were later barred from attending the plenary and their passes were withdrawn. But most of them returned on December 20 with leaflets and posters, which were distributed at the venue and were also shown on the large screen that was showing the proceedings live, causing much embarrassment to those present on the stage.

The leaflets and posters, issued by an organisation called Bihar Congress Bachao Morcha, carried pictures of Wasnik, All India Congress Committee secretary Sagar Raika, AICC minority cell chief Imran Kidwai and former Congress Legislature Party leader of Bihar Ashok Ram and accused them of taking money to nominate candidates. The leaflets also sought action against the leaders and a Central Bureau of Investigation probe into their bank accounts. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi watched the slogan-shouting and ruckus stone-faced.

Another major embarrassment for the central leadership came from West Bengal when Deepa Dasmunshi, the Member of Parliament from Raiganj, protested against the Trinamool Congress' attitude towards Congress workers. Since Deepa Dasmunshi was designated to speak at the plenary, she could not be silenced, and she made her point forcefully. She charged the Trinamool Congress with criticising Manmohan Singh and hitting the roads on issues like price rise even though it is a constituent of the United Progressive Alliance.

When she [Trinamool chief Mamata Banerjee] inaugurates a project in West Bengal, there is no photograph of the Prime Minister or Sonia Gandhi. Only at times is Pranabda [Mukherjee] invited. No courtesy is shown to them, she said.

Even after the allies commit mistakes, we still carry them on our shoulders. We give them those seats which are safe and where Congress is strong, she said, adding, We do not want an alliance at the expense of the Congress party. Demanding that the Congress retain those seats, including where it has sitting MLAs, she said, Though we need a strong alliance to fight the Left Front in West Bengal, we should not have a tie-up in which there is no faith or confidence.

Self-respect

Manicka Tagore, party MP from Virudhunagar in Tamil Nadu, a member of the Rahul Gandhi team, warned the party against having alliances at the cost of self-respect. He said the self-respect of the Congress and its activists was very important to achieve the dream of Kamraj rule in Tamil Nadu. We need to make our alliance partners realise that if we need them, they need us as well, so we should not bow too much in front of them, he said, adding that the high command should be sensitive to local sensibilities.

Jyotiraditya Scindia, MP from Madhya Pradesh, also hinted at a lack of democracy in the party. Criticising the practice of distributing the ticket from Delhi, thus denying State party leaders a say in the matter of nominations, he demanded that the party decentralise the ticket distribution process. This point acquired significance in the context of the accusations made by the Bihar delegates. Scindia suggested that Ganesh parikrama (lobbying) around leaders in New Delhi by ticket-seekers should be done away with and the task of selecting candidates should be left to the State units, which was the only way to ensure the participation of the aam aadmi, as envisaged by Rahul Gandhi. While his suggestion got thunderous applause from the delegates, there were many red faces on the dais.

The issue of Telangana, which has been agitating Congressmen in Andhra Pradesh, cropped up on the second day of the session. Shouting slogans such as Jai Telangana and Sonia Gandhi zindabad, delegates from the Telangana region tried to draw the Congress president's attention to the demand for statehood for their region when the MP from Karimnagar, Ponnam Prabhakar, failed to raise the issue in his speech. Prabhakar was the only MP from Andhra Pradesh chosen to speak at the session, and when he did not bring up Telangana, the disappointed delegates took the matter into their own hands. The commotion created by them forced the MP to wind up his speech quickly. They kept up a steady chant for Telangana until Oscar Fernandes intervened. Neither the party president nor the Prime Minister reacted to the demand.

Addressing the media later, the protesting leaders said every person in the region was anxiously waiting for the party's stand on Telangana. It is high time the party leadership fulfilled its promise given to the people of the region a year ago by Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram, they said.

An outburst from delegates from Uttar Pradesh, where the practice of Ganesh parikrama is more common, would have caused major embarrassment since both Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi represent the State in the Lok Sabha. Discontent surfaced when the name of Subodh Srivastava was called out to speak. There was an audible murmur among the audience as Srivastava had only recently been accused of a committing a major financial impropriety during the last Lok Sabha election, and party treasurer Motilal Vora had even reportedly recommended to the high command that a first information report be registered against him. Although the matter was not pursued further allegedly because of his proximity to the State leadership, he does not enjoy the sympathy of the rank and file. His speech would have got the same treatment that Ponnam Prabhakar's got had some State party leaders not taken quick action. Thereafter, the choice of speakers at the plenary became a hot topic of discussion among the delegates.

DIVIDED HOUSE S. Nagesh Kumar in Hyderabad

CONGRESS leaders in Andhra Pradesh are at odds with their own party. The loyalties of most Congress legislators in the State lie with leaders outside the Congress fold, and they do not hesitate to step out of line to support issues in conflict with the party's interests.

Most of the party's 50 MLAs from Telangana toe the Telangana Rashtra Samithi's (TRS) line. At least 20 other MLAs have overtly displayed their preference for Y.S. Jaganmohan Reddy as their leader.

What should worry the Congress is that the number of such leaders is swelling by the day. Like Jaganmohan Reddy himself, they show scant respect for the leadership's appeals to remain with the party.

Jaganmohan Reddy, who has quit the Congress, will float his own party by January-end. If more MLAs jump the fence, the Congress government will be reduced to a minority. Jaganmohan says he is in no hurry to topple the government since it was installed by his father, the late Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy. Given the instability in the Congress, he may not keep this promise once 50 or 60 MLAs desert the sinking ship.

If this happens, even the Congress' allies such as the actor Chiranjeevi's Praja Rajyam Party (with 18 MLAs, of whom two have already joined Jaganmohan's camp) and Asaduddin Owaisi's MIM (7 MLAs) cannot bail it out since it has a slender majority of just eight 155 members in a 294-member Assembly.

Given the circumstances, the TRS with its 11 MLAs cannot be expected to support the Congress. At least, not with the lingering uncertainty on whether the five-member Srikrishna Committee will recommend the creation of a separate Telangana.

The Congress high command has shown rank ineptitude in dealing with Jaganmohan Reddy ever since his father's death in September 2009. He had secured the signatures of 151 MLAs vowing support to him even before YSR was buried. However, the Congress high command, not ready to brook parallel power centres, chose to ignore Jaganmohan. Besides, there were his business deals with the Reddy brothers in Karnataka, which made it difficult for the Congress to back him. Also, the party did not want to appear to be perpetuating dynastic rule in the States too.

The 38-year-old former Member of Parliament reciprocated by defying the leadership and going ahead with his odarpu yatra, a camouflage for protecting and nurturing his constituency comprising his deceased father's followers. A 48-hour fast he launched on the banks of the Krishna in Vijayawada on December 21 demanding higher compensation for rain-hit farmers gave him the momentum to unsettle the Congress. Twenty MLAs of the Congress and two each from the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) and the Praja Rajyam Party met him at the hunger-strike camp where one lakh farmers turned up.

Chief Minister N. Kiran Kumar Reddy has started moves to woo back the MLAs leaning towards Jaganmohan Reddy. If these attempts fail and Jaganmohan pulls the rug, the Congress must reckon with the prospect of a midterm Assembly election.

An election now will be a political nightmare for the party. Its political miscalculations over the past one year and growing disconnect with the people have not left it in a position to face the multi-pronged challenge from K. Chandrasekhara Rao of the TRS, Nara Chandrababu Naidu of the TDP and Jaganmohan Reddy. After the death of YSR, the party is without a leader of a comparable stature to lead an election campaign.

In Telangana, the TRS is confident of winning two-thirds of the 119 Assembly seats even without an alliance with the Congress. This alone will be enough to push the Congress out of power; moreover, it is not in a position to take on Chandrababu Naidu and Jaganmohan Reddy in the Andhra-Rayalaseema region (175 seats). Midterm elections may throw up a split verdict.

This mess has been created not just by the bankruptcy of leadership but also by all-round pusillanimity. Konijeti Rosaiah fulfilled his role of keeping the Chief Minister's seat warm until the high command found his successor. At the very outset, he realised that his government would be rendered non-functional by Jaganmohan's supporters as well as by the Ministers from Telangana. He, therefore, did not strain himself too hard to push decisions that were essential but unpalatable. One such instance was the backtracking on his decision to conduct a sub-inspectors' recruitment test following opposition in Telangana.

When Kiran Kumar Reddy was chosen to succeed him, a fresh face in a sea of rigid political ideas was welcomed all round. But the ground realities did not change significantly. On the contrary, Jaganmohan had become stronger and the Telangana Congress leaders had not shed their belligerence.

The government is at risk of alienating farmers and weavers after the indefinite fast undertaken by Chandrababu Naidu from December 17. A month into office, Kiran Kumar Reddy attracted much unfavourable attention for his brusqueness with Ministers and frequent visits to Delhi for advice and for packing his Ministry with Reddys.

Unmindful of the bigger challenges ahead, the Congress government lingered over issues raised by Chandrababu Naidu's fast, hoping, perhaps, that the media glare on his failing health would turn the spotlight away from Jaganmohan's political manoeuvres and the more burning issue of Telangana. But the strategy only exposed the government's insensitivity to the plight of farmers. With good rains, a bumper foodgrain production of nearly 220 lakh tonnes had been expected. But the rains turned into a nightmare for farmers as five heavy spells two brought by cyclones destroyed the standing crop. The latest one, from December 5 to 8, was the most destructive. Farmers, who had invested heavily in inputs, have taken a hard hit.

In the absence of a proper drainage system, thanks to corrupt irrigation engineers, the heavy rains soaked paddy sheaves left to dry in the fields. Where this did not happen, the yields fell from 30 bags to 20 bags (75 kg each) an acre (one acre is 0.4 hectare). In all, the crop was damaged over an extent of about 25 lakh acres. Tenant farmers were crushed as they had to pay a lease of 10 bags an acre and repay a loan of Rs.10,000 an acre borrowed at 36 per cent interest.

In such situations, the Centre is often miserly in providing relief. It compensates only a small fraction of the damage caused to the crop and hesitates to announce a minimum support price, which makes agriculture a viable occupation. The State government's Rs.910-crore relief package left the farmers unimpressed despite Kiran Reddy's claim that it was the best under the circumstances. Not surprisingly, a fresh wave of suicides by farmers has begun, just as the suicides by those who borrowed money from microfinance institutions (MFIs) seemed to end.

Bigger trouble lies in store for the Congress. Chandrasekhara Rao is holding out dire threats of undertaking a fast once again if the Centre does not concede separate Telangana. He plans to do this in January after giving the Congress government a fortnight's time to study the Srikirishna Committee's report. If he carries out his threat, people can only hope that the Delhi durbar does not repeat its ham-handed dealing of his fast in December 2009 and that it avoids another bout of violence in Andhra Pradesh.

UNEASY ALLIANCE Suhrid Sankar Chattopadhyay in Kolkata

THE Congress is on the horns of a dilemma vis-a-vis its relationship with the Trinamool Congress as West Bengal readies for the Assembly elections, which are to be held in six months. The Pradesh Congress is torn between conflicting views of two influential sections of its leadership. While one believes it is vital to maintain the electoral alliance with Union Railway Minister Mamata Banerjee's Trinamool Congress, which is the main opposition to the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Front government, the other group feels the alliance should not be at the expense of the dignity of the party, as remarked by general secretary Rahul Gandhi.

There is no denying the fact that the party's position in the State is weak. It has 19 seats in the 294-member Assembly and six out of 42 Lok Sabha seats. Its presence is noticeable in only three districts Malda, Murshidabad and Uttar Dinajpur. It has scattered strongholds such as Rampurhat in Birbhum district, Asansol and Katwa in Bardhaman district, Kharagpur in Pashchim Medinipur district, Basirhat in North 24 Paraganas district and Khidirpur in Kolkata. However, according to Congress sources, even in these regions the party has been witnessing a steady erosion of its support base with the resurgence of the Trinamool Congress.

Our main problem began when we had a tie-up with the Left parties at the Centre. We needed Left support at that time. The people in the State felt our opposition to the CPI(M) was not genuine, senior Congress leader and former Pradesh Congress working president Pradip Bhattacharya told Frontline. It was also in 2006 and 2007, when the Congress was in power at the Centre with support from the Left, that the Trinamool emerged out of political wilderness with its agitation programmes against land acquisition for industries. It became a strong challenge to the Left Front. Even though we were there in this movement right from the start, our association with the Left prevented us from gaining any real political advantage from it, a Congress source said.

Although the Congress-Trinamool alliance can be euphemistically termed an uncomfortable one, a section of the Congress feels that the party's showing in the coming elections will be miserable if the alliance falls through. Since the party has been consistently losing members and leaders to the Trinamool, it is feared that there will be more defections if the alliance breaks. Moreover, if we go it alone and our results are unsatisfactory, it will do enormous damage to the morale of our workers. But if we go ahead with the alliance, then we will survive and still have some seats for ourselves, and we can flourish again later, Bhattacharya said.

This attitude, however, does not find favour with another section of the Congress, which feels it is tantamount to a complete surrender to the Trinamool. The alliance is a must, but the benefits [seats] must be proportionately distributed. In the parliamentary election of 2009, we accepted their terms and took 14 seats six that belonged to us, and eight difficult seats, which we lost. But we took it for the sake of the alliance. We have declared Mamata Banerjee as the alliance leader, now the Trinamool should also reciprocate. In the Assembly elections, will it be unfair to seek one-third of the 294 seats? Pradesh Congress working president Manas Bhuniya asked.

Mamata's constant jibes at the Congress, referring to the latter as the B Team of the CPI(M), accusing the State leadership of being agents of the ruling party, and her unbending, autocratic attitude towards her junior partner, has been a constant source of irritation to the local Congress leadership. After the huge success in the Lok Sabha election, relations between the two parties soured so much that in the 2010 municipal elections, they decided to contest separately. The Trinamool recorded a thumping victory, and the Congress' tally was reduced by half. It won 10 wards in the Kolkata Municipal Corporation as against 20 in 2005.

Senior Trinamool leader and Union Minister of State for Urban Development Saugata Roy stated categorically that the party wished to remain in the Congress-led UPA at the Centre and also have an electoral alliance with the State Congress. But if they want to have an alliance, they too must make some concessions to us, particularly in places where they are strong, he told Frontline. Roy is confident that even if there is no electoral alliance, the Trinamool will win a majority in the Assembly elections. We want the alliance in the interest of defeating the CPI(M) roundly. But fences have not been mended since the civic elections, and the relations continue to be strained, Roy admits. The two partners continue to talk to each other through statements made to the media.

According to veteran Congress leader Subrata Mukherjee, who recently joined the Trinamool, the Congress stands to lose heavily if there is no alliance, as the dedicated anti-Left votes would then be diverted to the Trinamool. The Congress at present is going through a leadership crisis. Most of its top leaders like Somen [Mitra], Saugata [Roy], myself have left it. The only one left is Priya [Priyaranjan Dasmunshi], who is non-functional because of ill-health. The majority of its dedicated workers have joined the Trinamool, and more will join if there is no alliance, he told Frontline.

Senior CPI(M) leader Mohammad Salim, though in agreement with Mukherjee's views on the Congress' leadership crisis, feels that the party will be better off without an alliance with the Trinamool. Essentially, Trinamool's gain is from the Congress, not from the Left. The more the Congress goes along with the Trinamool, the more it stands to lose. The Trinamool's strength lies in the disintegration of the Congress, he said. However, there are those in the Left who feel that a Congress-Trinamool alliance will give the Left Front a tough fight.

The views about the shifting of votes from the Congress to the Trinamool is to be viewed in the light of an electoral assessment made by some senior Congress men, who told Frontline that in the absence of an alliance, the Congress may stand to lose at least 5-10 per cent of the anti-Left votes. How this percentage will be translated into the number of seats lost by the anti-Left forces taken together, especially in marginal constituencies, is anybody's guess.

REVIVAL BID T.S. Subramanian in Chennai

THE mood on December 22 at the spacious marriage hall at Vanagaram, a Chennai suburb, where the newly elected office-bearers of the Tamil Nadu Youth Congress had gathered to listen to AICC general secretary Rahul Gandhi, was one of excitement. Rahul, who has taken upon himself the task of reviving the Congress in the State, asked, How many of you are happy with the politics in Tamil Nadu? There was no response from the audience. He then rephrased his question: How many of you are unhappy with the politics in Tamil Nadu? A forest of hands went up.

A belligerent mood prevailed a few hours later at Satyamurti Bhavan, the headquarters of the Tamil Nadu Congress Committee (TNCC), in Chennai. Eighty-one-year-old S.V. Kandaswamy, former South Madras (Chennai) district Congress president, did not mince words when he said the party should not continue its alliance with the DMK, the ruling party in the State, for the Assembly elections scheduled to be held in May 2011.

Congress workers are against the DMK. Eighty per cent of the Congress workers want an alliance with the AIADMK [All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam], he said. But Jayalalithaa should show restraint, he asserted.

Congress workers are convinced that the Congress-DMK alliance is not a winnable one because the DMK's image has taken a beating in the wake of the 2G spectrum scam involving A. Raja, who was forced to resign as the Minister for Communications and Information Technology. The DMK, headed by Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi, finds itself in a vulnerable position with the Congress taking a series of steps against persons in the DMK and their associates.

With Rahul Gandhi taking a special interest in rebuilding the moribund State unit, the over-six-year-long alliance with the DMK may be heading for an end. The Congress is in an enviable position. It can choose its ally. We can be the kingmaker. We can dictate terms, we can ask for more seats and insist on power-sharing, exulted M.V. Raghavendra, a Congress loyalist.

Top TNCC leaders, including Union Ministers, reportedly told Sonia Gandhi during the party's plenary session in New Delhi that they were not in favour of facing the polls in the company of the DMK. A survey carried out at the behest of the Congress revealed that the mood is not right for the DMK-Congress combination, an informed Congress leader said.

Yet, the Congress is in a bind because the survival of the Congress-led UPA government depends on the support of the 18 DMK MPs and one Lok Sabha member belonging to the Dalit Panthers of India (DPI), the DMK's ally. Congress men make light of Jayalalithaa's offer of support of nine AIADMK MPs and her promise to rope in other friendly parties in case the Congress wishes to avoid a midterm poll ( Frontline, December 17, 2010). They are unanimous in their opinion that Karunanidhi is more dependable than Jayalalithaa.

However, the special interest shown by Rahul Gandhi in rebuilding the party in the State has encouraged Congress leaders to look at other options. He does not want the Congress debacle in Bihar to be repeated in Tamil Nadu, a Congressman said. Rahul Gandhi's mantra, which he reiterated in his address to elected Youth Congress representatives in Chennai, Villupuram, Tirupur, Madurai, Tiruchi and Tirunelveli on December 22 and 23, is to rebuild the party from the panchayat level. For me, the most important level is the panchayat. The real challenge for the Youth Congress is the panchayat elections. I want Youth Congress leaders to win as many seats as possible in the panchayat elections [to be held in October 2011], he said at Vanagaram.

About 14 lakh youth have been enrolled in the Youth Congress and about 63,000 Youth Congress leaders have been elected at various levels. The Tamil Nadu Youth Congress, led by its president M. Yuvaraja, organised a padayatra from Kanyakumari to Chennai from October 2 to November 24, traversing 1,196 kilometres. Youth Congress men highlighted the success of the UPA government's schemes and lambasted the DMK for appropriating many of these schemes.

However, the TNCC is beset with factionalism. The faction headed by Union Minister for Shipping G.K. Vasan, being the dominant one, commands the loyalty of 75 per cent of the cadre. The majority of the newly elected Youth Congress leaders belong to the Vasan faction.

The factions headed by Home Minister P. Chidambaram, former Union Minister E.V.K.S. Ilangovan and TNCC president K.V. Thangkabalu command the loyalty of the remaining 25 per cent of the cadre.