Strategic silence

Published : Sep 26, 2003 00:00 IST

THE Congress(I), while extending support to the Mulayam Singh Yadav government in Uttar Pradesh, decided not to join it "for the time being", once again proving that under Sonia Gandhi's leadership it will not jump at the first given opportunity to share the spoils of power. The decision came two days before the new government was to seek a crucial vote of confidence in the Assembly on September 8.

Mulayam Singh had appealed to the Congress(I) to join the government "in the interest of Uttar Pradesh". He told Frontline: "I want the Congress to join the government. This will be good for the people".

Wary of its previous bitter experience with Mulayam Singh when he thwarted Congress(I) president Sonia Gandhi's chances of becoming Prime Minister in 1999, the party earlier decided to deliberate on its long-term options before taking the plunge. The Congress Working Committee (CWC), the party's highest policy-making body, which was divided on the issue, left the decision to the party president. Sonia Gandhi, however, maintained her characteristic sphinx-like silence, making the majority of the party's 16 members in the Legislative Assembly, who were keen on joining the government, restive.

Whether it was in Jammu and Kashmir, where the process of government formation took more than two weeks, or now in Uttar Pradesh, Sonia Gandhi has displayed political maturity. In Jammu and Kashmir too, there were initial hiccups over who should assume the post of Chief Minister after the 2002 Assembly elections, but despite emerging with a larger group of MLAs, the Congress(I) allowed Progressive Democratic Front (PDP) leader Mufti Mohammad Sayeed to become the Chief Minister "in the larger interest" of the country. In the case of U.P., the party preferred to wait and watch.

For the average Congress(I) worker in Lucknow, the ascent of Mulayam Singh to the chief ministerial chair with the party's help meant an end to its 14-year- long political exile in the State. The Congress(I) was ousted in 1989 and has been out of power since then, except when it ruled the State by proxy during a spell of President's Rule between December 1992 and November 1993 after the Kalyan Singh government was dismissed by the Centre on December 6, 1992.

So it was only natural for Congressmen to start ironing their crumpled sherwanis and donning Gandhi-Nehru caps, in anticipation of taking the oath along with Mulayam Singh. Jubilation began immediately, in anticipation of the perks of power. The majority of MLAs wanted to participate in the government as they felt it was necessary for the sake of stability, the party's State unit chief Jagdambika Pal said.

But their enthusiasm was doused once Sonia Gandhi, realising that the party was vertically split on the issue, declared that for the time being it would only extend support from outside. The ministerial aspirants, including Congress(I) Legislature Party leader Pramod Tewari, made the rounds of the party headquarters in New Delhi, in order to persuade Sonia Gandhi that joining the government would be "in the interest of the people".

The CWC met on August 29 to discuss the issue. According to party sources, the majority opinion in the CWC was against joining the government in view of the past experience with Mulayam Singh. Besides, a number of leaders argued that the party should not close the option of exploring the prospects of an alliance with the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) now that the BSP was out of the saffron camp. According to these leaders, participation in the Mulayam Singh government would rule out any understanding with the BSP. It was a tough decision to make. The BSP factor has become important for the party because in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Delhi, which will go to the polls later this year, the Congress(I) is pitted directly against the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). But in all these States, the BSP has significant pockets of influence because of the sizable Dalit population, which could prove decisive in several constituencies.

"The Congress is a national party and we have to look at the larger picture while taking a decision in Uttar Pradesh. Our politics cannot be U.P.-centric," said Salman Khursheed, the former State party chief. According to him, any hasty decision would be unwise. The Congress(I) leaders were aware of the fact that any uncertainty and delay in taking a decision on the matter was fraught with danger as the power-starved MLAs would not hesitate to switch sides, but felt that the risk was worth taking.

"We have not supported the formation of an alternative government so that our MLAs can become Ministers. Our decision has more to do with our fight against communal forces. Besides, if Mulayam Singh Yadav breaks our MLAs, then the alliance will end," said Subodh Kant Sahay, party secretary, who was present at the swearing-in of the new Chief Minister, on behalf of the party's central leadership.

He said the party would see how far the S.P. leader was willing to travel with it in its fight against the BJP, before spelling out its options. "The presence of (Defence Minister) George Fernandes at the oath-taking ceremony, whom we are boycotting in Parliament after the Tehelka scandal, was certainly a worrying factor," he said. He, however, emphasised that any speculation over the Congress(I)'s participation was premature because this question would arise only after Mulayam Singh won the confidence vote and discussed his future plans with Sonia Gandhi.

Sahay said the Congress(I) was committed to ousting the communal BJP-BSP government, which it had done. "For other things, there will have to be detailed discussions. We need to know what programme Mulayam Singh is offering us."

According to the party's central leaders, the factors that needed to be taken into account are: whether the U.P. arrangement would result in a quid pro quo at the time of the Lok Sabha elections and whether the party would gain politically in the coming Assembly and general elections in 2004. In short, this would mean that the Congress(I) would want an undertaking from Mulayam Singh that he would accept Sonia Gandhi as the leader in case a Congress(I)-led coalition government became a possibility at the Centre.

Although the Congress(I) made Mulayam Singh pay the price for stalling Sonia Gandhi's chances in 1991, by refusing to support him in February 2002, when he staked his claim to form the government after the the S.P. emerged as the single largest party in the hung Assembly, the past continues to haunt both parties.

Although the Congress(I) leaders reiterate that their support to Mulayam Singh is unconditional, there is more to it than meets the eye. Major issues need to be sorted out, and that can only happen when Mulayam Singh meets Sonia Gandhi. The meeting is expected after September 8

Meanwhile, Mayawati's declaration at a press conference in Delhi on September 4 that the BSP will not align with any party, in the next phase of elections, has caused a setback to the section in the Congress(I) that has been advocating an alliance with the BSP.

However, Jagdambika Pal, who wants the party to have no truck with the BSP, said: "The BSP is an opportunistic party, it cannot be relied upon. Mayawati is an unpredictable leader. We had an alliance with the BSP in 1996 and it was not a good experience at all." He said ever since he took over as the State Congress(I) president he had been waging a war against the "sick and corrupt government" of Mayawati and her ouster was the culmination of that sustained campaign. "We should not fritter away our gains in U.P. by joining hands with her once more," he warned.

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