Crisis of confidence

Published : Mar 04, 2000 00:00 IST

Another electoral defeat for the Congress(I), this time in an Assembly round, raises questions about the failure of Sonia Gandhi's leadership.


ON February 24, the Congress(I) ranks were up in arms in the Lok Sabha, as if to announce that it was getting into an exceptionally aggressive mode. Party president Sonia Gandhi attacked the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) over the Gujarat Government's orde r allowing government employees to join the activities of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).

She led a group of Congress(I) members into the well of the House and later proceeded to hold a dharna in front of the Mahatma Gandhi statue in the Parliament compound. Of course, these actions went against her own dictum that no party MP should disrupt the proceedings while registering a protest.

The explanation party spokespersons offer for the new tenor is that the Congress(I) is "agitated over the attempt to communalise one arm of governance." However, party insiders admit sotto voce that this is not the only reason for the president's combative disposition. According to a senior leader, the new-found militancy is a ploy to cover up the leadership's discomfiture at the party's dismal performance in the elections to the four State Assemblies. The view that the results have had an unsett ling effect is shared by several party leaders: the defeat was anticipated and so the leadership upped the ante. The post-election scenario, they feel, will be tough for Sonia Gandhi, as the outcome has a direct bearing on her ability to influence voters .

Sonia-loyalists are apprehensive that in the given situation, her leadership could be challenged openly. The resignation of Congress(I) Working Committee (CWC) member Meira Kumar and the criticisms aired by former MP Rajesh Khanna and others are now seen as signals of a revolt. Further, certain moves initiated by a handful of CWC members, apparently with former Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao at their hub, are seen as attempts to strengthen dissident activity.

Whatever may be the truth about these, the fact of the matter is that Sonia Gandhi is on the defensive. What complicated matters for her is that the election results turned out to be far worse than expected. The party's projection during the run-up to th e poll was that it would have no stake in Bihar and Orissa but would form the government in Manipur. It was also felt that the party had a fighting chance of winning in Haryana. The results belied even these limited expectations. Not only did the party f ace a rout in Bihar and Orissa, but the safe bet of Manipur also eluded it. Faced with a hung Assembly in Manipur, the Congress(I) leadership in the northeastern State was forced to initiate discussions with the breakaway Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) . In Haryana, the Congress(I) missed the chance to put up a good fight, although it improved its tally.

In Bihar, in view of the hung verdict, the support of the 23 Congress(I) members of the Legislative Assembly has become crucial for the single largest party, the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), to form the government. But the majority of the State Congress(I ) leadership had ruled out support to the Laloo Prasad Yadav-led RJD. In fact, the State party faced the threat of a split if the central leadership decides - in the interests of the unity of secular forces against the BJP-led National Democratic Allianc e (NDA) - to support the RJD. Ram Ashrey Singh, Leader of the Congress(I) in the outgoing Assembly, stated categorically that he and his supporters would oppose such a move.

FOR Sonia Gandhi, the stratagem of an all-out offensive against the NDA Government on a variety of issues might not be enough to quell the growing dissatisfaction in the party. Party leaders are of the view that she has to find a middle course that lays emphasis on give and take, an acceptable combination of resolute action and compromise.

Obviously, the corporate management style employed by Sonia Gandhi to run the organisation will not help her meet these objectives. According to a CWC member, she needs to learn the basics of realpolitik. The question is whether Sonia Gandhi has the conv iction and the inclination for that. The loyalists, however, aver that she has already started doing so, and that the selection of candidates for the Assembly elections offered ample evidence of this. Sonia Gandhi ignored the recommendations of the intro spection committee headed by A.K. Antony, which was set up to review the party's debacle in the 1999 elections. The committee had etched out idealistic parameters for the selection of candidates.

The Antony committee had recommended that the list of candidates should be announced at least a month ahead of its finalisation, that leaders who quit the party should not be allowed to return to the party, and that persons facing corruption and other cr iminal charges should be denied the ticket. All these were given the go-by, in preference to the crucial criterion of winnability. Sonia loyalists see this as an exercise in realpolitik, but the problem is that the gamble failed. (A committee, consisting of CWC member Ambika Soni, party treasurer Ahmed Patel, senior leader Kamal Nath and former MP Prithviraj Chauhan, which was constituted to monitor the implementation of the recommendations of the introspection committee, was made to suggest that the ti me gap between the Antony committee's report and the Assembly elections was too short to take concrete measures on the basis of the recommendations.)

It is in this context that the moves made by persons close to Narasimha Rao cause concern to Sonia Gandhi. According to party insiders, former party vice-president Jitendra Prasada and CWC members Manmohan Singh and Pranab Mukherjee, among others, are in touch with Narasimha Rao. These leaders, they say, have pointed out that Sonia Gandhi not only lacks the skills of realpolitik but digresses from the basic direction of the party's political and economic policies. Interestingly, NCP leaders Sharad Pawa r and P.A. Sangma are said to be trying to convince Narasimha Rao to forge a "grand regrouping" against the "dynasty".

Sections of the party say that Narasimha Rao's recent speech calling for a review of the economic reforms has become a rallying point. In his speech at a meeting of the Associated Chambers of Commerce (ASSOCHAM), he said that the time had come to make a thorough review of the economic liberalisation programme, its overall results and the benefits accrued to the people from it. He observed that "instead of solid infrastructure, phenomenal multiplication has occurred in the manufacture of consumer items." According to Narasimha Rao, this was not the basic intention of the reforms process initiated by his government.

Jitendra Prasada's suggestion to convene a CWC meeting to discuss the party's stand on the "second generation" of reforms is considered to be a follow-up to Narasimha Rao's initiative. Even Rajesh Pilot, who is not involved in the Narasimha Rao-centred o perations, has welcomed Prasada's proposal. He told Frontline that he had been advocating the need to reorient the reforms process in order to give it a human face. "It is good that more and more people are seeing things in the same light."

Sonia-loyalists are of the view that the latest moves are perhaps oriented towards emphasising the "one person, one post" rule, in order to wrest the control of the party. This process is expected to get a fillip with the Rajya Sabha elections, which are due in March, when senior leaders such as Sitaram Kesri, Motilal Vohra (the terms of these two leaders are coming to a close), Arjun Singh, K. Vijayabhaskara Reddy and Ajit Jogi are bound to approach Sonia Gandhi seeking nominations.

Sonia Gandhi's priority would be to accommodate her loyalists first. Informed sources close to 10 Janpath say that in the event of being denied the ticket, several so-called loyalists may join the rebel camp. Clearly, a great challenge lies ahead for Son ia Gandhi's leadership, which has taken a beating in the February elections to the Assemblies.

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