Central to the crisis in the Congress(I) is its difficulty in keeping its flock together when out of government.
TIMES are such that Pranab Mukherjee, Congress Working Committee (CWC) member and party president Sitaram Kesri's trusted lieutenant, has had candidness thrust upon him. A few days after the Kalyan Singh Government won the vote of confidence with two-thirds of the Congress(I) MLAs crossing over to support the Bharatiya Janata Party, Mukherjee said that there were now grave political compulsions for the Congress(I) to support the United Front Government. A few days later and before the vote of confidence in the Dilip Parikh-led Rashtriya Janata Party (RJP) Government in Gujarat, Mukherjee was asked whether the Gujarat Congress would go the Uttar Pradesh way. Mukherjee's answer captured his mood: "One puts up a fence to protect the crop; but when the fence eats the crop, what can one do?"
It is now quite clear that in the present political climate the Congress(I) is not exactly brimming with confidence. With the collapse in U.P. and the developments in Gujarat and the Centre, significant sections of party MLAs and MPs are showing a new inclination to join hands with the BJP, identified as enemy number one by the Congress(I) leadership. Party leaders have no clue about how the erosion of the party's strength can be checked.
Central to the crisis in the Congress(I) are two factors. The first is the inability of its leadership at all levels to survive as political entities without a share in power. The second is the failure of Kesri's leadership to carry the party to power in New Delhi and in States such as Gujarat and U.P. When Kesri was elevated to the leadership in place of former Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao, the tacit understanding was that Kesri would upstage the U.F. to capture power, or at least a major share of it, at the Centre.
Kesri did make some manoeuvres in this direction by withdrawing support to the Deve Gowda Government and forcing the U.F. to replace Deve Gowda with I.K. Gujral. The goal of these moves was to pressure the U.F. into conferring on the Congress(I) the mantle of leader of the anti-BJP forces in the country and grant it a significant share in power. But constituents of the U.F., especially the Left parties, succeeded in fighting back the Congress' attempt to come to power through the back door. The U.F.'s strength was the widespread fear of elections among Congress(I) MPs,
The most recent Congress(I) manoeuvre of this type was seen in Gujarat, where it withdrew support to the Shankarsinh Vaghela Government with the intention of taking over the leadership of the Government. However, clever political manoeuvring by the Vaghela-led RJP forced the Congress(I) on the defensive. Kesri had once again to be satisfied with a change of Chief Minister, but, as later developments showed, for the middle-level leadership of the Congress(I), this amounted to too little, too late.
The middle-level leadership of the Congress(I) and sections of its top leadership are fed up with mere sabre-rattling against the U.F. and other secular and regional forces and are ready to join hands with the BJP to share the crumbs of power. The BJP's decision to confer ministerial positions on all the defectors from the Congress(I) was signal enough for Congress(I) MPs at the Centre and MLAs in Gujarat to initiate discussions with BJP leaders. The BJP, it was apparent, was gearing up to beat the Congress(I) at its own game.
A notable feature of the political scene was that the BJP created a situation in which Congress(I) MPs and MLAs did not need organised leadership to negotiate with the BJP. The message from the jumbo Ministry-making exercise in U.P. was clear: even if you come individually, you will get the share in power that you crave. Nevertheless, it is also a fact that sections of Congress(I) MPs at the Centre did try to organise themselves into a group with a leader to negotiate with the BJP.
Congress(I) members of the Lok Sabha from Andhra Pradesh and Orissa - where the BJP and the Congress(I) are not pitted against each other but are fighting against parties such as the Telugu Desam and the Janata Dal - were in the forefront of these efforts. They appear to have chosen former Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister K. Vijayabhaskara Reddy as their leader.
Congress(I) vice-president Jitendra Prasada, who had at one point initiated moves to work out electoral arrangements with the BJP in order to defeat "regional and casteist forces", was sidelined mainly because he did not command a following among MPs and also because the BJP's policy of gratifying all the Congress(I) defectors in U.P. had left him with a reduced MLA base even in his home State.
According to BJP sources, although the game in New Delhi progressed well (according to them, with 53 Congress(I) MPs committing themselves to supporting the BJP in the event of the formation of a new government), no knock-out punch could be delivered. One reason for this was, reportedly, the involvement of former Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar in the game, with a group of Congress(I) MPs who demanded that the Samajwadi Janata Party leader be made Prime Minister in the event of a break-up of the Congress(I). BJP sources say that former Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao was a party to this initiative.
What brought Narasimha Rao and Chandra Shekhar together appears to have been the imminent tabling of the Jain Commission report on the assassination of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi; it was reported to contain adverse remarks about both former Prime Ministers. Also, even the support of 53 Congress(I) members was not enough for the BJP to drum up a majority in the Lok Sabha. The BJP leadership as well as potential defectors from the Congress(I) believe that a more definitive situation will emerge in the next session of Parliament.
In the meantime, the official leadership of the Congress(I) continues without a clear strategy to stop the rot. Between November 5 and 7, Kesri did a flip-flop on the party's position with regard to the U.F. He first suggested that the U.F. agree to allow the Congress(I) to participate in the Central Government. He later retracted that suggestion, in the face of an unfavourable response from constituents of the U.F., particularly the Left parties. Members of the U.F. such as the Samajwadi Party are aware that in its desperation to prevent further erosion in the party, the Kesri group in the Congress(I) could well take the chance and withdraw support to the U.F. Government and force general elections.
However, given the dynamics of grassroots-level politics in the country today, even this gamble is unlikely to help the Congress(I) make anything like a powerful comeback to the centrestage of national politics.