While regional revolts in the party grow and former allies desert it, Sitaram Kesri's hold on the Congress(I) becomes tenuous.
DECEMBER 18 was to be an auspicious day for Sitaram Kesri. Immediately after the dissolution of the Lok Sabha on December 4, he decided that the Congress(I) election campaign would start on that day with a rally in Bhubaneswar. Kesri apparently chose the day on the basis of his astrologers' advice. Kesri also appointed seven new joint secretaries for the All India Congress Committee (AICC). These joint secretaries, including Jairam Ramesh,who is close to Congress Working Committee member Pranab Mukherjee, and Janardhan Dwivedi, a Kesri confidant, were assigned crucial roles in formulating and implementing the party's election strategy. However, what Kesri's advisers and astrologers failed to predict was that the "auspicious" day would be preceded by three days of trouble for the Congress(I) and its president.
The party suffered serious setbacks on these days. Problems in the West Bengal and Bihar units of the Congress(I) reached a flashpoint with rebel leaders Mamata Banerjee and Jagannath Mishra announcing their decision to float their own parties. Mamata Banerjee gave a clear indication that her Trinamul Congress would have an understanding with the BJP; the rebel group in Bihar announced that it would ally with either the BJP or the United Front. In a clear snub to Kesri, Mamata Banerjee asserted that her only high command was Sonia Gandhi. Kesri had finally to accept Sonia Gandhi's intervention to effect a reconciliation with Mamata Banerjee.
The setbacks in West Bengal and Bihar were minor compared to what happened in Tamil Nadu on December 17. In a stunning move, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), led by former Chief Minister Jayalalitha, deserted the Congress(I) mid-way through negotiations for an alliance and joined hands with the BJP. The development evoked strong reactions within the party. Mani Shankar Aiyar, who is a former Lok Sabha member from Tamil Nadu and is identified with the Rajiv-loyalist camp, went hammer and tongs at Kesri for "pushing secular Tamil Nadu into the evil arms of the BJP." He accused the party president of having been totally preoccupied with forging alliances in North India "and putting the South on the backburner."
These setbacks strengthened the demand that Kesri be replaced by Sonia Gandhi as leader. Kesri declared that he was not averse to Sonia Gandhi leading the party. However, it is no secret that Kesri and his supporters fear that Sonia Gandhi's growing involvement in the party's affairs would lead to their marginalisation.
Sonia Gandhi meanwhile continues to play the same role in the Congress(I) as in the last four years; she retains her influence over the party leadership without actually getting involved in the day-to-day problems of the party. But the frequency of her interventions has increased. While she does not appear to have responded positively to the demand that she "lead the election campaign and save the country", Sonia stepped in to help resolve the West Bengal crisis and the solution she found went against the interests of the pro-Kesri factions in the West Bengal unit. Kesri had to agree to a compromise. Kesri loyalists, however, describe it as a tactical retreat made in the interest of the party.
According to an associate of Kesri, the reverse in Tamil Nadu caught Kesri off guard. Kesri was confident that he had made progress. On December 14, he struck an alliance with Laloo Prasad Yadav's Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) at a meeting with the former Bihar Chief Minister. Their negotiations led to the idea of forming a broad "secular alliance parallel to the United Front." The Congress(I), the RJD, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and the Rashtriya Janata Party (RJP) in Gujarat were the constituents. Kesri apparently believed that once this alliance came into existence, he could win back Mamata Banerjee by offering her some concessions. In his assessment, Jagannath Mishra's exit would not affect the party in Bihar: after all, it had an alliance with the RJD. But Jayalalitha upset his calculations.
According to a Kesri aide, what upset the party president was not so much the possible electoral impact of the AIADMK's decision as the image it would create of the Congress(I) as a party abandoned even by its long-time allies. Within the party, Kesri was criticised for not having paid sufficient attention to the party's electoral strategy in the South. Party insiders say that when senior leader K. Vijayabhaskara Reddy, who met Jayalalitha for talks, told Kesri that the AIADMK was not ready to give the Congress(I) as many seats as it had given in the past, the party president failed to grasp the seriousness of the situation. It was obvious that the AIADMK had understood the importance of having a sizable number of MPs, considering the possibility of another hung Parliament. But Kesri appeared to have taken it for granted that the alliance would come through.
Kesri went to Bhubaneswar on December 18 and launched the election campaign at a Youth Congress rally. He announced at the rally that 20 per cent of party nominations would be reserved for youth. "Neither the party that ran a 13-day government nor the government that was run by 13 parties" could secure economic freedom for the millions of poor people in free India, he said. He asserted that only the Congress(I) would be able to achieve that objective.
At the meeting of the Central Election Coordination Committee held in New Delhi on December 19, Kesri admitted that he failed "to read the signals from Tamil Nadu". Senior leader Arjun Singh sent a letter to the party president criticising him for his "lack of vision". But party leaders believe that Kesri will not face any major problem on this count because the Central Coordination Committee, led by vice-president Jitendra Prasada, has more or less accepted his apology.
However, his climbdown in the case of West Bengal annoyed his own supporters. Under Sonia Gandhi's compromise formula, the existing State election committee will be replaced by a committee in which Mamata Banerjee will have an important place. Earlier, Kesri and his supporters, including PCC president Somen Mitra, had ruled out any compromise with Mamata until she retracted her pro-BJP statements.
Kesri's calculation seems to be that such compromises will give him some elbow room to carry out his plans for the elections. Kesri's negotiations with Rashtriya Janata Party leader Shankarsinh Vaghela and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) president Kanshi Ram after his return from Bhubaneswar strengthened the party's alliances in Gujarat and Punjab. Discussions were on with the BSP for an electoral understanding in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. Kesri is hopeful, despite BSP vice-president Mayawati's statements to the contrary, that he will be able to ally with the BSP in Uttar Pradesh.
Some Kesri loyalists argue that the reversal in Tamil Nadu will not make any difference to the Congress(I)'s parliamentary strength. After all, the party did not win a single seat from the State in the last elections. One of Kesri's loyalist said: "If anything, it will harm the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam-Tamil Maanila Congress combine." In his opinion, the Congress(I), with the support of the RJD, the BSP and the RJP, would get as many as seats as it had in the 11th Lok Sabha. "If we play our cards well with the various constituents of the United Front, we can even lead the next government," he claimed. However, this view is not shared by many Congress(I) leaders. According to a young leader from Orissa, the turmoil in the party in Tamil Nadu, West Bengal and Bihar has given it such a bad image that it would not be surprising if the party wins even 100 seats.