Counting on Sonia

Print edition : January 10, 1998

Sonia Gandhi's decision to campaign appears to have stemmed the tide of defectors from the party for the present. But the actual impact that her campaign will have on voters is as yet difficult to discern.

ANNOUNCING Sonia Gandhi's decision to campaign for the Congress(I), party president Sitaram Kesri told newspersons on December 29: "My tension is over." Precisely what Kesri meant by this is open to interpretation, especially given his (and his supporters') apprehensions about Sonia Gandhi's active involvement in party affairs. Ever since he took over as president, Kesri and his supporters have been concerned that Sonia's direct and active participation in the organisation would strengthen Kesri's opponents in the party, persons such as Arjun Singh. Only a week before Sonia Gandhi's December 29 announcement, Kesri virtually sabotaged a compromise brokered by Sonia between the Congress(I) leadership and West Bengal leader Mamata Banerjee. He accused Mamata of being soft on the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and expelled her from the Congress(I).

Despite all this, relief and jubilation were discernible on Kesri's face at the December 29 press conference. It was clear that developments in the Congress(I) in the previous week had dealt such a serious blow to Kesri's authority that any immediate help - even if it came with the prospect of future perils - seemed welcome. For Kesri, that period was one of the toughest in his political career. A stream of Congress(I) leaders - former Ministers Suresh Kalmadi, Rangarajan Kumaraman-galam and Aslam Sher Khan and former members of Parliament Dilip Singh Bhuria, Anadi Charan Sahu, Mohan Delkar, Gopal Tandel and Mani Shankar Aiyar - resigned from the party. All of them accused Kesri of being unimaginative and weak and characterised him as a person incapable of making any worthwhile contribution to the country. Most of the defectors found their way to the BJP or to the camp of its allies.

Kesri's failure to clinch or firm up regional alliances with the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), the Rashtriya Janata Party (RJP) in Gujarat, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) in Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh and the Lok Shakti led by Ramakrishna Hegde in Karnataka also weakened his position. Only in Bihar and Punjab did he have something to show for himself: in Bihar the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) gave a firm commitment to ally with the Congress(I), while in Punjab the BSP teamed up with the Congress(I). But his opponents in the party hierarchy evidently did not think much of these gains. Opposition to Kesri's leadership appeared to be mounting. There were suggestions that even Congress Working Committee (CWC) member Sharad Pawar was about to leave the Congress(I) and float a regional party.

Sonia Gandhi.-SUDHIR UPADHYAY

Desperate to stem this tide, Kesri tried to make up with his detractors in the party. He kept away from the Central-level celebrations of the party's 112th Foundation Day held at Punahana near Faridabad in Haryana and deputed vice-president Jitendra Prasada and Pawar to address the rally. Significantly, the leaders who attended the rally, including Manmohan Singh (who is considered close to Kesri), did not refer to Kesri or his leadership but confined themselves to larger political issues such as the need to fight the communal BJP. Kesri was being seen more and more as a figurehead.

No wonder, then, that Kesri's "tension" evaporated at the thought of Sonia campaigning for the Congress(I). Kesri and the rest of the Congress(I) hope that the return of a representative of the Nehru dynasty into active politics will help the party reap a better electoral harvest - or at least stop the flight of leaders from the party.

AS for Sonia, two factors seem to have influenced her decision to take the plunge. The first was the atmosphere created by the chorus in the party that she should take over the leadership. There had been clear suggestions that the party took the extreme step of pulling down the United Front Government to protect the interests of the Rajiv Gandhi family; Sonia Gandhi could not then escape the moral responsibility of having forced an election on the party. For her not to play any role would amount to an abdication of her responsibility, the argument went.

Secondly, Kesri's inner-party manoeuvres - his torpedoing of a compromise with Mamata Banerjee, for instance - were challenging whatever clout Sonia had in the party. Apparently, her advisers, including private secretary Vincent George, were of the view that the Rajiv Gandhi family could not afford to allow the trend to continue.

Congress(I) president Sitaram Kesri at the extended session of the Congress Working Committee in New Delhi last month.-RAJEEV BHATT

Kesri's fears about Rajiv loyalists gaining the upper hand within the party may well come true with Sonia's entry. By all indications, Sonia and the Rajiv loyalists will have a decisive say in the selection of candidates. But Kesri and his supporters have apparently decided to fight that battle later. Meantime, he and his group are trying to make it appear that it was their efforts that finally compelled "Madam" to come out of her shell and "accept her responsibility to rescue the party in its difficult times." CWC member Madhavrao Scindia, who is considered close to both Kesri and Sonia, has taken it upon himself to interact with both sides and ensure a smooth relationship between them.

IN the short term, Sonia's plans have been widely welcomed by the Congress(I) rank and file. Apart from this, the tide of defectors from the party has been stemmed to some extent, and some leaders who left the party have returned. Former Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister N. Bhaskara Rao, who had left the party, returned after Sonia's announcement. There are reports that former Karnataka Chief Minister S. Bangarappa may follow suit.

Political developments in Andhra Pradesh too held out some hope for the Congress(I). There were reports that the NTR Telugu Desam of Lakshmi Parvati, the widow of former Chief Minister N.T. Rama Rao, was having second thoughts about allying itself with the BJP and would consider teaming up with the Congress(I) if Sonia played an active role. There were fears in sections of the United Front that even the Tamil Maanila Congress (TMC) would go the same way, but its leader G.K. Moopanar denied reports to this effect. He said that although he had welcomed Sonia's decision to campaign and believed that it would help the Congress(I), it should not be taken to mean that he was keen on returning to the Congress(I).

However, Sonia's entry also poses major problems for the Congress(I). The party has now to decide which issues to highlight in the election campaign. Kesri has said that the party's primary concern is to "combat the communal forces". The Jain Commission's Interim Report on the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi has now been debunked virtually universally. Although the Interim Report was the issue on which the Congress(I) pulled down the Gujral Government, it is not on the list of issues that the party would like to play up. However, Sonia would like this issue to be taken up more enthusiastically - in fact, to be made the most important issue in the campaign. This is certain to vitiate the relationship between the Congress(I) and the constituents of the U.F. and damage the possibility of secular forces coming together after the elections.

Apart from this, corruption scandals involving Rajiv Gandhi - such as the Bofors and HDW deals - will be in sharp focus with Sonia's presence in the campaign. The fact that she is a foreigner by birth is certain to be used against the Congress(I). The BJP has already announced that it will raise these issues in its campaign. In response, Congress(I) spokesperson V.N. Gadgil questioned the BJP's moral authority to raise corruption as an issue when the Hindutva party had aligned itself with former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalitha, who is being tried in a number of cases of corruption cases. Also, Gadgil said, if anyone born beyond India's geographical limits was to be branded a foreigner, even BJP president L.K. Advani, who was born in present-day Pakistan, fitted that description.

All said, Sonia's entry has provided a fillip to the Congress(I) campaign. The more optimistic within the Congress(I) believe that Sonia will bring in 50 to 75 more seats for the party; others given to more realistic readings are of the view that she might influence the verdict in no more than 25 to 30 seats. But if the elections to the 12th Lok Sabha prove to be a cliffhanger and result in a hung Parliament, even these seats could be decisive.

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