An uneven appeal

Published : Mar 07, 1998 00:00 IST

Sonia Gandhi's campaign has followed a carefully laid-out plan and pattern, but the impact it will make will depend on various factors.

IN the Congress(I)'s election campaign two factors have repudiated the party's official positions. First, when the Congress(I) pulled down the United Front Government in December last, the party leadership appeared agitated over the Government's "inaction" on the Interim Report of the Jain Commission, which went into the conspiracy aspect of Rajiv Gandhi's assassination. However, in the two months of election campaign that followed, the party did not highlight this as an election issue. The second factor is the party's absolute dependence on dynastic politics to advance its electoral interests. The Congress(I)'s campaign was virtually run by Sonia Gandhi, who is technically no more than an ordinary member of the party.

Nevertheless, there is general agreement within the Congress(I) that the party is electorally in a much better position today than it was at the beginning of the electoral process. Party leaders are speaking in terms of a Congress(I)-led coalition government in the event of a hung Parliament. It is accepted widely by Congress(I) leaders, non-Congress parties and independent observers that the most important factor that has brought about change is the extensive campaigning by Sonia Gandhi. "If nothing else, Soniaji's campaign has stalled the media hype about the Bharatiya Janata Party's march to power," says former Union Minister Rajesh Pilot. Opinion polls such as the Frontline-CMS Pre-election Public Opinion Survey have also highlighted the fact that the "Sonia effect" has stopped the BJP advance.

However, even the most optimistic of Congress(I) leaders do not claim that the representative of the Nehru-Gandhi family has created a wave in favour of the party. When Sonia Gandhi decided to campaign for the party, a most realistic assessment by sections of Congress(I) leaders was that she would help avert the threat of decimation of the party and that at best she would help it gain 25 or 30 seats more than what it would have won without her campaign. These extra seats could be crucial in the numbers game.

As the election process comes to an end, the assessment within the Congress(I) and outside is that the Sonia effect might lead to the realisation of these projections. In the dissolved Lok Sabha, the Congress(I) had 143 members. When the House was formed in May 1996, the party's tally stood at 140. Later, two members, of the erstwhile Cong-ress(Tiwari) and the Madhya Pradesh Vikas Congress led by Madhavrao Scindia, joined it while Ajit Singh left the party and formed the Bharatiya Kisan Kamgar Party (BKKP). The present assessment by the Congress(I) leadership is that the party would win between 150 and 160 seats, although optimists put the figure between 175 and 190.

A close look at Sonia Gandhi's campaign shows that the approach was aimed to use her appeal to retain the seats the party had won in the last elections and make a determined effort to capture those where the party had come second. Constituencies where the party had finished third or even further behind were generally ignored. The few exceptions were the seats contested by personal favourites of Sonia Gandhi, such as Salman Khurshid and Mohsina Kidwai. Places such as Rewa in Madhya Pradesh - where the Congress(I) finished third in the 1996 elections - came in for special consideration as Arjun Singh, the "ultimate Sonia loyalist", has major political stakes in the region.

Starting with the January 11 rally at Sriperumbudur in Tamil Nadu, attendance at which was moderate, Sonia Gandhi addressed 138 public meetings until February 26. She had attended only 32 meetings untill the first week of February; her campaign acquired a feverish pace after that. She addressed an average of six meetings a day between February 7 and 26. Of her meetings, 58 were in Congress(I)-held constituencies and 52 in constituencies in which the party had come second in the last elections. There were only 28 meetings in constituencies where the Congress(I) was placed third or even lower in the last elections.

In 79 of the constituencies in which she addressed public meetings, the Congress(I) was in direct conflict with the BJP, and in 56 constituencies it was pitted against U.F. constituents. One of the meetings was in a constituency held by the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), and two meetings were in constituencies represented by regional parties that were neither in the U.F. nor in the BJP-led alliance. With 17 rallies, Uttar Pradesh accounted for the largest number of meetings in one State. Andhra Pradesh had 13 rallies and Bihar and Maharashtra 12 each. Kerala, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat had nine meetings each attended by Sonia Gandhi, while West Bengal and Karnataka accounted for seven meetings each.

According to a Congress(I) Working Committee(CWC) me-mber, the choice of venues was in keeping with the electoral objectives of the party. The Congress(I) campaign was aimed to wean away sections of voters who supported U.F. constituents. The apologies over the demolition of the Babri Masjid, Operation Bluestar and the anti-Sikh riots in the wake of the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi were all part of this strategy. According to the CWC member, the idea behind holding the largest number of meetings in constituencies held by the BJP was to emphasise that the Congress(I) was a better alternative to the U.F. than the BJP.

However, the assessment by party circles during the last stages of the campaign is that this strategy has not been uniformly effective. Uttar Pradesh, where Sonia Gandhi addressed the largest number of meetings, is a case in point. Despite the extensive campaigning, the party does not seem to have made major gains in the State. The primary choice of the non-BJP voter in the State continues to be the Samajwadi Party (S.P.), even in constituencies such as Rae Bareli, the traditional constituency of the Nehru-Gandhi family.

The Congress(I) leadership's overall evaluation of the Sonia factor is that it will not improve the party's fortunes in a significant way unless it is backed by effective organisational work and the formation of strategic alliances with regional forces. The experience in Maharashtra and Kerala, where the Sonia factor is expected to help the Congress(I) make major gains, is cited to support this assessment. In both these States the party has a well-knit organisational machinery and effective alliances with other parties. While the alliance in Kerala with the Indian Union Muslim League and the Kerala Congress groups has been a longstanding one, the Maharashtra unit under the leadership of Sharad Pawar, managed to forge a coalition with the Samajwadi Party and the Republican Party of India. The Congress(I) has a good organisational base also in Andhra Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, where the party hopes to improve its position marginally.

A State other than Uttar Pradesh, where the crowd-pulling power of Sonia Gandhi is bound to go waste, is West Bengal. Here too, what the Congress(I) lacks is organisational strength. The party lost much of its organisational machinery with Mamata Banerjee's exit from the party and formation of the Trinamul Congress. In Karnataka the Congress(I) does not expect major gains. The picture would have been different had it allied itself with the Ramakrishna Hegde-led Lok Shakti. "If we had allied with the Lok Shakti, the Sonia effect would have enabled us to sweep the polls in the State," a Karnataka leader told Frontline.

As the elections draw to a close, the question that has emerged is about the role that Sonia Gandhi would play in the post-election situation, particularly in the event of a hung Parliament. It is already being speculated whether she would take up the leadership or nominate somebody else if the Congress(I) is in a position to form the government with U.F. support. Indications are that she may not take the plunge and, in all probability, she will suggest some other leader for the top post. The odds, in such an event, favour Manmohan Singh and N.D. Tiwari, who are considered to be acceptable to large sections of the party. Arjun Singh does not seem to be in the reckoning as his choice could evoke strong reactions from large sections of the party across the country.

Amidst all this, however, there are apprehensions in a section of the leadership that the party could witness a split if the BJP and its allies come within striking distance of power and Sonia does not play an important role in the post-election situation. Many leaders view Sonia Gandhi's active participation in the post-election political deliberations as essential, more to prevent such an eventuality than to choose the leader of the Congress(I) Parliamentary Party.

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