Cautious revamp

Published : May 09, 1998 00:00 IST

Sonia Gandhi has made her first concrete moves to restructure the Congress(I), but her choices for key positions reveal an eagerness not to aggravate factionalism and not to alter the power equations.

ON April 27, three weeks after the All India Congress Committee (AICC) ratified her appointment to the posts of party president and parliamentary party chairperson, Sonia Gandhi made the first moves to restructure and revamp the party organisation as she had promised to do. She made changes in the Congress Working Committee (CWC) and the AICC administrative apparatus, giving a broad indication of her plans for the party.

A CWC member said that Sonia Gandhi's approach towards organisational restructuring can be described as "change with caution". The leader said that Sonia Gandhi had realised that she could not wield unbridled power in party affairs unlike as other members of the Nehru-Gandhi family did earlier. "She has to accommodate all sections," the leader added, " and the fact that the party is not in power unlike in the times of Indiraji and Rajivji seemed to have been a major consideration with Soniaji."

Sonia Gandhi has not dropped from the CWC any of the 10 elected members, including R.K. Dhawan and Tariq Anwar, who the media had speculated were on the "hit list" because they were close to former party president Sitaram Kesri. She has clearly preferred not to ruffle feathers and aggravate factionalism. Dhawan and Anwar have also been allowed to continue as general secretaries along with Meira Kumar, Oscar Fernandes and Madhavrao Scindia.

She retained four out of Kesri's six nominees to the CWC, leaving out only the Chief Ministers of Orissa and Mizoram, J.B. Patnaik and Lalthanhawla respectively. Apart from Kesri, K. Karunakaran and Motilal Vora have been accorded the status of permanent invitees. Madhavsinh Solanki is to be a special invitee. The only notable omission is former Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao, who has considerable influence in the party units in Andhra Pradesh and Orissa.

Even though she has refrained from effecting drastic alterations in the intra-party power equations, Sonia Gandhi has made some significant changes in the administration of the CWC and the AICC. Former Lok Sabha Speaker P.A. Sangma and former Union Ministers Rajesh Pilot and Sushil Kumar Shinde were inducted into the CWC. This is an indication that the trio will play important roles in the party's affairs.

Pilot and Sangma had been given important assignments prior to their induction into the CWC. Sangma was appointed chairman of the Congress(I) Task Force that has been entrusted with the responsibility of formulating ideas to rejuvenate the party. Pilot was made the head of a committee that would study the reasons for the Congress(I)'s poor performance in Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat in the Lok Sabha elections. Pilot's induction in the CWC is significant also because it reversed Kesri's policy of barring nomination to the highest policymaking body of leaders who were defeated in the elections to it. Shinde is considered to be an efficient organisation man and trouble-shooter and is expected to play a crucial role in the AICC headquarters.

The decision to abolish the post of party vice-president, which was held by Jitendra Prasada, is significant. Kesri, who relied heavily on Prasada's support to win the party president's election in 1997, had appointed the Uttar Pradesh leader in this post, which is not provided for by the party constitution.

The denial of special positions to Arjun Singh and M.L. Fotedar, who are viewed as the "original Rajiv loyalists" within the party, showed that Sonia Gandhi has chosen not to be influenced, at least for the time being, by factors such as "Rajiv loyalty", which were construed as a great advantage in the present scheme of things. Instead, Sonia Gandhi appears to have chosen to promote Sangma and Pilot, who, in the last few years, have emerged as leaders in their own right, without being part of any party faction.

BY all indications, the task force will be the principal guide of further reforms and restructuring in the party. In its interim report submitted to Sonia Gandhi on April 17, the task force had reportedly suggested the setting up of shadow cabinet-type committees to monitor the functioning of the Bharatiya Janata Partyled Government. The report also recommended the trimming of the AICC's administrative apparatus and the revival of the Congress(I) Parliamentary Board (CPB).

For the restructuring exercise, Sonia Gandhi adopted some recommendations made in the interim report. The AICC set-up is being reorganised by virtually abolishing the posts of joint secretaries and creating the posts of secretaries. Ten secretaries, including Mani Shankar Aiyar, who had resigned from the party during Kesri's tenure as president, have been appointed.

The task force is expected to submit a second report in the second week of May. This would in all probability deal with proposals to revitalise the party's front organisations and State units. Leadership changes in the front organisations, such as the Youth Congress(I) and the Mahila Congress, may be made even before the second report is submitted.

According to party sources, the interim report has pointed out imbalances in the party's growth in various parts of the country. After examining the situation in North India, particularly Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, the task force has said that the revival of the party organisation in these States is central to the Congress(I)'s return as the number one political force in the country. Accepting that the emergence of a strong leader who can revive the party in Uttar Pradesh was a distant probability, the report has suggested that the CWC consider the setting up of four or five regional committees in the State under leaders with influence in various pockets. The task force hopes that this will lead to greater interaction between leaders and grassroots-level workers and help rejuvenate the party.

The most difficult task before the task force and the CWC would be to formulate plans to strengthen the party's State units. This is particularly so because factionalism is rampant in almost all States. The recent developments in the party units in Orissa and Madhya Pradesh have caused great concern to the central leadership. Dissident activity in these States has centered on the demand to remove Chief Ministers J.B. Patnaik and Digvijay Singh and the infighting has spilled beyond the organisation. The situation in Orissa has deteriorated to the extent that party workers came to blows in the presence of central leaders.

THE task force has, however, steered clear of suggesting political initiatives of broader implications. The question whether the Congress(I) should formally accept the need to forge alliances with other secular, centrist parties is a major subject of debate within the party.

Sharad Pawar, who was instrumental in shaping a successful alliance with the Samajwadi Party (S.P.) and the Republican Party of India (RPI) in Maharashtra during the Lok Sabha elections, has argued that a clear position in this regard will help the party's efforts to achieve pre-eminence again. However, Arjun Singh is of the view that the emphasis should be on the revival of the Congress(I) on its own.

Sonia Gandhi has not articulated her position although indications are that she accepts Arjun Singh's argument that the mass bases of other secular, centrist parties can be appropriated by the Congress(I) in due course.

Neither the task force nor the CWC has helped shape the Congress(I)'s approach vis-a-vis the problem-ridden A.B. Vajpayee Government. A former Union Minister from Kerala said that the party leadership seemed to be oblivious to the crisis in the Central Government. "There has been no move to capitalise on the situation," he said. Appa-rently, Sonia Gandhi thinks that the problems within the BJP-led coalition should be allowed to grow and the Congress(I) can capitalise on them later. Party sources said that Sonia Gandhi would plan her moves to capture power only after the Budget session of Parliament. In the meantime, she would like to see the party organisation strengthened, the sources added.

Whether these plans will go on schedule remains to be seen. However, under Sonia Gandhi's leadership the party is relying on the dictum 'slow and steady wins the race'.

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