Changing tack

Print edition : February 14, 2003

The defeat in the Gujarat elections prompts the Congress(I) to resurrect its strategy of playing the `caste factor' as it moves towards elections in other States.

in New Delhi

Congress(I) President Sonia Gandhi.-GOPAL SUNGER

THE defeat in the Gujarat Assembly elections seems to have dealt a blow to the confidence level and the expectations of the Congress(I) leadership. The party, which was gloating over the fact that it was heading governments in 14 States and was dreaming of making it to power at the Centre, woke up to the Hindutva threat after the setback in Gujarat. In an effort to try and avert a possible repeat of the Gujarat experience in other States that are due to go to the polls this year, the party high command has embarked on a reorganising spree in Rajasthan, Delhi and Madhya Pradesh. The emphasis is on the "right social equations". The party seems to have realised that the slogan of "good governance" alone cannot help it win elections and that it needs to have the right combination of social forces in its favour. So it is back to caste-related permutations and combinations, as was the case in the days when the party reigned supreme. The all-out condemnation of "caste politics" has taken a back seat, at least for now. Significantly, the necessity to create the "right social equations" has finally made the party shed its inhibitions about forming coalitions and pre-election alliances and entering into electoral understanding with other political parties.

Maharashtra Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh's exit from the post (see separate story) left no one in doubt that he paid for the party's debacle in Gujarat. Had he been replaced in June 2002, when his government was on the verge of collapse, the charges of non-performance would have carried credibility. Even in the subsequent months, his ouster would have been an understandable move because it was amply clear that under his leadership, the once prosperous State had reached the brink of financial bankruptcy. But at this particular point of time, coming as it does immediately after the Gujarat fiasco for the party, it spells nervousness on the part of the leadership. The appointment of a Dalit, Sushil Kumar Shinde, as successor to Deshmukh seems to be a calculated move by the high command to gain the support of the segment in the State. The party is also planning to replace Maharashtra Pradesh Congress Committee (MPCC) president Govindrao Adik with "some Maratha person from the Vidarbha region". The move is aimed to pacify the powerful Maratha lobby, which is perceived to be unhappy with the removal of Deshmukh, and to provide adequate representation in the party's leadership structure to the politically crucial region of Vidarbha. Those who are being considered for the post include Ranjit Deshmukh, Patangrao Kadam and Shivajirao Nilenkekar. "We have to take into account the Maratha factor," said a senior leader. The focus here, as it is elsewhere, is on getting the "social equation" right.

Moreover, senior party leaders said that the change of guard in Maharashtra pointed to a desire for a pre-poll alliance with the Sharad Pawar-led Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), which could help tilt the caste equation in favour of the Congress(I). (In the 1999 Assembly elections, the NCP and the Congress(I) contested separately and formed a coalition subsequently.) The fact that Shinde enjoys a good rapport with Pawar was apparently a major factor behind his elevation. A senior party leader said: "With Shinde's appointment as Chief Minister, we have given a message to the Dalit constituency in Maharashtra. The OBC [Other Backward Classes] segment is already on board because of the NCP whose Chhagan Bhujbal, an OBC member, is the Deputy Chief Minister. Now if the Maratha factor is accommodated in the organisation, we will have the right social combination."

Caste considerations seem to be at work in Rajasthan as well. The situation in the State, which is to go to the polls later this year, is different from that in Maharashtra. Apparently, Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot earned a reprieve when the party high command approved the appointment of two Deputy Chief Ministers, Kamla Beniwal and Banwari Lal Bairwa and a Cabinet Minister, Ram Singh Bishnoi. A 14-member coordination committee, headed by AICC general secretary Ambica Soni, was also appointed to ensure greater cohesion between the party and the government and to involve party worker's in the government's decision-making process.

Delhi Chief Minsiter Sheila Dixit with State Congress(I) president Subhash Chopra (right) and Ambica Soni at a party rally in New Delhi.-RAJEEV BHATT

On the other hand, at one stage Rajasthan Pradesh Congress Committee (RPCC) president Girija Vyas was thought to be facing the axe because the party leadership thought that the politically dominant Jat lobby needed to be accommodated. "The PCC president will have to go. We are actively considering having a Jat lead the party there," said a senior Congress(I) functionary. Girija Vyas' supposed failure to give adequate play to the Rajasthan government's achievements was also being cited. A senior Congress(I) leader said: "Besides the caste factor, it is also a fact that the party failed to project the government's achievements. There have been some very good decisions taken by the Gehlot government but they were not publicised." A section of influential party leaders, including K. Natwar Singh, S.C. Mathur and Sisram Ola, rallied behind Girija Vyas. Their argument was that a change in the RPCC leadership should be accompanied by the removal of Gehlot.

The party leadership is also planning to revamp the Delhi unit. The Congress(I) in the national capital, which is to go to the polls later this year, might see the exit of Delhi Pradesh Congress Committee president Subhash Chopra. Chopra is likely to be replaced by Jagdish Tytler, Chaudhary Prem Singh or J.P. Agrawal. In Delhi, the party's main concern is to neutralise former Union Minister and Bharatiya Janata Party leader Madan Lal Khurana, who has the support of the trading and business community. Congress(I) president Sonia Gandhi has held several meetings with Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dixit as part of an exercise to find a suitable person to lead the party through the elections.

Organisational changes with an eye on the caste factor are being considered in Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka too. The Chief Ministers of the two States have been spared because of their satisfactory performance overall.

The Congress(I) seems also to be shedding its inhibitions about forging pre-poll alliances and entering into seat adjustments with other political parties. For instance, in Himachal Pradesh it is not averse to entering into an electoral understanding with Sukhram, the former Union Minister and Congress(I) leader, who heads the Himachal Vikas Party (HVP). Despite opposition from Virbhadra Singh, a senior Congress(I) leader from the State, a section of the party's central leadership believes that a tie-up with the HVP will help it in the elections. They believe that the caste balance will tilt in its favour in areas like Mandi where Sukhram has influence. They also point to the role played by the HVP in bringing the BJP to power. Last time, confronted by the prospect of a hung Assembly, the BJP had to seek the support of the five-member group of the HVP to gain power. Past bitterness and the charges of corruption against him have so far not deterred the Congress(I) leaders in this matter. A senior Congress(I) leader admitted that "seat adjustments with Sukhram could not be ruled out".

THE changes being made in the Congress(I) have given the BJP an opportunity to ridicule its claims of providing "good governance". BJP leaders see the process as an "admission of failure" by the party. Terming the changes as indicating a "leadership crisis", BJP spokesperson Arun Jaitley asked: "If the party's claims to have delivered good governance are genuine, then why change the men in command? Does it not show that they have failed to deliver and are getting nervous now?"

However, Congress(I) leaders refute the charge. Party general secretary Kamal Nath said: "Changing leaders mid-stream is a way of improving our performance. We believe in giving a chance to as many people as possible. This is certainly not an admission of failure, but a keenness on our part to give the best to the people." He added: "There is no better way to improve than self-censure and self-criticism." It is certain that by initiating a process of change the Congress(I) leadership has taken a calculated risk. The moves also assume significance in view of the fact that similar efforts undertaken by the BJP in the past have failed.

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