Coalition offer, with a rider

Print edition : August 01, 2003

Congress(I) president Sonia Gandhi with senior leaders at the party's three-day conclave in Shimla. -

The Congress(I) comes out of its isolationist mode and accepts the reality of the need for coalition politics at the national level, but with a rider that Sonia Gandhi will head any non-BJP alliance at the Centre.

THE Congress(I) has finally stepped out of its ivory tower and accepted the reality that it is difficult to capture power at the Centre on its own.

Making a significant policy statement at the conclusion of the party's three-day meeting in Shimla on July 9, Congress(I) president Sonia Gandhi said: "Taking into account the present political scenario, the Congress would be prepared to enter into appropriate electoral coalition arrangements with secular parties on the basis of mutual understanding but without compromising on its basic ideologies." She explained that such a strategy shift was necessary to defeat the Bharatiya Janata Party and its allies, which, she said, were bent upon destroying Hinduism and its liberal tenets. "No sacrifice would be too great to ensure the defeat of the BJP and its allies in the forthcoming polls," she said.

However, the coalition offer comes with a rider - that Sonia Gandhi must be accepted as the leader.

Although the carefully drafted 14-point declaration, called the Shimla Sankalp, is not categorical on the issue, it makes the point clear: "We now seek the support of the people to bring India back on the path of progress with Congress under the leadership of Sonia Gandhi." Party leaders were more forthright in admitting that Sonia Gandhi would be their prime ministerial candidate in the forthcoming general elections. "No party has the right to dictate who should be our parliamentary party leader. The Congress reserves that right to decide its leader and there is no doubt that Sonia Gandhi is our leader," said party general secretary Ghulam Nabi Azad, who initiated the discussion on the leadership question.

According to Congress leaders, it was thought important to clarify the party's stand on the leadership question before talking of alliances, so that "the other parties do not raise this question later". As far as the Congress is concerned, it has made its stand clear. "Sonia Gandhi is our leader. She will lead us, no doubt about that," Ahmad Patel, Sonia Gandhi's political secretary said.

Pre-poll and post-poll alliances have been left open-ended, as they will form part of the electoral strategy. The Shimla meeting left it to the party president to chalk out the finer details as and when she deems fit.

But the fact that the party is thinking on the lines of forming a coalition is itself significant. For, earlier the Congress(I) had maintained, at the party conclaves at Pachmarhi, Bangalore and Mount Abu, that it would strive to regain power at the Centre on its own and enter into alliances only when "absolutely necessary", depending upon the conditions prevailing then. It was an ad hoc policy. Now the party's strategy appears to be more coherent.

Elaborating on the issue in her concluding speech, Sonia Gandhi said, "The prevailing situation in the country makes it incumbent on all secular parties to evolve a strategy for combating communalism and religious fundamentalism and for ensuring the defeat of the BJP and its allies." What shape the coalition proposal will now take would depend on the responses from other political parties, especially the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), the Samajwadi Party (S.P.) and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK). But the rider on leadership has already disturbed them.

Although nobody is willing to go on record, leaders of these political parties have not taken kindly to the condition. "The first and foremost principle of coalition politics is give and take, which seems to be missing from the Congress declaration. How can they dictate terms?" asked an S.P. leader. The S.P., incidentally, is going to be a crucial factor in the Congress(I)'s scheme of things, because Uttar Pradesh, where the S.P. continues to enjoy a strong vote base, sends 80 representatives to the Lok Sabha, and without a substantial presence in U.P., the party would find it difficult to realise its objective.

One senior S.P. leader maintained that if the election results made it absolutely necessary they would consider the option of supporting Sonia Gandhi as Prime Minister, but that "would only be as a last resort". According to this leader, although S.P. president Mulayam Singh Yadav has now given the certificate of "Indianness" to Sonia Gandhi, it was a different matter to accept her as the Prime Minister. The S.P. will deliberate on this issue at its national executive meeting in Bhopal at the end of July "if there is a proposal from the Congress".

It is also important to mention here that Rashtriya Lok Dal (RJD) leader Ajit Singh, who walked out of the National Democratic Alliance recently, has declared that he is not necessarilylooking for an alliance with the Congress(I) in the forthcoming elections and that he would explore the possibility of a "non-BJP, non-Congress" front. Ajit Singh, who has a major presence in western U.P., said people were looking for a non-BJP, non-Congress(I) alternative.

As for the NCP, whose leaders formed the party after breaking away from the Congress(I) over the issue of Sonia Gandhi's foreign origins, submission to her demand now would be as good as surrender. Bickering between the two parties, which share power in Maharashtra, have already begun. There are disturbing noises from the NCP leaders in the State on the issue. Party leader Tariq Anwar said that there was no question of accepting Sonia Gandhi's leadership at the national level. Senior NCP leaders admit in private that State-level power-sharing is one thing and sharing power at the Centre with Sonia Gandhi at the helm is "an altogether different matter". "The issue needs to be thrashed out in greater detail. It is quite premature on the part of the Congress(I) to assume that all alliance partners will accept Sonia as the leader," one leader said.

A senior S.P. leader went to the extent of commenting that by placing this condition, the Congress has actually paved the way for the return of the NDA to power. "When it comes to choosing between Atalji and Sonia Gandhi or even Advani for that matter and Sonia Gandhi, voters would have no choice but to vote for the BJP," he said. He said the Congress(I) had mistaken its electoral victory in various States as a vote for Sonia Gandhi. "After the historic `272' mistake in 1998 (Sonia Gandhi had claimed then that her party had the support of 272 Members of Parliament, the strength required to form a government), Sonia Gandhi is making yet another mistake by declaring that she alone can become the Prime Minister," he remarked. "The S.P. has decided to contest the coming Assembly elections on its own so there is no question of any pre-poll alliance with the Congress(I) either now or for the Lok Sabha elections. If the Congress(I) actually emerges the winner with a large number of seats, then we may not have much of a choice. Otherwise, this issue needs to be discussed and debated," he said. The leader said that it was good for the Congress(I) to declare Sonia Gandhi as its leader, but it was too much to suggest that she could become the leader of the Samajwadi Party too.

EVEN the Left parties, whose support the Congress(I) appears to be taking for granted, have made it clear that a pre-poll alliance was out of the question and even post-poll arrangements, to which the Left was committed in order to keep the BJP out, would depend on the outcome of the elections. "We are not concerned about individuals. Our priority would be to support a secular government in order to keep the BJP out because the BJP-led NDA government has ruined the nation," said D. Raja, national secretary of the Communist Party of India (CPI). He said that the fact that the Congress had accepted the reality of coalition politics was an encouraging sign, but putting conditions would only complicate matters. The Left is of the opinion that coalition politics is based on the spirit of accommodation, which seemed to be lacking on the part of the Congress(I). "Parties that are willing to join the coalition would not approve of such conditions," a senior Left party leader said. The Left parties are of the opinion that the leadership issue could become a jarring factor in any post-poll arrangement in the event of a fractured verdict.

Besides spelling out the Congress(I)'s current preference for coalition and making its position clear on the leadership issue, the Shimla conclave unveiled the road map for the elections. The declaration, which was adopted unanimously, can be described as the party's election manifesto. It is the magic wand that the party hopes to wield to please every section of society. The Shimla Sankalp, which has promises galore, is a policy statement on economic reforms, social empowerment, rural transformation, secularism, development and governance.

"Development and reforms with a human face" and "Congress ka haath garib ke saath" are the two basic messages that emerge out of the document. The pro-poor, left-of-centre approach is back in the Congress(I)'s policy framework. The party has also suggested the radical step of reservation in defence, the judiciary and the private sector. This, the party has said, will be debated at the various party fora before being finally incorporated into the policy framework. Realising that unemployment has become a major problem in the post-liberalisation era, the party has promised employment guarantee schemes and proposes social insurance for workers. Besides, remunerative prices for farmers and food security for all figure prominently in the charter. This, the party hopes, will evoke a positive response from the rural population because some parts of the country have just been through an unprecedented drought.

On economic affairs, there is a marked shift in the party's policy. "Manmohanomics" has been put aside and "reforms with a human face" is the new buzz word. Indira Gandhi's "garibi hatao" slogan is back in a new avatar: "Congress ka haath, Garib ke saath'', a slogan that was used by the party with some success in the Himachal Pradesh elections.

The party's stand on Ayodhya has also been spelt out. The declaration says that only a court settlement was acceptable to the party as it seemed the only viable solution. If there is a negotiated settlement, it will have to have legal sanctity, it says. The Shimla Sankalp does not refer to Hindutva or minorities, but it comes down heavily on the fundamentalist forces led by the BJP and the Sangh Parivar. It attacks the NDA government for its failure on all fronts, including Ayodhya.

"The Indian National Congress reemphasises its unwavering commitment to fight fundamentalism of all kinds," the document says. It promises that the party would oppose efforts by the Sangh Parivar to raise the issue of the mosques in Kashi and Mathura. The Sankalp invites "all progressive, thinking men and women, institu<147,2,1>tions and political movements, who share our understanding of India's past, our concerns with India's present and our vision of India's future to join us in this historic endeavour."

Addressing the participants, Sonia Gandhi said: "The Sankalp is our political charter, yet another milestone in our continued struggle against forces of communalism and fundamentalism."

On the opening day of the conclave, Sonia Gandhi left no one in doubt that the meeting was going to chalk out the party's road map for the elections. She said: "Let me make it absolutely clear here and now that the Congress(I) stands fully prepared, stands ready at any time, this year or next, to face the elections." She exhorted the party cadre to be ready for an ideological battle against the Sangh Parivar. She said the time had come for the party to reclaim its position at the helm of affairs. "I am convinced that the people are waiting for an early opportunity to decisively reject the BJP-led NDA government." This was because the government had failed on several fronts - security, defence, social harmony, economic growth, rural development, foreign policy and governance.

"The Congress' time has come once again, it must now reclaim its rightful place," Sonia Gandhi declared. National security, she said, was a shambles as terrorist strikes had never been so brazen before. She criticised the Home Minister for failing to come up with his much-promised white paper on Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence. Criticising the BJP and other Sangh Parivar constituents for causing "grievous" damage to the country's secular fabric, she said secularism was an article of faith for the Congress and it was determined to combat the misuse of any religion for the purpose of dividing society. She also challenged the Sangh Parivar's interpretation of Hinduism. "Whatever the BJP, the VHP and the Bajrang Dal preach and propagate has nothing whatsoever to do with Hinduism and the liberal Hindu way of life," she said. She alleged that the government "has failed to provide adequate food and nutrition to vulnerable sections of society, and failed miserably in providing one crore jobs a year". In the matter of foreign policy too, she said, the government lacked consistency, conviction and clarity. "The national consensus that had sustained foreign policy was now being eroded," she said. On the question of sending troops to Iraq, she said: "Indian troops must not be deployed." She urged the people to give the Congress yet another chance because only the Congress could "protect all of India from the merchants of hate".

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