A lone victory

Published : Jan 02, 2004 00:00 IST

The drama that preceded the choice of Chief Minister and the Cabinet takes away much of the sheen of the Congress(I)'s stunning victory in Delhi.

in New Delhi

FOR the Delhi electorate which gave an overwhelming mandate to the Congress(I) in the December 4 Assembly elections, there was no doubt about who would be the next Chief Minister. Yet, for nearly a week after the election results were out, the Congress(I) appeared reluctant to elect to the position Sheila Dixit, whose performance in office had contributed to the party's victory at the hustings.

A meeting of the Congress(I) Legislature Party (CLP) was held on December 9 at the office of the All India Congress Committee (AICC) in New Delhi, after leaders in Delhi differed on the choice of the venue. Sheila Dixit's choice was the Delhi Vidhan Sabha building, whereas her detractors in the party, Delhi Pradesh Congress Committee chief Prem Singh and party spokesperson Jagdish Tytler, wanted the meeting to be held at the AICC. Having had their way, her critics forced a resolution at the meeting to leave the choice of the CLP leader to party president Sonia Gandhi, but with a caveat: that AICC observers Pranab Mukherjee and Ahmed Patel would seek the opinion of every MLA on the leadership issue at a closed-door meeting. And only after she got the opinion of 46 of the 47 newly elected party MLAs did Sonia Gandhi `nominate' Sheila Dixit as the CLP leader on December 10, and convey it through the AICC observers. Sheila Dixit duly thanked Sonia Gandhi. Prem Singh, who had earlier staked his claim for the leadership, accepted the decision.

The hurdles that Sheila Dixit faced, despite an electoral mandate in her favour, were themselves a result of varying interpretations of the Delhi verdict within the Congress(I). By resisting her elevation as Chief Minister for another term, Sheila Dixit's critics in the party appeared to challenge the widely held view that the Congress(I)'s victory in Delhi had more to do with her own popularity than with Sonia Gandhi's leadership or the party's organisational skills.

The intense negotiations which Sheila Dixit had with the AICC observers and with Sonia Gandhi on the composition of her Council of Ministers - the party high command initially asked her to give due representation to the dissidents - indicated that the Chief Minister's prerogative to choose her ministerial colleagues would come under strain. Sheila Dixit had to postpone thrice her appointment with Lieutenant-Governor Vijay Kapoor to stake her claim with a list of her proposed Cabinet colleagues, in view of the protracted talks with the AICC observers and Sonia Gandhi.

However, the high command finally let her choose her own team and exclude all known dissidents, in order to correct the misgivings caused by the dissidents' campaign against her. Her ministerial team included her former Cabinet colleagues A.K. Walia, Haron Yusuf, Raj Kumar Chauhan and Yoganand Shastri. The new Ministers are Arvinder Singh Lovely and Mangat Ram Singhal. Ajay Maken, who was the Minister for Transport and Power in the previous government, has been nominated as the party's candidate for the Speaker's post, and former Minister Krishna Tirath is tipped to become the Deputy Speaker. The Speaker in the previous government, Subhash Chopra, has been denied renomination in view of his identification with the dissident faction. The composition of the Ministry ensures that one representative from every major community in the metropolis finds a place in the Cabinet.

The flexibility that the high command displayed belatedly in letting Sheila Dixit choose her Cabinet colleagues is expected to help her effectively implement the electoral promise of serving the people with a development-oriented agenda and working for peace and harmony. Had Sonia Gandhi endorsed the popular perception that the Congress(I) won in Delhi because of good governance by the Sheila Dixit government, she would not have encouraged the idle speculation and suspense that marked the election of the CLP leader and the painful process of consultation with the high command to choose the new team.

If good governance - as defined in terms of the `BSP factor' (Bijli, Sadak and Pani, that is, ensuring uninterrupted power supply, good roads and regular water supply) was indeed the factor that helped Sheila Dixit's return to power for a second term, it would have been difficult for the party to acknowledge that the lack of good governance was behind the rout of the party in the elections in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan. Therefore, by depriving Sheila Dixit of the credit for the party's only resounding success in the Assembly elections, the Congress(I) seemed to suggest that it was one way of keeping the balance between the warring factions within the party's Delhi unit.

Whatever the logic behind the drama enacted in choosing the CLP leader, and later in finalising the new Ministry, it was clear that Sheila Dixit herself had not anticipated the suspense-filled prelude to her staking the claim to form the government on December 12. Soon after the declaration of results on December 4, she indicated that reforms, modernisation and development were on top of her agenda. Her government's first priority would be to finish the unfinished tasks of the previous term and take the city on the path of modernisation, she claimed.

THE Congress(I)'s victory in Delhi was so convincing that it sent jitters in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) camp, the main party in the Opposition. Of the total 70 Assembly seats, the BJP secured 20, five more than what it won in the 1998 Assembly elections. The Congress(I) won 47 seats, and the scale of its victory in the seats it won was stunning. The Congress(I) uniformly won in all the so-called citadels of the BJP: the Sadar Lok Sabha seat held by the BJP's chief ministerial candidate Madan Lal Khurana, the Chandni Chowk Lok Sabha seat held by Union Minister for Sports and Youth Affairs Vijay Goel, and the Outer Delhi seat represented by Union Minister for Labour Sahib Singh Verma. Khurana won from the Moti Nagar Assembly seat falling within the Sadar Lok Sabha constituency, defeating his Congress(I) rival and former student leader Alka Lamba by over 15,000 votes; Congress(I) candidates won the remaining Assembly seats falling under this Lok Sabha constituency. Having lost the race for chief ministership and probably an opportunity to regain the leadership mantle of the BJP's State unit, Khurana seemed to be looking for an honourable exit from State politics. Confronted with the choice of keeping either his Lok sabha seat or his Assembly seat, Khurana left the decision to the Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

The impact of the Congress(I)'s victory in Delhi has left a question mark over the BJP's prospects in Delhi, which returns seven candidates, in the 2004 general elections. In the 1999 parliamentary elections, the BJP won all the seven seats by deftly swinging public opinion in its favour on the issue of ensuring a stable government at the Centre under the leadership of Vajpayee, within a year of losing the State Assembly elections in 1998. The party is now trying to find the reasons that caused its rout. A three-member panel comprising Lal Bihari Tiwari (the MP from East Delhi), Shanti Desai (ex-Mayor) and Mool Chand Chawla (State BJP general secretary) has been asked to collect and compile feedback from the grassroots about the BJP's electoral performance. The fact that all the three members are Khurana loyalists could indeed prevent conclusions that it was lacklustre leadership that resulted in the rout.

However, a member of the BJP media cell, Balbir Punj, attributed the party's setback in Delhi to the inability of its Delhi unit to communicate to the Delhi electorate the contribution made by the Central government to Delhi's infrastructural development, especially the Metro and the flyovers. To say - as one post-poll survey had revealed - that the BJP is still imprisoned in its Punjabi and trader support base, and is unable to respond to the changing social profile of Delhi, would be an insult to the voters of Delhi, he said. "The Delhi voter is not parochial but cosmopolitan," he reasoned. He felt that the BJP could have won the Delhi elections, as it had done in the other three States, had there been some degree of discontent against the State government. But as the Delhi electorate remained largely satisfied with the Sheila Dixit government, there was very little that the BJP could do to reverse the outcome.

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