Joining forces

Print edition : February 13, 2004

The Congress(I) effects organisational changes and attracts new allies, despite the confusion in areas such as effective slogans to counter the Bharatiya Janata Party's.

THE Congress(I) may have discovered the virtues of coalition politics, but confusion seems to prevail in the party regarding its prime ministerial candidate and about solving inner-party problems. While the Congress(I) president says the people will elect the Prime Minister and, in case an alliance comes to power, the alliance partners, party leaders say that Sonia Gandhi is the party's prime ministerial candidate. The confusion seems to have stemmed from the worry that the leadership issue could become a problem for the Congress(I) in the forthcoming Lok Sabha election because of Sonia Gandhi's "foreign origin" and the Bharatiya Janata Party could cash in on this factor. When asked to clarify whether it meant that she no longer claimed to be the leader of an alliance formed by the Congress(I) for the Lok Sabha elections, Sonia Gandhi said that the party had never made such claims and that the leader of the alliance could only be decided by the alliance partners.

Congress(I) president Sonia Gandhi with DMK leaders (from left) T.R. Baalu, Dayanidhi Maran and M.K. Stalin in New Delhi on January 17.-SHANKER CHAKRAVARTY

Adding to the worries of the party is its failure so far to coin popular slogans to counter the BJP's "feel good factor" and "India Shining". "We will eventually find a slogan to match the BJP's. Their slogans have proved effective because they were followed by a good monsoon and the BJP's victory in three States. Our publicity machinery is also working at it. We will soon come up with something equally catchy. You cannot coin an effective slogan overnight," said party spokesman S. Jaipal Reddy.

The party is also faced with the task of setting its own house in order. The Congress(I) president is personally meeting State party representatives and preparing an action plan to rejuvenate the party units in various States. The much-awaited exercise of reorganising the party high command came on January 19 with a shake-up in the Congress Working Committee (CWC). The powerful party general secretary, Ambika Soni, who was in charge of the party units in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, has been divested of her responsibilities. She has been entrusted with the task of looking after the Jammu and Kashmir and Uttaranchal units and allowed to retain charge of the media department and the party president's office. General secretary Nawal Kishore Sharma has been removed from charge of the Uttar Pradesh unit and Chaudhary Virendra Singh, a leader from Haryana, has been appointed in his place. Former Chief Ministers Digvijay Singh and Ashok Gehlot, Chaudhary Virendra Singh, Prithviraj Chavan, Priyaranjan Dasmunshi, Ramesh Chennithala and Balram Jakhar were appointed special invitees to the CWC. Digvijay Singh and Gehlot have also been put in charge of the party units in Assam and Orissa, and Himachal Pradesh and Chhattisgarh respectively. Former Orissa Pradesh Congress Committee president Sharat Patnaik and Rajya Sabha member K.B. Krishnamurthy were appointed party secretaries.

Another important move aimed at reviving the party was the announcement that Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, the children of Sonia Gandhi, have acquired the party's primary membership. Their decision is seen to be a step in the direction of their formal entry into politics. According to senior Congress(I) leaders from Uttar Pradesh, if Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra contest the Lok Sabha elections, they would not only win their own seats but would also put the party in an advantageous position in the others too. Besides, their presence in the electoral fray would somewhat blunt the BJP's campaign about Sonia Gandhi's "foreign origin". However, Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, who toured the Amethi and adjoining Rae Bareli Lok Sabha constituencies for three days from January 19, have refused to make any statement on whether they would contest.

Sonia Gandhi with BSP leader Mayawati on January 15, the latter's birthday, at her New Delhi residence.-

Meanwhile, the party units in Punjab, Kerala and Gujarat are in a bad shape owing to faction feuds. In Punjab, though truce has been brought about between the warring factions led by Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh and former Chief Minister Rajinder Kaur Bhattal by making the latter Deputy Chief Minister, it is not seen as a permanent solution. In Kerala, with veteran leader and former Chief Minister K. Karunakaran continuing to keep the banner of revolt high against Chief Minister A.K. Antony, the high command may have to work hard to avert a split in the party. Discussions held in New Delhi to solve the crisis in the Kerala unit have so far yielded no results. Similarly, in Gujarat, former Chief Minister Amarsinh Chaudhary and PCC president Shankarsinh Vaghela are at loggerheads over the latter's controversial Shakti Dal, volunteers of which carry red batons and wear blue uniforms. While Vaghela refused to disband the outfit, Chaudhary said its formation went against the Congress(I)'s "culture of non-violence". Even Sonia Gandhi's recent directive to Vaghela to convert the Shakti Dal into a non-governmental organisation (NGO) may not satisfy his detractors in the party.

HOWEVER, the Congress(I) seems to be making some headway in its quest for prospective alliance partners. Importantly, even parties that were once considered `untouchable' are now approached by either the Congress(I) president herself or her emissaries. The exercise got under way after the CWC meeting on January 7 decided to forge alliances for the Lok Sabha elections. Particularly significant was Sonia Gandhi's announcement that she was willing to talk to both the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and Sharad Pawar's Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) to discuss electoral tie-ups. Moreover, Sonia Gandhi herself met NCP president Sharad Pawar over tea and decided to forge a pre-poll alliance and draft a "common minimum programme if the need arose". Sonia Gandhi deputed senior leader and former Union Finance Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh to meet DMK president M. Karunanidhi in Chennai. She later met a DMK delegation led by Karunanidhi's son M.K. Stalin and former Union Minister T.R. Baalu in New Delhi. The meeting resulted in the announcement of a secular alliance named the Progressive Democratic Alliance (PDA) in Tamil Nadu - an electoral front comprising the Congress(I), the DMK, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the Communist Party of India, the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK) and the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK). In fact, the formation of the PDA forced Chief Minister and All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) supremo Jayalalithaa to retract from her earlier announcement that the party would go it alone in the Lok Sabha elections, and look out for allies.

Besides Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra, Bihar has also been high on Sonia Gandhi's priority list to firm up possible alliances. Reports suggest that attempts are on to win over former Union Minister Ram Vilas Paswan's Lok Janshakti. Incidentally, on the eve of the Gujarat Assembly elections in 2002, the prospect of an alliance with the Lok Janshakti in the State disappeared when the Congress(I) denied it seats to contest. In the first week of January, in a surprise move, Sonia Gandhi visited Paswan at his house in New Delhi to "wish him a happy new year". The exchange of greetings resulted in a call for the "unity of secular forces in order to defeat the communal forces". What this call will mean in the long run remains to be seen because the Lok Janshakti's principal adversary in Bihar is the Laloo Prasad Yadav-led ruling Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), a long-time ally of the Congress(I). Paswan was reticent when contacted. "Our first priority should be to defeat the communal forces. In the Lok Sabha elections defeating the BJP is a more important issue. If the BJP can manage the contradictions in the NDA, why can't it be done elsewhere?," he asked.

Uttar Pradesh is another State where the Congress(I) is seeking strong allies to take on the BJP. Sonia Gandhi's presence at former Chief Minister and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) supremo Mayawati's birthday party on January 15 did contain a political message. In Uttar Pradesh, the Congress(I) is supporting the Samajwadi Party-led government from outside. However, there are voices of discontent in the State party over Chief Minister Mulayam Singh Yadav's style of functioning. Moreover, senior Congress(I) leaders say that since the BSP, which is perceived as championing the Dalit cause, is out of the NDA now, an alliance with it could help the party to win Dalit votes not only in Uttar Pradesh but all over the country. Although a formal announcement regarding an alliance is yet to be made, there are indications of a positive development in this regard. "The prospect of an alliance with the BSP is extremely good. But alliances are normally announced only after the poll dates are declared," said a senior Congress(I) functionary. Adding credibility to the talk of a Congress(I)-BSP alliance is Mayawati's declared intent of "going to any extent" to defeat the BJP in order to avenge the latter's role in bringing down her government in August 2003.

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