A string of election victories and a party president emboldened by these, give the Congress(I) visions of a return to power at the Centre.
INSPIRED by recent electoral successes and the rising confidence level of party president Sonia Gandhi, the Congress(I) is gearing itself for the final push to power, in more States now and at the Centre eventually. The party won the State Assembly elections in Uttaranchal, Punjab and Manipur in February and swept to power in the Municipal Corporation of Delhi(story on page 42) last fortnight. And much to the astonishment of party veterans, Sonia Gandhi has started cracking the whip. In a rare show of authority she transferred All India Congress Committee (AICC) general secretary Ghulam Nabi Azad from his position in the party headquarters to Jammu and Kashmir as Pradesh Congress Committee president. If informed sources in the Congress(I) are to be believed, more changes at the organisational level are in the offing.
Sources close to Sonia Gandhi took pains to explain that the shifting of Azad indicated the party high command's confidence in his leadership qualities. Moreover, they said, it was a political message to the people of Jammu and Kashmir as the State was going to the polls later this year. "She wants to send out an important message to the people of Jammu and Kashmir that the Congress is taking the State seriously. We are confident of forming the government in the State. Azad has been sent there to revamp and revitalise the party and instil confidence among the people," said AICC general secretary Oscar Fernandes.
Nevertheless, the shifting is widely seen as the cutting to size of a person who had come to acquire a certain stature at the AICC headquarters. It is also a signal that Sonia Gandhi has arrived.
Azad, a Congress(I) leader without much grassroots support, has survived at the Centre thanks mainly to his proximity to successive party presidents. He is obviously not amused at the change; he refused to speak to mediapersons and has not taken charge as PCC(I) president at the time of writing.
Large-scale changes may be in the offing as several important States will go to the polls in the next round of Assembly elections. "In the next two years, we have the State elections and finally the Lok Sabha elections. We have to have a mechanism that will be required to deal with the situation in the respective States effectively. We have to prepare for the long haul," Oscar Fernandes said. Organisational changes are expected in Uttar Pradesh where the party fared rather badly in the Assembly elections. "Even though the PCC president (Sri Prakash Jaiswal) is not personally responsible for the failure, some action will have to be taken," said Fernandes.
The confidence gained by Sonia Gandhi following the string of electoral successes had manifested itself at the time of nomination of party candidates for the Rajya Sabha elections. She not only ignored powerful regional leaders and Chief Ministers such as Digvijay Singh, S.M. Krishna, Tarun Gogoi, Ajit Jogi and Vilasrao Deshmukh in her choice of candidates from their States but made them accept her nominees. Digvijay Singh had to accept Obeidullah Khan Azmi and Suresh Pachauri as the candidates from Madhya Pradesh; Ajit Jogi not only failed to get the ticket for Ramanuj Yadav, but had to accept Motilal Vora. Similarly, Vilasrao Deshmukh failed to get a renomination for S.B. Chavan. The party chief chose Murli Deora and Prithviraj Chouhan.
DURING the debate on the Prevention of Terrorism Bill in the joint session of Parliament on March 26 (story on page 102), a confident Sonia Gandhi surprised everyone. Although she read out a prepared speech to open the response from the Opposition, her speech was unusually powerful. It was by far her best speech in Parliament and was strong enough to provoke Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee into making an unusual intervention, turning the entire debate into a Sonia vs Vajpayee battle. Sonia Gandhi began by describing the legislation as an "instrument of suppression", which would be used by the government to suppress "political opponents, religious minorities, ethnic groups, weaker sections and trade unions". She said the constitutional provision of holding a joint session of Parliament was resorted to by the government in order to "further an agenda of divisiveness... to achieve its narrow and controversial end", and not to "celebrate a consensus on a measure of national importance".
She continued her attack by giving examples of how the government would misuse the legislation. In this context she cited the way in which the Gujarat government used the provisions of the Prevention of Terrorism Ordinance (POTO) selectively against the minorities. She reminded the Prime Minister of his duty to "protect the welfare of the people of India" and wanted to know whether he "will be submissive and succumb to the internal pressure of his party and its sister organisations". She concluded her speech with a warning to the Prime Minister: "Your moment of reckoning has come."
The speech stung the Prime Minister as was evident from his intervention. He dealt solely with Sonia Gandhi's speech and hardly touched upon the topic of the debate. He launched a focussed attack on her, saying that she had no right to remind him that his moment of reckoning had come. He added that she had no right to talk about the internal politics of his party or the Sangh Parivar.
Significantly, Sonia Gandhi's speech stood out against that of the Prime Minister. Hers was a passionate appeal to Vajpayee not to let political considerations bring into existence a draconian piece of legislation that had the potential to violate basic human rights, especially at a time when the polity was divided owing to the Gujarat riots and the Ayodhya agitation. Vajpayee's speech, in contrast, lacked substance. It focussed on a personal attack and had a laudatory tone about his own long stint in Parliament.
No matter how much Congress workers wished for it and how hard Sonia Gandhi tried, the fact remains that the party still has to regain lost ground in most of the larger States which together account for more than 50 per cent of the Lok Sabha seats. For her leadership qualities to be really acknowledged, Sonia Gandhi needs to strengthen the party in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu, which elect the bulk of Lok Sabha members. Despite all the bravado, the party today remains a fringe force in all these States. Worse, it seems to have no strategy to rejuvenate itself in these States.
Congress(I) leaders, however, would not agree. They hope against hope that in the next Lok Sabha elections the people in these States will vote for them. "We will improve our performance in all these States in the next Lok Sabha election. In the Lok Sabha elections, national politics and national issues dominate and we have emerged as the only alternative to the BJP at the national level," said Oscar Fernandes.
Fernandes said that in Bihar the party had regained substantial ground as was evident from the last panchayat elections in which the Congress(I) finished second after the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) despite having had no pact with the latter. In West Bengal, he said that the people would reject Mamata Banerjee for her inconsistency and back the Congress(I). He said that in Tamil Nadu the two Dravidian parties would not be the deciding factor; it would be the Congress(I) that would tilt the balance, he claimed. Uttar Pradesh, Oscar Fernandes said, had become a "no man's land" where, going by the current trend, there would be a four-way split of votes and its effect would get neutralised because of the large size of the State. "The effect of U.P. will be zero," he declared. In short, Congress(I) workers have began to smell power and success and the confidence displayed by Sonia Gandhi has added to their optimism.