Loosening grip

Print edition : July 04, 1998

The setback that the Congress(I) has suffered in the Rajya Sabha elections points to Sonia Gandhi's failure to consolidate the early gains that she had made in keeping the party machinery under control.

VENKITESH RAMAKRISHNAN in New Delhi R. PADMANABHAN in Mumbai

FROM the day Sonia Gandhi took over as Congress(I) president, the general impression in the party has been that compared to other leaders from the Nehru-Gandhi family she would have a tougher time controlling the faction-ridden organisation. It was thought that she would find the party, with its many groups, unmanageable, given their penchant for one-upmanship. According to some leaders of the party and also observers, she was herself aware of this situation and that was why she was extremely cautious in proceeding with the process of restructuring the organisation. She took extra care to accommodate a range of opinions and power players: this was expected to help her run the organisation relatively smoothly.

However, Sonia Gandhi's grip over the Congress(I) appears to be loosening at a faster pace than was expected. This is the main message from the stunning defeat of the party's nominee in Maharashtra, Ram Pradhan, in the Rajya Sabha elections (see separate story). Pradhan had been handpicked by Sonia Gandhi. As many as 13 MLAs had violated the party whip and voted against the nominee of the Congress(I) president. According to a senior leader from the South, this is more significant than who or what instigated the cross-voting.

Close associates of Sonia Gandhi, including Margaret Alva and Oscar Fernandes, had presented Pradhan as one of a group of seasoned administrators who needed to be put in positions of power in order to enable the party to take on the Bharatiya Janata Party-led Government. Others who were mentioned in this context included former Chief Justice of India Ranganath Mishra, who won the Rajya Sabha election from Orissa, and prominent lawyer Kapil Sibal, who won from Bihar. It was claimed that the presence of these professionals in Parliament would improve the party's image.

However, the elections in Maharashtra have dealt a severe blow to Sonia Gandhi's plans. In addition, the way in which senior leaders are using the party to settle personal scores has helped only to upset the process of achieving organisational cohesiveness that Sonia had begun.

Congress(I) president Sonia Gandhi presiding over a CWC meeting in New Delhi on June 23.-V. SUDERSHAN

Central to the collapse of the understanding among the national-level leadership is the straining of the relationship between Sonia Gandhi and Maharashtra strongman Sharad Pawar. Soon after the results were announced, various theories started doing the rounds, and one of them attributed Pradhan's defeat to Pawar's indifference to him as he was Sonia Gandhi's candidate. Pawar, it was suggested, had a grudge against Sonia Gandhi for not making him the leader of the Congress(I) Parliamentary Party. It was also argued that Pawar was unhappy with Sonia for her failure to utilise the opportunities that were available to pull down the Vajpayee Government and make a bid for power. The money power allegedly unleashed by former Congress(I) leader and independent candidate Suresh Kalmadi and the lack of coordination among Congress(I) MLAs were also blamed for the setback.

The allegations concealed in these theories were too serious to be ignored. As a consequence, Sonia, under pressure from anti-Pawar leaders such as Arjun Singh, deputed a Congress(I) Working Committee (CWC) delegation comprising A.K. Antony, K. Vijayabhaskara Reddy and Rajesh Pilot to investigaate the defeat. Pawar's departure to London - followed by that of his close aide Chhagan Bhujbal - a day after the results were announced only strengthened the allegations against him. (Apparently, Pawar has gone abroad for the treatment of a calf injury.) The delegation met around 60 party MLAs and other office-bearers and submitted a report.

The delegation recommended issue of show-cause notices to Lok Sabha member Praful Patel and legislator Satish Chaturvedi, both of whom are considered to be supporters of Pawar. Pawar's response to the notices, made through an announcement from London, contained the accusation that certain leaders blamed his supporters in order to cover up their own role in Pradhan's defeat. This virtually amounted to a negation of the delegation's report, which identified the two Pawar supporters as persons mainly responsible for Pradhan's defeat. According to the report, while Patel had been too busy in canvassing for Vijay Darda, an independent candidate to whom the Congress(I) had offered "moral support", Chaturvedi had virtually acted as Kalmadi's polling agent.

Pawar announced in London that he would meet Sonia Gandhi and clear any doubts she may have about Praful Patel.

Maharashtra leader Sharad Pawar.-RAJEEV BHATT

PRADHAN fell short of the required 41 votes even after five rounds of counting. The number of votes he secured at the end of the fifth round was lower than that of the Shiv Sena's Satish Pradhan. Satish Pradhan too fell short of the magic figure but he got through because there were six seats to be filled.

The Congress(I) had expected that Ram Pradhan and fellow party candidate Najma Heptullah would get 45 first-preference votes each. Speaking to Frontline, Pradhan said that the first choices of the 78 Congress(I) MLAs were expected to be divided equally between the two of them. Additionally, Pradhan was to have got the votes of six of the 44 elected independent members and Najma Heptullah those of four independents and two of the four Samajwadi Party (S.P.) members. In the event, Pradhan got only 37 first-preference votes and Najma Heptullah, who was elected after four rounds of counting, only 40. This means that 13 of the votes that had been allotted to the two Congress(I) candidates got diverted.

It is alleged that the Congress(I) supported Darda because Pawar was obsessed with the idea of defeating Kalmadi. Bhujbal told Frontline that Darda had been propped up as a counter-weight to Kalmadi in the belief that cross-voting by Shiv Sena and BJP legislators and the independent MLAs supporting the ruling alliance would facilitate the victory of Darda as well as the two party candidates. Five days before the elections, Pawar had gone on record as saying that he would not be surprised if both Darda and Kalmadi got elected at the cost of a Shiv Sena candidate.

According to Bhujbal, besides getting 16 first-preference votes less than the combine's strength in the Assembly, the candidates of the Shiv Sena and the BJP were deprived of the first-preference votes of 28 independents. He claimed that had the Congress(I)'s strategy succeeded, the complexion of politics in Maharashtra would have changed drastically and the independent MLAs supporting the Sena-BJP Government would have done some rethinking. Unfortunately, he said, eight or nine Congress(I) MLAs and four or five others who were to have given the Congress(I) candidates their first-preference votes resorted to cross-voting.

According to Bhu-jbal, while some of the "betrayers" were lured with the use of money, some others were motivated by a vindictive urge to humble Pawar and undermine the good equations he had developed with the Con-gress(I) president. Gurunath Kulkarni, a leader of the State Congress(I), also alleged that money had played an important role in the elections. He had heard amounts upwards of Rs. 15 lakhs being mentioned, he said.

For his part, Kalmadi maintained that many of those who had voted for him had been motivated by the belief that he could look after their interests in New Delhi. According to him, the Congressmen who voted for him were Pawar's erstwhile associates, who had fallen out with him (Pawar) because he was going out of his way to "finish" him (Kalmadi). The fact remains that Kalmadi has won and the Congress(I), especially its new president Sonia Gandhi, has lost.

SECTIONS of the Congress(I) leadership owing allegiance to former Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao and former party president Sitaram Kesri suggest that the electoral reverse is related to Sonia Gandhi's unwarranted emphasis on professionals and to her decision to change the character of the party. Middle- and lower-level members of the party have not taken kindly to the rise of the "white collar brigade" under Sonia's leadership. "For all you know," a leader from the North-East said, "the result in Mah-arashtra could be the beginning of a revolt against this."

Meanwhile, Sonia Gandhi is continuing with her mass contact programme. In early June she was in Uttar Pradesh. Her latest visit was to Andhra Pradesh, where she reportedly got a much better reception than in Uttar Pradesh. However, whether she will be able to pick up the thread of organisational restructuring once again is a question that does not have a clear answer for the time being.

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