Reluctant to strike

Print edition : December 19, 1998

Sonia Gandhi proves her shrewdness through the moves that led to P.M. Sayeed's election as Deputy Speaker of the Lok Sabha, but she is still reluctant to make a bid for power at the Centre.

WHEN Sonia Gandhi took over as Congress(I) president on March 14, 1998, doubts were expressed inside and outside the party about her ability to succeed in competitive politics despite the advantage she enjoyed as a member of the Nehru-Gandhi family. These doubts were dispelled to a large extent in July-August by the way in which she handled the issue of election to the post of Deputy Speaker of the Lok Sabha: she managed to push the candidature of Congress(I) nominee P.M. Sayeed effectively by canvassing support for him from almost all Opposition parties and even the Bharatiya Janata Party's allies such as the Trinamul Congress. The campaign was so effective that the BJP, which had nominated Rita Verma, was compelled to postpone the election.

Five months later, after leading her party to famous victories in the Assembly elections in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Delhi, the Congress(I) president completed the task in such a way that it gave the first indication that she was astute enough for competitive politics. On December 11, the debate on the election to the post of Deputy Speaker was closed with the BJP conceding the post to Sayeed, with one more of its coalition partners, the Samata Party, announcing its support to the Congress(I) nominee, accepting the convention that the Deputy Speaker's post should go to the principal Opposition party.

Clearly, the Congress(I) has won more friends after the November Assembly elections in three States and Delhi.

It is not merely the Samata Party's present stance that indicates this. Five breakaway groups of the Congress(I) - the Trinamul Congress, the Uttar Pradesh Loktantrik Congress, the Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi, the Manipur State Congress and the Sardar Congress of Gujarat - all of which support the BJP, held a meeting in New Delhi on December 10 and made noises suggesting that they were not averse to supporting their parent organisation when the right opportunity arose. In a statement released after the meeting, they said that they had formed a "Progressive Alliance", which would continue to support the Atal Behari Vajpayee-led Government in the interest of stability but would also perform the role of a watchdog in order to safeguard regional interests. Obviously, these parties want to act as a pressure group within the BJP-led front, notwithstanding assertions to the contrary by its leaders, including its chairperson Mamata Banerjee. Some of the alliance leaders - Suresh Kalmadi of the Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi and Naresh Agarwal of the Uttar Pradesh Loktantrik Congress - reportedly entertain the hope that they would be able to strike a strategic understanding with the resurgent Congress(I) soon.

Sonia Gandhi with a traditional sword presented by the National Sikh Council in New Delhi on November 11.-RAJEEV BHATT

Another significant development is the meeting between Sonia Gandhi and former Prime Minister H.D. Deve Gowda. Apparently, the two leaders discussed the possibility of cooperation between the Janata Dal and the Congress(I) at the national level and in States such as Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, where the Jana-ta Dal does not have a strong base.

Despite all this, Sonia Gandhi still appears to be reluctant to make a bid for power at the Centre. Immediately after the Assembly elections, many senior leaders, including Leader of the Congress(I) in the Lok Sabha Sharad Pawar and former Kerala Chief Minister K. Karunakaran, reportedly argued in party forums that the proposals emanating from forces such as the Samajwadi Party (S.P.) to pull down the Vajpayee Government should not be rejected outright. Addressing the Congress(I) Parliamentary Party (CPP) on December 8, Sonia Gandhi, however, made it clear that she would not take any proactive step to disturb the BJP-led Government although the Congress(I) was ready to fulfil any constitutional responsibilities if and when the need arose.

The only significant change in Sonia Gandhi's position with regard to the Government that was evident from her pronouncements at the meeting was that she had become more strident in her criticism. She pointed out that the "confusion and lack of decisiveness of the past several months have brought us close to an economic crisis like the one faced in 1991." Sonia Gandhi also used the occasion to dismiss the impression that she wanted immediate mid-term elections to the Lok Sabha. This impression was created by a statement made by her immediately after the results of the Assembly elections were announced; she said that the Congress(I) was "ready to face a mid-term poll". Commenting on the CPP meeting, party spokesperson Shivraj Patil said the Congress(I) was not interested in taking decisive steps to destabilise the Vajpayee Government or the present Lok Sabha. However, Congress(I) insiders, including Working Committee members, say in private that given a choice between running a coalition government and facing mid-term elections, Sonia Gandhi would prefer the latter. For, the calculation within the Congress(I) is that the party would emerge as the single largest party in the next elections, whenever they are held. "This," a senior CWC member pointed out, "would give the party greater bargaining strength vis-a-vis other secular forces". The leader said that it would be difficult for a party with only 141 members in the Lok Sabha to run a government with the support of parties as varied as the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, the S.P. and the Communist Party of India (Marxist).

Congress(I) insiders are also of the view that Sonia Gandhi would like to make a few more changes at the organisational level before either initiating an alternative arrangement or forcing elections. By all indications, the Pradesh Congress(I) Committees (PCC) and the All India Congress(I) Committee (AICC) will witness another round of revamp. A special session of the AICC, called for December 18, will set the process in motion. Others matters such as reservation of organisational posts for women, Dalits and minorities as well as the constitution of an "independent" election authority to conduct party elections will also come up during that session. With regard to inner-party power equations too, Congress(I) insiders say that Sonia Gandhi has an agenda to fulfil: the sidelining of Maharashtra strongman Sharad Pawar. By all indications, there is an attempt to bring down the Shiv Sena-BJP Government in that State and send Pawar back as Chief Minister. This would ensure that there is no threat to Sonia Gandhi at the national level as Pawar would be reduced to a regional satrap. How far these projections will become a reality is not clear. But Sonia Gandhi will certainly undertake one more round of "organisational introspection" before venturing to "tackle the problems of the country" and score "successes in competitive politics".

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