In consolidation mode

Print edition : April 14, 2001

A significant shift in the Congress(I)'s strategy in the post-Tehelka political situation relates to its attitude to electoral alliances and coalitions.

LONG bereft as it was of any effective political weapon to beat the Bharatiya Janata Party with, the Congress(I) considers the Tehelka expose a godsend and has started viewing itself as a party waiting in the wings to slide effortlessly into the corridors of power at the Centre. It hopes that a disgraced National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government will stagger out, unable to cope with the burden of its own contradictions and having been displaced from the moral high ground that it has often attempted to take.

The Congress Working Committee in session during the AICC plenary in Bangalore in March.-K. GOPINATHAN

This confidence of the Congress(I) is reflected in the way it has smugly gone about striking alliances in the four States and one Union Territory where Assembly elections are to be held in May, regardless of the bickerings in the respective local units of the party. It is also reflected in the way the party is planning its post-Tehelka expose strategy. Aware that at the moment the numbers are still with the NDA, despite the quivers and undercurrents of resentment, since a majority of its constituents have no option but to stay with it, the Congress(I) is going about its task in an unhurried manner. As senior leaders have put it, the party's game plan is to discredit the government further and make it appear so hollow morally that it will collapse under its own weight.

Outlining the strategy, Congress(I) spokesperson S. Jaipal Reddy said: "Our aim is to expose and oppose." This, he said, would lead to the NDA government being deprived of its "USP" (Unique Selling Proposition), which is its claim to the moral high ground. "Once we achieve that, our task of replacing it becomes easier, though we are in no hurry to do that," Jaipal Reddy said, trying to dispel the impression that his party was interested in a quick toppling game. But inherent in this strategy is also the realisation that however much it desired to do so, the party was in no position at present to topple the government on its own, because except for the Trinamul Congress, none of the NDA constituents has left it. Even in the case of Trinamul Congress leader Mamata Banerjee, clearly her exit had more to do with electoral compulsions in West Bengal than any concern for ethics or morality. She might have felt it embarrassing to remain in an alliance when leaders of some of its major constituents have been caught videotaped accepting money from fictitious arms dealers. Remember, her main election plank against the Left Front government in West Bengal is alleged corruption.

The post-Tehelka strategy of the Congress(I), both inside and outside Parliament, is to "keep the issue smouldering and continue discrediting the ruling alliance". A discredited NDA government, the party hopes, would become weaker after the May elections to five Assemblies. Confident of making substantial gains in these elections, it prefers to "wait and watch" rather than take the "NDA bull by its horns". Senior party leaders said that it would be "a long haul", and the strategy should therefore be "multi-phased".

The first phase of the strategy - "stalling Parliament" - is already over and the next would be "taking the issue to the streets". District-level rallies, dharnas and demonstrations have been planned all over the country. Party president Sonia Gandhi will launch this phase on April 12 by addressing a rally in Lucknow, part of the parliamentary constituency of Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee. She will also address a rally in Jaipur.

The second phase will conclude on April 19, when Parliament resumes its budget session after the recess. Although the Congress(I) plans to make Parliament the venue of its next phase of agitation, it appears to be in no mood to stall the proceedings this time. "We will resort to other forms of protest," said the party's chief spokesperson, Ambika Soni, though she did not throw any hint as to what these "other forms" would be. The political affairs committee of the party would decide the "form" on April 19.

A SIGNIFICANT shift in the Congress(I)'s strategy in the post-Tehelka political situation relates to its attitude to electoral alliances and coalitions. At its plenary session in Bangalore in March, the party, in a bid to remove any confusion over its stand on alliances, declared that it was ready to form coalitions with those among the secular parties that had nothing to do with the BJP. The party followed up this declaration with setting in motion the process of firming up an alliance with the Trinamul Congress in West Bengal for the Assembly elections, notwithstanding the unease over it in the party's State unit.

Sonia Gandhi deputed party general secretary Kamal Nath to initiate talks with Mamata Banerjee, sensing that senior State leaders such as Pranab Kumar Mukherjee and Priya Ranjan Dasmunshi might have reservations, given their past prejudices, in going all out to woo the Trinamul Congress leader. Although the two parties had decided on principle to contest the elections together, talks on seat sharing were still on. Mamata Banerjee agreed to give the Congress(I) 57 seats, and the offer might go up to 60. There are serious differences over the 18 seats held by the Congress(I). Since the talks began rather late, the Trinamul Congress had already announced its candidates for these seats. Kamal Nath said: "Had the talks begun two months ago this problem would not have arisen. Her candidates have already started campaigning. How can we expect them to withdraw now?" He, however, hoped that such "minor irritants" would not come in the way of a larger understanding between the two parties.

Although the Congress(I) has only been given about 60 seats out of the total of 294, Kamal Nath thinks it is a "good enough" deal. In a State where Congress(I) candidates had been losing their security deposits in 235 to 240 seats for many years now, it is not a bad bargain, he feels. "We should not forget that Trinamul Congress members are all ex-Congress people. The most important factor at present is the consolidation of the Congress vote in order to defeat the Left Front. The larger objective is important enough to ignore petty considerations," he says. In the long run, he hopes, grudges will be forgotten and the party will emerge stronger.

It is, however, easier said than done. For all they know, the party's travails may have only just begun. With most of the senior leaders in West Bengal, including the veteran Ghani Khan Chaudhary, Pranab Mukherjee and Priya Ranjan Dasmunshi sulking, the electoral outcome could just turn out to be a repeat of the 1996 Uttar Pradesh elections. In U.P., which once was a Congress(I) stronghold, it entered into an electoral alliance with the Bahujan Samaj Party and contested as a junior partner only 125 seats out of a total of 425. As a result, demoralisation set in in the party, senior leaders refused to step out to campaign and the result was a near-total rout. The party could win only 35 seats. In West Bengal, however, only time can tell the outcome.

Trinamul Congress leader Mamata Banerjee and AICC general secretary Kamal Nath in Kolkata.-SUSHANTO PATRONOBISH

Anyway, Kamal Nath is confident that in alliance with the Trinamul Congress his party would defeat the Left Front. In their euphoria of a pre-conceived electoral victory, the Congress(I) leaders, however, forget that their anti-corruption plank tends to lose its sting, given the contradictions in their strategies for West Bengal and at the Centre respectively. Even as they batter the NDA government for corruption in collaboration with the Left parties in Parliament and elsewhere, they fight the Left parties in the West Bengal elections on the same ground of corruption in alliance with a party which had been a constituent of the NDA until recently and which, by keeping a large "grey area", has still been creating the impression that it might rejoin the NDA in case it either loses the elections in West Bengal or the judicial probe gives a clean chit to those tainted by the Tehelka tapes. "Yes, this is a grey area but we have to take the risk," says a senior Congress(I) leader.

Congress(I) leaders do not think that their anti-corruption plank in West Bengal would weaken if they joined hands with the Left inside Parliament to attack the NDA government. "It is only floor coordination inside Parliament and there is nothing wrong in it. Coordination at the Centre on specific issues was never a problem," says Ambika Soni. Congress(I) leaders also say that their party has all along been fighting the Left parties both in Kerala and in West Bengal. Explaining away the contradictions in its stand, Jaipal Reddy says that when it comes to fighting the BJP communalism takes precedence over everything else and "minor contradictions get dissolved in the crucible of communalism".

The party, though treading cautiously as far as Assembly elections in other States go, seems to be in the throes of a minor crisis in Kerala too, where the octogenarian K. Karunakaran, peeved at his daughter Padmaja Venugopal being denied the ticket, is threatening to adopt an aggressive posture. On April 4, Karunakaran told mediapersons in New Delhi that the list of candidates approved by the central election committee was "biased and totally loaded against" him and that he was "very unhappy with the list". Karunakaran accused the Leader of Opposition in Kerala, A.K. Antony, his major rival at the State level, of being biased against him and of having worked to ensure that his supporters were denied the ticket. He said that the central leadership of the party was favouring his opponents, especially Antony.

Notwithstanding the confusion over the Congress(I)'s stand on corruption, the onset of a certain degree of demoralisation in its West Bengal unit, where the party will have to be content with the status of a junior partner, and the undercurrents of resentment among senior leaders in the State, the Congress (I), post-Tehelka, has come forth as a party in action mode, seeking to shake off its hitherto inactive style. Probably believing in the dictum of not biting more than it can chew, the party seems to be taking small but non-hesitant steps towards the culmination of its larger goal of regaining power through a consolidation of pro-Congress forces in the country.

"A beginning has been made. Mamata Banerjee is back with us, so is Jayalalitha. A consolidation of our support base would help us in the long run," says Jaipal Reddy. He is confident that it would "change the dynamics of politics rather than its mechanics". And the acid test would come with the Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections, due either late this year or early next year.

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