A challenge to the leadership

Print edition : April 15, 2000

Cross-voting on a considerable scale by Congress(I) legislators in different States in the Rajya Sabha elections is seen as a concrete sign of a revolt brewing against Sonia Gandhi's leadership of the party.

VENKITESH RAMAKRISHNAN in New Delhi

BARELY a week after the Congress(I) agreed to join the Bihar Ministry led by the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and thereby gave a new orientation to its own political line, the party leadership suffered a series of jolts that could upset the very direction of its current moves. The Bihar initiative was perceived as the first clear indication of the Congress(I) having come to terms with the concept of coalition politics in general and the reality of multi-party governments in some States.

At the ideological and political level, the understanding was to have a secular, anti-Bharatiya Janata Party agenda. The manner in which the Congress(I) led the spirited fight in Parliament against the order of the BJP Government in Gujarat allowing its employees to participate in the activities of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) was seen as a pointer to this framework. However, the results of the Rajya Sabha elections held on March 29 and the consequent developments in the Congress(I) threaten to disrupt this orientation. In the process, Congress(I) president Sonia Gandhi faces a major challenge to her leadership.

Two factors are central to the situation in the Congress(I). First, the party failed to pick up as many seats as it expected in the Rajya Sabha elections. Second, and worse, there was cross-voting by its legislators in almost all the States that went to the polls, and the official nominees handpicked by Sonia Gandhi and her associates were the victims. The instances of cross-voting are seen as concrete signs of a revolt against Sonia Gandhi's leadership. The defeat of Inder Khosla in Uttar Pradesh, D.P. Roy in West Bengal and Thakur Singh Bharmuri in Himachal Pradesh, all of whom had been selected by the Congress(I) president, has sent shock waves through the Sonia camp. Even in Karnataka, where all the three Congress(I) nominees won, nine legislators resorted to cross-voting and none of the three secured the votes the party had earmarked (50 for one and 49 each for the other two). Similarly, in Orissa, a large number of legislators voted against Sonia Gandhi's choice, the former bureaucrat R.K. Nayak .

While the defeat of the Congress(I) candidates in Uttar Pradesh and Himachal Pradesh as well as the cross-voting in Karnataka and Orissa can be sought to be explained away as "problems that are essentially organisational, which can be tackled", the leade rship cannot take the same stand in the case of West Bengal. West Bengal poses a far more fundamental problem because sections of the State leadership including Pradesh Congress(I) Committee (PCC) president A.B.A. Ghani Khan Chowdhary are demanding a rev ersal of the very political line of the Congress(I). They want the Congress(I) to align with the Trinamul Congress, which is part of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA), in order to fight "the Marxist menace". Chowdhary even declared that Trin amul Congress president and Union Minister Mamata Banerjee was his guiding force when it came to fighting the "inhuman Marxists". As this game unravels, the Congress(I) is facing the spectacle of the PCC chief justifying those who cross-voted in favour o f the Trinamul Congress nominee, Jayantha Bhattacharya, and thus ensured the defeat of the official Congress(I) nominee, D.P. Roy. Although the Congress(I) has 69 members in the Assembly, Roy got only 36 votes. Twelve legislators announced their support to the Trinamul Congress candidate while another 20 quietly voted against Roy. Among those who campaigned openly against the official nominee was Abdul Manan, Chief Whip of the Congress(I) in the Assembly. Although dissatisfaction over the selection of t he candidate was said to be the reason for cross-voting, the results also reflected the long-running internecine warfare within the State unit. While Roy was backed by acting PCC president Priya Ranjan Das Munshi, his candidature was opposed by Congress( I) Working Committee (CWC) member Pranab Kumar Mukherjee, who is even alleged to have played a role in organising the cross-voting.

The net result in West Bengal is that the Congress(I) unit appears to be heading for a split. Both Chowdhary and Somen Mitra, the former PCC president, have warned Sonia Gandhi that unless she clears the alliance with the Trinamul Congress, the State uni t would split. For her part, Mamata has stoked the Congress(I) fires by issuing an invitation to "forge a mahajod (Grand Alliance) of anti-Left Front forces". Initially this is to take the form of an understanding during the coming municipal polls in the State, then to grow into a firm alliance later for the Assembly polls due next year.

Congress(I) president Sonia Gandhi. Concrete signs of revolt in the Congress(I) emerge.-V. SUDERSHAN

While joining hands with a political entity that is part of the BJP-led NDA might not be politically and ideologically the most desirable move for the Congress(I), there are indications that Sonia Gandhi and others in the leadership are increasingly veer ing round to this move, desperate as they are to save the party from extinction in the State. Congress(I) spokespersons have been evolving a special spin in order to try and retain the numerically strong anti-official candidate group in the West Bengal C ongress(I).

Party spokesperson Ajit Jogi has already made a fine distinction between the communal character of the BJP and the secular antecedents of its allies in the NDA. Asked whether the Congress(I) considered the NDA to be communal or secular, Jogi said that th e different NDA partners' political perceptions on communalism varied. He said that the BJP was communal while the Trinamul Congress could be considered by the Congress(I) as being like-minded. CWC member Ambika Soni was even more forthcoming:"We need Ma mata and she needs us."

Chowdhary and Mitra addressed press conferences at which they emphasised their conviction that the "need of the hour is to forge an anti-Left alliance and the Congress(I) should follow in the footsteps of Mamata Banerjee, whose struggle against the Marxi sts is more positive than that of anyone else". "We are also anti-CPI(M) but we have not done much. The entire credit for galvanising issues goes to Mamata," it was stated. The State Congress leaders do not seem unduly worried over the contradiction invo lved in joining hands with a party that is part of the NDA. The contradictions would eventually resolve themselves, Mitra and Chowdhary insisted. They said that the mechanism and composition (for an alliance) would unfold in the future.

The committee appointed to investigate the instances of cross-voting in West Bengal seems to have shut itself down in the context of these overtures. All that AICC spokespersons would say was that the committee would complete its work as early as possibl e.

Meanwhile, the 36 Congress(I) legislators and their leaders at the Centre such as Das Munshi are wondering whether the disciplinary committee in the Congress(I) has become defunct. "If those who cross-voted are allowed to go scot-free this time, how can you ensure discipline in the future?" asked a legislator close to Das Munshi. The response of leaders such as Chowdhary and Mitra is that they are ready to take all the blame for the cross-voting but they want the legislators to be spared.

Whatever the outcome of this tangle, it is certain that the number of disgruntled leaders is growing by the day in the Congress(I). Indications are that at least seven CWC members are ready to take on Sonia openly. They reportedly include Pranab Mukherje e, Manmohan Singh, Jitendra Prasada, Rajesh Pilot and K. Vijayabhaskara Reddy.

Pranab Mukherjee is agitated over Ajit Jogi having disowned a statement by him during the Clinton visit. Mukherjee had told the press that Sonia Gandhi had said the Congress(I) supported a "minimum nuclear deterrent". Vijayabhaskara Reddy is upset that h e was denied a nomination in the Rajya Sabha polls. Former Union Minister C.K. Jaffer Sharief is angry that the claims for a Rajya Sabha seat of senior leaders such as C. Hanumanthappa were ignored.

In Gujarat, the supporters of Madhavsinh Solanki have launched an agitation against the central leadership for having denied him the ticket. Even Kapil Sibal, handpicked by Sonia Gandhi to be the party spokesman during the 1999 Lok Sabha elections, has j oined the growing band of Congressmen who are losing their patience with the leadership. He said that all right-thinking people must sit down and ponder over the state of the party.

"The growing gulf between the aspirations of the people and the policies of the party need to be looked into," Sibal said. The turnaround by Sibal, who has until now generally spoken in favour of Sonia Gandhi, is perceived as an indicator of the level of the feelings against Sonia Gandhi in the party. Except Arjun Singh and some office-bearers, no one will come forward to defend Sonia Gandhi, a senior south Indian leader told Frontline.

Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and Trinamul Congress leader Mamata Banerjee at a rally in Calcutta.-

Indications are that moves are afoot in Uttar Pradesh against the coterie around 10 Janpath in the aftermath of the Rajya Sabha elections. With the blessings of CWC member Jitendra Prasada, the movement reportedly has the backing of all sections of the p arty opposed to PCC chief Salman Khurshid. The party's debacle in the Rajya Sabha polls is the immediate reason for the attack on Khurshid. The Congress(I) had hoped to get 26 votes for its nominee, Inder Khosla, again handpicked by Sonia Gandhi. But Kho sla managed to get only 14 votes, indicating that at least three MLAs of the party had resorted to cross-voting. A section of Congressmen, led by former Minister Ram Avtar Dixit, has attributed the party's defeat to what he called political mismanagement by the State leadership. He recalled that in 1998, with the same number of legislators the party could get its candidate, Khan Gufran Zaidi, elected. But this time, he said, no one made any effort to ensure the success of the party candidate.

The resignation of Dr. Ammar Rizvi, deputy leader of the Congress(I) Legislature Party (CLP), from his post owning moral responsibility for Khosla's defeat is also seen as part of the moves. Rizvi's resignation is expected to put pressure on the State le adership, particularly on Khurshid and CLP leader Pramod Tiwari, and demands for their resignation are likely to become more pronounced.

Some sections in the Congress(I) are of the view that all this would lead to a regrouping of those opposed to the coterie around 10 Janpath. These sections say that already Sharad Pawar's Nationalist Congress Party(NCP) has sent feelers to dissident West Bengal Congress(I) leaders. Pawar was one of the first to call up and congratulate Ghani Khan Chowdhary and Somen Mitra the day D.P. Roy lost the Rajya Sabha polls. He praised them for taking the bold step and said it was necessary to point out to Sonia Gandhi the disastrous consequences of her "autocratic style of functioning", said a Congress(I) leader.

While these possibilities are being discussed within the Congress(I), the first challenge before Sonia Gandhi as well as her detractors would be solving the West Bengal tangle. It is to be seen how Sonia Gandhi will reconcile the Congress(I)'s larger pol itical goal of defeating the BJP with forming an alliance with the Trinamul Congress. It is also to be seen whether those who are opposed to Sonia Gandhi would develop this as an issue of political struggle within the party or would restrict it to power politics.

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