Voices of dissent

Print edition : June 10, 2000

There is growing opposition in the Congress(I) to Sonia Gandhi's leadership, and the recent criticism of her style of functioning by Rajesh Pilot, Vasant Sathe and Jitendra Prasada are signs of this.


POLITICAL observers in the capital might differ in their finer analysis of the happenings within the Congress(I), but there is absolute agreement on one fact - that the party is going through a crisis situation marked by confusion on policy issues, lack of trust in the leadership and an intensification of internecine battles. Whether this situation will lead to a full-blown power struggle and upheaval within the party is still uncertain.

Congress(I) president Sonia Gandhi with party workers in New Delhi on May 30.-

However, recent developments clearly show that the crisis is accentuating by the day, with open expressions of discontent from all sections within the party, including the top leadership. Central to these developments is the not-so-veiled criticism levelled against party president Sonia Gandhi's style of functioning and the coterie around her by such senior leaders as Congress Working Committee (CWC) members Rajesh Pilot and Jitendra Prasada and former Union Minister Vasant Sathe.

Pilot and Jitendra Prasada went to the extent of organising rallies in Uttar Pradesh to expound their apprehensions about the manner in which the party was being run, while Sathe used the April 2000 issue of the party organ, Congress Sandesh, to announce that a "crisis of confidence " existed in the party.

Before them, the relatively junior party leader, All India Congress Committee (AICC) secretary Jairam Ramesh, said in a media interview that the present style of Sonia Gandhi's leadership did not raise any hope of a Congress(I) rejuvenation. He was quoted as saying that at this rate, the Congress(I) would not come to power at the Centre for the next 50 years. Jairam Ramesh was divested of the deputy chairmanship of the Karnataka Planning Board a day after the publication of his comments, and a similar treatment is likely to be meted out to the three senior leaders too.

The rallies organised by Pilot and Jitendra Prasada came in quick succession, the former's at Jhansi on May 21, the death anniversary of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, and the latter's at Lucknow three days later. Indications are that the challenge posed by Pilot and Jitendra Prasada is perceived as much more serious by Sonia Gandhi loyalists and that it has kindled a strong sense of insecurity in the party president. Loyalists such as Uttar Pradesh Congress(I) president Salman Khurshid have branded the rallies as rank acts of indiscipline and an open threat to Sonia's leadership. They have also exhorted her to act swiftly against the "violators of party discipline" and divest them of positions of power, including CWC membership.


CWC members Jitendra Prasada and Rajesh Pilot, who have criticised Sonia's leadership, at a rally in Lucknow on May 24.

However, Sonia Gandhi and her loyalists seem to have been restrained to some extent from taking any extreme measures by an unexpected piece of good news - the party's commendable performance in the West Bengal civic elections. The Congress(I), which was widely expected to come a cropper, pushed the Trinamul Congress-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) combine to the third position and finished behind the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led ruling Left Front. The Trinamul-BJP alliance had risen to the position of the number one Opposition group in the State after the 1999 Lok Sabha elections.

The party's prospects were considered dim owing to a conflict between the central leadership and a dominant section in the West Bengal unit of the Congress(I) led by State unit president A.B.A. Ghani Khan Chowdhary. Chowdhary and his supporters had vociferously advocated a poll alliance with the Trinamul Congress and wanted the central leadership to overlook the fact that the Trinamul Congress was part of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) at the centre. Sonia Gandhi, on her part, did not agree. The party high command sent written directives to the West Bengal Pradesh Congress Committee(I) asserting that "no alliance whatsoever should be made with any communal party directly or indirectly in these elections". A letter from AICC general secretary Prabha Rau to Chowdhary on the eve of the polls also made this clear. That the Congress(I) finished second despite this tough position, which was opposed by a large section of party members, is indeed creditable. This in turn has reportedly boosted Sonia Gandhi's confidence so much so that she is ready to take on the challenge posed by the likes of Pilot and Jitendra Prasada.

Evidently, the performance in West Bengal has come as a badly needed shot in the arm for Sonia Gandhi and her supporters. However, even party leaders who credit Sonia Gandhi with right thinking and correct action on the West Bengal front say that the relevance of the questions raised by Pilot, Jitendra Prasada and Sathe is no way diminished by this. "Those issues cannot be glossed over," a senior leader from South India told Frontline.

The central point raised by the leaders, especially by Pilot, related to the revival of inner-party democracy. Pilot bluntly said that it was time the Congress(I) leadership began to respect the views of party workers. He added that the Congress(I) was a party of workers and not leaders. "We seem to have forgotten that and have become followers of a personality-oriented culture. This has to change," he said.

In an interview to the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), Pilot said that the question of Sonia Gandhi stepping down from her position of authority needs to be considered by the party leadership. He said that the party needed to "take many hard decisions in the coming days, like the Labour Party in Britain did some years ago, but it was for party president Sonia Gandhi to decide whether she should step down." Pilot credited Sonia Gandhi with many achievements in the early days beginning of her political career as Congress(I) president but said that things were deteriorating now.

"When Sonia Gandhi became the Congress president, there were good steps, good initiatives, a lot of expectations and we won all the three States... But unfortunately, there is a communication gap between us," he said. Pilot's views were reflected, in a more or less similar manner, in Sathe's article in Congress Sandesh. With regard to certain points such as the limitations of Sonia Gandhi's leadership, Sathe was even more forthcoming than Pilot and Prasada. Starting the article with the statement that "We find that the Congress(I) is once again facing a crisis of confidence", Sathe went on to state that there was a certain amount of confusion and depression among senior party leaders.

Exhorting everybody to face squarely some obvious truths, Sathe said that the Congress(I) president had never been keen to don the mantle of leadership and had, in fact, resisted many attempts to persuade her by top leaders for many years since "the sad departure of Rajiv Gandhi". Crediting Sonia Gandhi with full awareness of her own limitations, both inherent and circumstantial, Sathe stated that "she has never made any claim of having the charismatic capacity to single-handedly get the masses of India to vote the Congress to power, as if with a magic wand."


A.B.A. Ghani Khan Chowdhary, president of the West Bengal unit of the Congress(I), with Trinamul Congress leader Mamata Banerjee in Calcutta on May 24. The Congress(I) high command had vetoed Chowdhary's proposal for an alliance with the Trinamul Congress in the West Bengal civic elections.

The article also pointed out that Sonia Gandhi's "natural, reserved and shy nature was a great handicap with the media and the intellectual elite", and added that language too was one of her major hurdles.

Sathe suggested a few organisational remedies, such as the development of collective leadership, and pointed out that the Congress(I) did not have a single leader other than Sonia Gandhi who could command popular appeal in all parts of India. "Even if one personality is projected, there are others who would pull him down. The crab culture is well-known in the Congress," he wrote. Sathe also added that "it is because of this great handicap that all leaders find a common, acceptable, uniting point in the Nehru-Gandhi family.... A member of this family carries the hallow of the secular, progressive and dedicated service heritage. He or she is accepted as a person above caste, communal or regional biases." In a sense, this statement by Sathe placed greater emphasis on Sonia's existence as part of the Nehru-Gandhi family than her own personal political skills.

In fact, it is this aspect of Sonia Gandhi's leadership - the deficiency of political skills - that has primarily alienated many senior leaders from her. This, coupled with her dependence on a coterie consisting of CWC member Arjun Singh and her private secretary Vincent George, has been cited as her biggest minus points.

There is a persistent lament in the top leadership of the party that Sonia Gandhi does not consult them on a regular basis on vital issues. Those who have raised this complaint at one point of time or the other include CWC members Pranab Kumar Mukherjee, Manmohan Singh, Sitaram Kesri, Madhavrao Scindia and K. Vijayabhaskara Reddy. Even one-time close associate K. Natwar Singh has reportedly started castigating Sonia Gandhi in private meetings of party leaders.

According to many leaders, the biggest problem caused by the lack of communication between the party president and the rest of the leadership is that there is no unified command on policy and political matters. The confusion caused by Manmohan Singh's questioning in the Rajya Sabha of the "continuance of non-merit subsidies" even as Sonia Gandhi was leading a delegation to the Prime Minister to argue for the restoration of the subsidies is cited as a case in point.

The dissonance between Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi on the issue of subsidies was indeed an embarrassing experience for the Congress(I). The failure of the party to articulate a cogent policy on the nuclear question, particularly on the issue of a credible minimum deterrent, is glaring.

Sonia Gandhi with senior Congress(I) leader Vasant Sathe. Sathe's recent article in Congress Sandesh discusses the "crisis of confidence" in the party.-THE HINDU PHOTOLIBRARY

Congress Sandesh

At the political level, though the central leadership took a clear stance on the proposed "mahajot" (grand alliance) in West Bengal, the problems are far from over. The Chowdhary faction is bound to raise the issue once again, and that will present a test to Sonia Gandhi's leadership skills. The drift and lack of direction that mark the Congress(I)'s positions is certainly bound to heighten dissent. Already, the Pilot-Prasada initiative is viewed as the opening of a front against UPCC president Salman Khurshid and his patrons at the national level, including Sonia Gandhi. For the time being, however, Sonia Gandhi and her loyalists do not appear to want to precipitate a situation, despite exhortations to the contrary by leaders such as Salman Khurshid. It was not surprising, therefore, that the official reaction to Pilot's comments was rather muted, with spokespersons like Ajit Jogi finding "nothing offensive" in them. However, the muscle-flexing by the senior leaders cannot be ignored for long, particularly since organisational polls are to be held later this year.

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