Follow us on


A victory of sorts

Print edition : Nov 25, 2000 T+T-

Sonia Gandhi trounces Jitendra Prasada for the Congress(I) president's post, but not in an election that was completely free and fair.


THE celebrations marking the re-election of Sonia Gandhi as Congress(I) president started at 24 Akbar Road, New Delhi, the All India Congress Committee (I) headquarters and the counting centre for the presidential polls, on the morning of November 15, mu ch before the counting of votes started. There were caparisoned elephants, colourfully dressed acrobats and performing artists, a variety of bands and huge floating balloons.

But it is unlikely that even her hyper-enthusiastic supporters foresaw the magnitude of Sonia Gandhi's victory. Of the 7,771 votes cast by the party's national electoral college consisting of Pradesh Congress(I) delegates, Sonia Gandhi secured 7,448. Her challenger, Congress Working Committee member Jitendra Prasada secured just 94 votes. As many as 229 votes, most of them marked for Sonia Gandhi, were declared invalid.

Jitendra Prasada's followers were surprised by the comprehensiveness of his defeat. The Prasada camp's assessment even on the day of counting was that he would get at least 300 votes. When Prasada made bold to file his nomination against Sonia Gandhi in the last week of October, Prasada supporters, who included four Lok Sabha members from Uttar Pradesh, had hoped to garner for him some 700 votes, accounting for about one tenth of the total electoral college. However, during the fortnight-long campaign, which saw offices and leaders of the Congress(I) in the States literally shutting the door in the face of Prasada, the expected figure came down further. And after the voting on November 12, Prasada and his supporters reportedly settled for a "conservati ve" estimate of 300 votes.

The defeat means virtually an end to Prasada's hope of emerging as an alternative power centre in the Congress(I). Political observers are of the view that this would have been possible had Prasada secured at least 300 votes.

According to several senior leaders of the Congress (I) and independent observers, the primary reason for Prasada's defeat was his lack of credibility as an advocate of inner-party democracy. Throughout his political career, Prasada was on the right side of the party establishment. This strategy had helped him occupy several important positions. He was the political secretary to both Rajiv Gandhi and P.V. Narasimha Rao during their prime ministerial tenures. This being his track record, his new avata r as a rebel did not impress most party persons. "If he had any greater credibility, he would have at least managed a better performance. Of course, defeating a representative of the Nehru-Gandhi family in a Congress(I) election is out of the questio n," a senior party leader from Uttar Pradesh said.

While the victory does enhance Sonia Gandhi's control over the party, it cannot be construed as an unequivocal endorsement of her leadership. Many Congress(I) leaders and activists still question her organisational skills and are critical of her dependen ce on a coterie. They argue that it was under Sonia Gandhi's leadership that the Congress(I) saw its lowest ever tally in the Lok Sabha - 113 seats. They also feel that many a time her lack of experience prevented the Congress(I) from capitalising on the weaknesses of the Atal Behari Vajpayee-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government. Still they voted for her because Jitendra Prasada was not a better alternative.

In contesting against Sonia Gandhi, Prasada's idea was mainly to exploit the widespread lack of confidence in the leadership. However, the abysmal performance marks a "historic" low for Prasada, whose political career is almost four decades old. Never be fore had his support base in the Congress(I) shrunk so much, particularly in his home State of Uttar Pradesh. The last time there was an election to the post of party president, in July 1997, Prasada had reportedly helped Sitaram Kesri win about 1,000 vo tes. Kesri won the election and appointed Prasada Vice-President of the party.

Kesri won 6,224 votes, while his rivals Sharad Pawar and Rajesh Pilot polled 882 and 354 votes respectively. As is evident from the figures, both Pawar and Pilot suffered much more respectable defeats. In 1997, the electoral college in Uttar Pradesh was 1,100-odd strong. That figure remains more or less the same now.

PRASADA'S candidature was not completely devoid of merit. Despite his defeat, he did score a few successes in terms of political symbolism, particularly with regard to inner-party democracy in the Congress(I). Prasada enfo-rced an election to the Congres s(I) president's post, which was held for only the second time in the past 50 years. His candidature conveyed the message that the "traditional Congress(I) method" of electing the party leadership by "consensus" cannot be followed always. The fact that h is opponent was a representative of the Nehru-Gandhi family, the Congress(I)'s "first family", added an extra dimension to Prasada's struggle.

Prasada exposed the limitations of the election process of the Congress(I), right from the preparation of the list of voters. Even Ram Niwas Mirdha, chairman of the party's Central Election Authority (CEA), admitted on the day of polling that there were lacunae in the process for the organisational polls. Mirdha said: "We have not been able to follow the rules completely." He added that 250 delegates from Assam and 280 from Kerala could not vote because of various shortcomings, which needed to be correc ted.

Even while admitting defeat and congratulating Sonia Gandhi, Prasada persisted with his efforts to highlight the various inadequacies in the Congress(I)'s organisational functioning, including the selection of voters for the presidential polls. In a lett er to Mirdha on November 15, the fifth he sent since the election process began, Prasada demanded "immediate steps to review the entire process of organisational elections" and "take remedial action". He pointed out that the practice of Pradesh Congress Committees (PCCs) authorising 'an individual' to appoint State unit chiefs was itself unconstitutional. The practice "fosters both fear and sycophancy because those who oppose such decisions are labelled as being disloyal to the leadership," he said. Pra sada demanded that Mirdha "ensure that the election of PCC and AICC members are held according to the constitution of the party".

Talking to journalists at his Teen Murti Marg residence on November 15, Prasada said that his "struggle for internal democracy will continue" at various party forums. He said that he was not leaving the Congress(I) as there was no need to do that. Prasad a's repeated averment of his commitment to carry on with the inner-party struggle does point towards his political tenacity. However, the moot point, in the background of his defeat, is how much weight his voice would carry within the party.

On her part, Sonia Gandhi emphasised that now that the elections were over, the party leadership and the rank and file had to work together. She told mediapersons that there was nothing wrong with Jitendra Prasada contesting against her; she added that t he eight-point agenda put forward by Prasada, focussing mainly on inner-party democracy, could be taken up for a future plan of action. Replying to questions about accusations of a coterie surrounding her, Sonia Gandhi said: "The press now says that the re are two or three coteries, which is an improvement because initially there was only one."

But for all the sweet-talk from Sonia Gandhi, several of her supporters are apparently in no mood to forgive Prasada. The issue of the party organ Congress(I) Sandesh, which covered the presidential elections, did not even mention the fact that Pr asada was a candidate, though it prominently displayed two photographs of Sonia Gandhi filing her nominations.

The culture of intolerance was all too evident on the day of polling when several Congress(I) workers were injured in Lucknow and Chennai in scuffles between supporters of Sonia and Prasada. In Lucknow, police resorted to a lathicharge to control rival g roups that were fighting each other.

The question now is what would ultimately prevail in the Congress(I). Will it be the promises made by Sonia Gandhi and Jitendra Prasada to continue with their efforts to strengthen inner-party democracy, or the intolerance that was witnessed during the e lection? If the history of sycophancy in the Congress(I) is anything to go by, all talk of internal democracy will remain just talk.

Frontline ebook




Living on the edge

They are river people, whose lives ebb and flow with the waters of the Brahmaputra in a timeless rhythm. But now, hydroelectric projects and homogenis