Change of strategy

Print edition : January 02, 1999

As 1998 drew to a close, Sonia Gandhi appeared to have gained total control of the Congress(I) and the party indicated that it would strike at the Vajpayee Government only when it could take power on its own strength.

DECEMBER 1998 will be remembered as an important month in the contemporary history of the Congress(I). It saw the return of the Congress(I) to power "on its own strength" in Rajasthan and Delhi and the resounding victory of the party in Madhya Pradesh where it ran the government. An All India Congress(I) Committee (AICC) special session on December 18 decided on some fundamental changes in the party's constitution and a vital shift in the Congress(I)'s strategy in national politics, especially with regard to the Bharatiya Janata Party-led coalition Government at the Centre. Most important, the month saw Sonia Gandhi taking total control of the party.

Central to the shift in the political strategy was Sonia Gandhi's unambiguous rejection of the suggestion from some senior party leaders that the Congress(I) forge a broad coalition of secular parties and pull down the A.B. Vajpayee Government. The formation of such an alliance was a priority item on the Congress(I) agenda in November, when Sonia Gandhi invited Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader and West Bengal Chief Minister Jyoti Basu to deliver the Jawaharlal Nehru memorial lecture, and the Congress Working Committee (CWC) members Pranab Kumar Mukherjee and Manmohan Singh said in a statement that the party was thinking in terms of forming a broad alliance of non-BJP parties to "protect secularism". Senior Congress(I) leaders had even talked about taking over the reins of power by the end of the year.

The proposal gained momentum immediately after the announcement of the results of the Assembly elections in the last week of November, with several leaders, including CWC members Sharad Pawar, Madhavrao Scindia and K. Karunakaran, taking it up at party forums. They argued that the Congress(I)'s popularity having revived, the time was ripe to strike at the Central Government. They were in favour of forming the government with the help of other secular forces such as the Left parties, the Rashtriya Loktantrik Morcha (RLM, a combination of the Samajwadi Party and the Rashtriya Janata Dal) and some constituents of the BJP-led coalition such as the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and sections of the Samata Party.

Congress(I) president Sonia Gandhi presiding over the AICC session in New Delhi.-RAJEEV BHATT

However, buoyed by the election results, Sonia Gandhi changed her line of thinking. Now the signal from her was that she preferred mid-term elections in which the Congress(I) would go it alone, and that the party advocated single-party rule at the Centre rather than a "kitchdi government". The fear that the Congress(I), with a just 141 members in the Lok Sabha, would not be able to perform any better than the BJP in a coalition government was re-emphasised in a series of interaction sessions that Sonia Gandhi had with her senior colleagues in the party. At the meetings she reportedly asserted that if an alternative government was to be formed, it would be done on the Congress(I)'s terms. Further confirmation of this line of thinking was available at the December 18 AICC special session where Sonia Gandhi's said that while "we welcome the support of like-minded parties we must stand on our own post".

Apart from adopting a clear political strategy, the AICC session considered some important changes in the party's constitution with a view to weaning away the support base of secular groups and parties such as the RLM and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). The decision to reserve 33 per cent of the party posts for women and 20 per cent of party posts from block to CWC level for the Scheduled Castes, the Scheduled Tribes, the minorities and Other Backward Classes is expected to win over a large section of the support base of the RLM and the BSP.

The session also entrusted Sonia Gandhi with the power to reconstitute all party bodies, including the CWC and the Pradesh Congress(I) Committees. She had suggested the restructuring of the party, and indications are that she will revamp the CWC in the near future.

The game plan vis-a-vis the BJP was to increase the confusion within the BJP Government even by cooperating with it on issues on which its policies are in agreement with those of the Congress(I). It was reasoned that the conflicts among the constituents of the coalition as well as the troubles within the Sangh Parivar, especially the differences between the Vajpayee Government and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), would come in handy in carrying out the plan. According to party insiders, Sonia Gandhi seemed to make a distinction between Vajpayee and the RSS.

The Government, on its part, appeared to be helping the Congress(I) strategy when it moved the Patents Amendment Bill and the Insurance Regulatory Authority (IRA) Bill, which were originally moved by the Congress(I) when P.V. Narasimha Rao was Prime Minister. Notwithstanding some opposition from leaders oriented towards Nehruvian socialism, such as Vayalar Ravi and Prithviraj Chauhan, the Congress(I) overtly cooperated with the Government on these bills. A result of this has been the widening of the rift between the Vajpayee Government and the swadeshi-oriented Sangh Parivar. According to a CWC member, the fissures would not only impair the credibility of the BJP but improve the Congress(I)'s chances at the hustings.

The Congress(I)'s decision to allow the Vajpayee Government to continue until the time was ripe for elections has alienated other secular parties. The RLM was the first to read the signals emanating from the Congress(I). Its spokesperson Amar Singh found out in the first week of December itself that the Congress(I) had changed its posture by targeting not the BJP but the support base of secular forces. "The Congress(I) is working on a scheme to finish off other secular parties in order to obtain a monopoly of the non-BJP vote. This tactic will be counter-productive and suicidal," he pointed out.

At the party conference held in Etawah, Uttar Pradesh, Samajwadi Party chief Mulayam Singh Yadav alleged that the Congress(I) was as much responsible for the Hindutva-oriented communal threat as the RSS and the BJP were. The negative role played by the Congress(I) and its Government in 1992, when the Babri Masjid was demolished, was highlighted at the conference.Similarly, the Congress(I)'s stand on the Patents Amendment Bill and IRA Bill has made the Left parties rethink on giving it issue-based support in an alternative government. CPI(M) general secretary Harkishen Singh Surjeet, who was a special invitee at the S.P. conference, empahsised the need to build a third alternative, indicating that the present posture of the Congress(I) was not acceptable to his party. Responding to these developments, Congress(I) spokesperson Ajit Jogi told Frontline that his party did not view them as constituting a collapse of unity among secular forces.

As Sonia Gandhi tightens her hold on the party, the only area where leaders such as Sharad Pawar wield some influence is the Congress(I) Parliamentary Party (CPP). In the elections to the CPP executive, Pawar managed to get four of his supporters - P.C. Chacko, Datta Meghe, Prafful Patel and Prabha Thakur - elected although his nominee for the CPP secretary's post, Suryakanta Patil, failed. According to Sonia loyalists, Suryakanta Patil's defeat is more significant than the success of Pawar's nominees to the executive. "It shows that Pawar's influence is waning and Sonia Gandhi's strength is increasing even in the CPP, despite the fact that a large number of MPs are from Maharashtra," a senior party leader told Frontline.

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