The Congress(I) flip-flop

Print edition : May 08, 1999

India's National Magazine from the publishers of THE HINDU

Once again forced to cause and face a round of general elections that it did not want, the Congress(I) betrays a strange nervousness.

THE Congress(I) celebrated the first anniversary of Sonia Gandhi's leadership of the party exactly a month and a half before the dissolution of the 12th Lok Sabha. Party leaders asserted on that occasion that positive changes had taken place in the Congress(I) under the reign of Sonia Gandhi. Comparing her tenure with that of her predecessor in the post, Sitaram Kesri, P. Shiv Shankar, the party's Deputy Leader in the Lok Sabha, told Frontline that "the Congress(I) has transformed itself from a moribund, non-creative, leaderless and directionless establishment into a vibrant organisation capable of leading the country on the right path by taking up important national and global concerns." Several party leaders concurred with this view.

Yet, strangely, the party betrays an apparent nervousness as it gears up to face its first general election under Sonia Gandhi's formal leadership. A similar discomfiture was evident in the wake of the dissolution of the 11th Lok Sabha after Kesri created a crisis for the I.K. Gujral-led United Front (U.F.) Government by raising the issue of non-implementation of the Jain Commission Report on the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi. Kesri's intention was not to force general elections but to acquire greater political clout in the Central Government using the Jain Commission Report as an instrument to apply pressure.

The effort backfired and elections were announced. The Congress(I) leadership began lamenting about the innumerable problems it had to contend with: the absence of a "vote-catching leader" and the dearth of "real campaign issues", among others. Intra-party bickering became intense, and this was one of the reasons that compelled Sonia Gandhi to enter the campaign scene. A refrain among Congress(I) Working Committee (CWC) members at that time was that the country and the Congress(I) could have done without elections at the juncture.

Almost all the maladies that afflicted the Congress(I) at that time appear to have returned to haunt the party. The only difference this time is that the party does have a vote-catching leader in Sonia Gandhi; this became evident during the November Assembly elections in Madhya Pradesh, Delhi and Rajasthan. But that is small consolation as the party has realised that Sonia Gandhi's appeal alone is not enough to ensure supremacy in national politics.

Already Sharad Pawar, CWC member and Leader of the Opposition in the dissolved Lok Sabha, is on record as saying that the mid-term polls will not produce a result much different from that of the previous elections, which delivered a hung verdict. Speaking at the annual function of the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII), he maintained that all parties had failed to do justice to regional aspirations and the just demands of the downtrodden people, especially the Backward Classes, Dalits and minorities. He added that unless this was set right, the instability in the polity would continue. The statement was treated in Congress(I) circles not only as an admission of the shortcomings in the party's functioning but as an instance of shadow-boxing against the coterie surrounding Sonia Gandhi (which includes former Minister and CWC member Arjun Singh), which has been dictating party policies.

A Congress(I) delegation outside Rashtrapati Bhavan on April 30. In a memorandum, it appealed to the President to ensure that the Vajpayee Government did not abuse its caretaker status.-M.LAXMANAN

AS in December 1997, the Congress(I) has again been forced to face a round of elections that it did not want. When Sonia Gandhi decided to take a proactive stance against the A.B. Vajpayee-led coalition Government by joining hands with other Opposition parties, including All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) leader Jayalalitha, her intention was to explore the possibility of forming a government under her own leadership. Elections, as per Sonia Gandhi's game plan, were to come after she had had a stint in power, preferably by the year-end or early next year.

It was clear to the Congress(I) leadership during the last elections that they had no issue to present before the people. Kesri refused to make the Jain Commission Report an election issue, stating that "the party's enemy number one will be the communal forces represented by the Bharatiya Janata Party." The furore unleashed over the indictment of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), a constituent of the then U.F., by the Jain Commission Report was given a quiet burial.

A similar flip-flop is visible now. It was the Congress(I)'s refusal to settle for a coalition government that became a stumbling block in the formation of an alternative government.

Throughout its deliberations with other parties after the confidence vote, the Congress(I) steadfastly refused to act according to the public statements that Sonia Gandhi and Arjun Singh had made - that the party was not averse to a coalition arrangement. However, after the dissolution of the Lok Sabha, party leaders, including Pawar, have openly talked about pre-poll alliances on the basis of a common manifesto. The parties identified as potential partners include the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), the AIADMK, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and the Republican Party of India (RPI).

Somersaults like these have presented another problem for the party as sections of the leadership describe these as being inconsistent with the "momentous" declarations made at the Pachmarhi conclave in September last. The Pachmarhi declarations took a general line against coalitions and said that such arrangements could be considered in special cases only if the party had supremacy in them.

Arjun Singh. He has been criticised in party circles for "misguiding" Sonia Gandhi at every stage of the bid to form an alternative government.-SHANKER CHAKRAVARTY

However, in the present context, with the realisation that the party will not be able to make it on its own, those declarations have been given the go by. The Congress(I)'s predicament is that it cannot even stick to the concept of being the dominant partner in a coalition that is made as a "special case". For, the Congress(I) cannot expect to have the upper hand in any alliances it make strike with the RJD in Bihar, the BSP in Uttar Pradesh and the AIADMK in Tamil Nadu.

The climbdown also militates against the stand taken by Arjun Singh and A.K. Antony that forming alliances does not help the long-term agenda of the party, which is restoring the organisation to its "past glory" at the national level. According to these leaders, the revival of the Congress(I)'s fortunes in the North Indian States, especially Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, is central to the party's plans, and any alliance with the RJD and the BSP will prove counter-productive.

The confusion over campaign strategy has divided the CWC. Arjun Singh, who was labelled the chief of the 'gang of four' (which comprises, apart from him, former Minister M.L. Fotedar, Sonia Gandhi's private Secretary Vincent George and R.D. Pradhan) at 10 Janpath that controlled Sonia Gandhi's activities is castigated privately by senior leaders.

A senior CWC member told Frontline that Arjun Singh misguided Sonia Gandhi at every stage, even making her erroneously claim to have the support of 272 MPs. "It was this faux pas," the CWC member said, "that upset the party's chances of being invited to form the government as the second largest party."

The groundswell of opinion against Arjun Singh has forced Sonia Gandhi to scale down his prominence in the party. He was not only taken off from the position of crisis-time spokesperson but, more significantly, not included in part of the delegation that met the President to complain against the Government overstepping its caretaker status.

Sonia Gandhi has a long way to go before resolving the problems and chalking out a viable election plan. What shape the Congress(I)'s strategy will take is not clear. But the biggest consolation for the party and its president is that the Election Commission may accede to its wish to have elections around September. Four months is a reasonably long enough time for any political leader to put his or her house in order.

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