Print edition : May 22, 1999

By questioning the projection of Sonia Gandhi as the Congress(I)'s candidate for prime ministership on the grounds of her not being "of this earth" and her lack of "experience and understanding of public life", Sharad Pawar and Co. raise the banner of revolt at a crucial hour for the party.

IT was a virtual bombshell that sent shock waves through large sections of the Congress(I), even as the party was beginning to marshall its troops and set its sights on power at the Centre once again. Addressed to Congress(I) president Sonia Gandhi, being projected as the party's candidate for prime ministership, a letter dated May 15 from three senior Congress Working Committee (CWC) members, Sharad Pawar, P.A. Sangma and Tariq Anwar, signalled a revolt against her leadership. The main issue they raised in the cleverly drafted and portentous letter was precisely the one which a rival contender for power, the Bharatiya Janata Party, was hoping to use as its principal election issue - that it would be politically inadvisable for the Congress(I) to project Sonia Gandhi as its candidate for Prime Minister. The Italian-born wife of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi acquired Indian citizenship in the 1980s .

Sonia Gandhi at the AICC office.-ANU PUSHKARNA

"It is not possible," the letter stated categorically, "that a country of 980 million, with a wealth of education, competence and ability, can have anyone other than an Indian, born of Indian soil, to head its government." It added: "Our inspiration, our soul, our honour, our pride, our dignity, is rooted in our soil. It has to be of this earth."

The joint letter, the substance of which might easily be mistaken for propaganda material from the BJP and its allies, seemed further to convey its signatories' opinion that Sonia Gandhi was ill-equipped to be Prime Minister on other grounds as well. "The average Indian," it said, "is not unreasonable in demanding that his Prime Minister have some track record in public life." Elsewhere in the letter the leaders said: "A person who is to take the reins of this country needs a large measure of experience and understanding of public life."

The letter indicated that the matter had come up for discussion at the CWC meeting of May 15. "There can be no two opinions that this personalised campaign started by the BJP against you is reprehensible and needs to be opposed strongly. At the same time we would again state that the issue... is real... and cannot be wished away."

The three leaders then made known the course of action they would prefer the party to take - a suggestion that has already raised the hackles of "Sonia loyalists". They requested the CWC and Sonia Gandhi to consider the proposal that the Congress(I)'s election manifesto suggest an amendment to the Constitution of India "to the effect that the offices of the President, Vice-President and Prime Minister can only be held by natural born Indian citizens." The leaders further requested that Sonia Gandhi, as Congress(I) president, propose this amendment.


Acknowledging Sonia Gandhi's role in "rejuvenating" the party and stating that they hoped that she would continue to lead the Congress(I), the leaders said that she had "concentrated on the party without getting involved in the political battles fought on the ground and on the floor of Parliament." When the party failed to secure an electoral mandate in 1998, they noted, Sonia Gandhi "accepted the verdict of the people... (and) respected the often unstated wishes of the Indian people."

However, they added, "we have noticed what we hope is only a temporary aberration. We believe that this is the work of a few self-seeking individuals, we pray that you are able to disengage yourself from such minds." This is seen as an allusion to senior Congress(I) leader Arjun Singh, who is believed to have played a key advisory role to Sonia Gandhi during the period immediately before and after the fall of the BJP-led government in April.

THE three leaders' strong presentation of their case at the CWC meeting on May 15 is believed to have blocked an effort by Sonia Gandhi loyalists to get the CWC to pass a resolution stating that she would be the Prime Minister if the Congress(I) won a majority. The resolution was evidently aimed at putting the official stamp of approval on a position that supposedly had overwhelming support within the party. At the meeting, Sonia Gandhi is reported to have taken an "abrasive" position in response to the stand taken by the three leaders. She is believed to have argued that she was "fit to become Prime Minister". Having thwarted the move to get the resolution passed, the three leaders sent off the letter to Sonia Gandhi.

The letter seemed to convey the impression that Maratha strongman and former Defence Minister Pawar - who has a record of battles with the top leadership of the party since Indira Gandhi's times - and the two others had raised the issue of the inadvisability of projecting Sonia Gandhi for prime ministership not with an intention to split or leave the party but to improve its electoral prospects. According to Pawar's supporters, at least five other CWC members approved of his stance but were wary of coming out in the open. Two names mentioned in this connection were those of Rajesh Pilot and Jitendra Prasada, but Pilot's immediate reaction to the developments and the fact that both of them had been involved in efforts by Sonia Gandhi loyalists to strengthen her position in the face of the challenge seemed to indicate otherwise. Responding to the crisis in the party, Pilot said it was "not a healthy development" but expressed the hope that it would be sorted out within the party forum.

Some Sonia Gandhi loyalists, however, seemed eager to take a tough stand against Pawar and Co. On May 16, all CWC members barring Pawar, Sangma and Anwar met informally twice, first at senior leader Pranab Mukherjee's residence and later at 10 Janpath. Three suggestions emerged in respect of how the party should respond to the challenge. R.K. Dhawan and a few others favoured the "immediate expulsion" of the three leaders. A.K. Antony and Arjun Singh suggested that disciplinary action be initiated against Anwar, who is considered the weakest of the three in terms of organisational and mass support, and that this would serve as a warning to the two others. Mukherjee suggested that the CWC pass a resolution affirming that Sonia Gandhi would be the party's candidate for prime ministership. The passing of such a resolution by a majority vote would enhance Sonia Gandhi's "democratic credentials" and isolate the challengers, he argued.


A handful of CWC members gave voice in private to a fourth option: that Sonia Gandhi accede to the request that she propose a constitutional amendment to bar non-Indians from holding important constitutional positions and that she be given the right to nominate anyone of her choice for the prime ministership. Such a move, said a CWC member, would enhance her image and improve the Congress(I)'s electoral prospects. Theoretically, observers believe that it would also leave the door open for Priyanka Gandhi to become a candidate for prime ministership. But few believe that this option will be exercised, given the Congress(I) style of sycophantic subservience to its "supreme leader".

Congress(I) leaders who support any one of the first three options are of the view that Pawar and Sangma may have entered into a deal with the BJP or with its allies such as the Samata Party, which had said that it would make Sonia Gandhi's "foreign origin" an election issue. (Significantly, the BJP and the Samata Party welcomed the developments in the Congress(I). BJP president Kushabhau Thakre said he was "happy that the dormant spirit of patriotism is slowly awakening in a few patriotic Congressmen".)

Some observers cited reports that some parties such as the Samata Party and the Telugu Desam Party, which had made covert attempts to form a fourth front after the fall of the BJP-led government, favoured Sangma for prime ministership. Interestingly, the three leaders are also believed to have made common cause, albeit indirectly, with the Samajwadi Party (S.P.), which refused to extend support for a minority Congress(I) government following the fall of the Vajpayee government. S.P. leader Mulayam Singh Yadav said at that time that he had sabotaged Sonia Gandhi's attempt to become Prime Minister because he wanted to "save the country from foreign forces".

SONIA GANDHI'S own reaction to the unexpected offensive seemed to indicate that her confidence had been shattered. Unfavourable comparisons were drawn between her response and the style of functioning of her role model and mother-in-law, former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.


A stream of Congress(I) leaders - among them, Sitaram Kesri, Arjun Singh, Pranab Mukherjee, A.K. Antony, R.K. Dhawan, Rajesh Pilot, Manmohan Singh, Madhavrao Scindia, Balram Jakhar, Ghulam Nabi Azad, Ahmed Patel and Shivraj Patil - wended their way to 10 Janpath and reaffirmed their faith in her leadership. An emergency meeting of the CWC was convened for May 17 to discuss the developments. The presidents of various State units of the Congress(I) and other State-level leaders sent messages affirming their faith in her leadership and sought stern action against the three leaders.

Whatever the final picture that emerges from the situation, it is clear that the Congress(I)'s larger electoral plans have suffered a setback because of these developments. Immediately after it held its "strategy meeting" in New Delhi on May 6, the Congress(I) seemed to be gaining ground. Leaders from other parties - such as former Union Minister and Rajya Sabha member Renuka Chaudhary (formerly of the Telugu Desam Party) and former Union Ministers Kalpnath Rai (formerly of the Samata Party) and Buta Singh (who contested the last election as an independent), office-bearers of the Samajwadi Party in Maharashtra, including its State unit president Hussain Dalwai, as well as six leaders including two former Ministers and four MLAs from the Lok Shakti in Karnataka - joined the Congress(I) in recent weeks. The primary strategic concern of the party during this period was to strike a balance between its promise to provide one-party rule and the need to enter into alliances or adjustments in States where its organisational base was weak, such as Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Tamil Nadu.

In fact Pawar had been given a key role in finalising these alliances. He was made the head of the party's strategy committee and put in charge of the alliance committee, along with Sangma, Pranab Mukherjee, Ahmed Patel and Manmohan Singh. It was believed that Pawar was slowly but steadily emerging as the Number Two in the party, ahead of Arjun Singh, who appeared to have fallen from grace following the Congress(I)'s failure to muster adequate support to form a government following the fall of the Vajpayee government.

Pawar appears to have timed his strike to match the decline in Arjun Singh's political fortunes.-RAJEEV BHATT

But all these initiatives have been reversed. Pawar appears to have timed his strike to match the decline in Arjun Singh's political fortunes, but what particularly shocked Sonia Gandhi loyalists is the stance taken by Sangma, who was until recently a preferred associate of the Congress(I) president. By all indications, one factor that unites the three leaders is their opposition to Arjun Singh, who they feel wields power disproportionate to his mass base or administrative prowess. Seen purely in organisational terms, the action of the three leaders might be a strike against Arjun Singh at a time he has been criticised for his role in the Congress(I)'s failure to install an alternative government.

Whatever the reasons for them, the developments of May 15 have given a fillip to the BJP. The only question, as a CWC member pointed out, relates to the extent of the gains that the BJP will make. If there is a split in the Congress(I) or if the three leaders are expelled from the party, the BJP might gain quite a bit, given Pawar's political clout in Maharashtra and Sangma's support base in the northeastern region. But even if there is a reconciliation of sorts, the BJP is certain to make some gains.