Tuesday, 30 March 1999

Congress Revival: Will Sonia Show a Constructive Spirit

(Originally appeared in the 1990s in the Times of India, as published in M. D. Nalapat's book "Indutva", Har-Anand Publications, 1999)

Rather than just Rajghat, Atal Behari Vajpayee needs to make a
pilgrimage to the homes of Harkishen Singh Surjeet and
Viswanath Pratap Singh, for it is these two who triggered the
events that brought about his ascension. The roots of the 1998
polls do not lie in the ruckus over the Jain Commission, but go
further back, to the United Front's surrender before Sitaram
Kesri in April 1997. Had they refused the demand to sack
H. D. Deve Gowda as Prime Minister, Sitaram Kesri’s bluff
would have been called, and he would have faced a revolt by
Congress MPs eager to avoid a fresh poll. Instead, Surjeet and
Singh teamed up with Kesri against Gowda.

Even if they wanted to replace Gowda—whom V. P. Singh
saw as a friend of Chandra Shekhar - the duo could have
selected the one individual within the United Front whom Kesri
was afraid of. This was G. K. Moopanar, whose links within the
Congress are far more than Kesri’s, and who enjoys the confidence
of Sonia Gandhi. Had Moopanar replaced Gowda, he would
have had the clout to prevent a second withdrawal of support by
the Congress party. However, helped by M. Karunanidhi (who
did not fancy a fellow-Tamil moving into 7, Race Course Road
and thereby overshadowing him), V. P. Singh and H. S. Surjeet
sabotaged Moopanar and zeroed in on close friend I. K. Gujral.

Gujral repeated Gowda’s mistake, by pinning the entire
superstructure of Congress support on his relationship with one
individual. While Gowda relied on Narasimha Rao (and to an
extent Sharad Pawar and Rajesh Pilot) to keep the Congress in
line, the new Prime Minister spent considerable effort cultivating
Kesri. By September 1997, the time when the Sonia group
effectively began to dominate the AICC, both Kesri’s and Gujral’s
days in office were numbered. Two months later, the Jain
Commission interim report was deliberately leaked to force the
United Front to accommodate the Congress in its ministry. This
time around there was a no compromise. The TDP, DMK, AGP
and the CPM saw to that. While the first three have been
rewarded for this stand by being mauled by the electorate, the
CPM has slid from being the pivot of the old government to
being one of the primary targets of the new one.

It was Narasimha Rao who selected Kesri as AICC President,
preferring him over A. K. Antony. That decision cost him his
relevance in politics. Rao chose Kesri on the advice of Sharad
Pawar, Ghulam Nabi Azad and litendra Prasad. Certainly, the
fact that Kesri would be a much less attractive candidate for the v
Prime Ministership than Antony, should there be a chance for
Congress to lead the government, may have crossed their
ambitious minds. Another factor that weighed with Rao was
Kesri’s habit of stretching his arms towards the former Prime
Minister's feet. Minutes after he took over as AICC President,
Kesri began aiming not his arm but a leg at Rao.

Sonia Gandhi’s hard core followers, including Shiela Dixit
and Arjun Singh, convinced her that the Indian voters were
waiting for her debut to — in V. N. Gadgil’s words — "sweep" the
party back to power. However, the 1998 poll results are not very
supportive of this optimism, with the party's vote share falling
from 29 per cent in 1996 under the despised Narasimha Rao to
25 per cent today. However, this has been explained by two
factors: the continuance of Sitaram Kesri as AICC President,
which was held to have muffled the "Sonia effect", and second,
that if Sonia had not launched her campaign, the Congress vote
would have slid from 29 per cent to 10 per cent. In this view,
Sonia prevented the total obliteration of the Congress party.
Now that Sitaram Kesri has been turfed out of the AICC
Presidentship, the "muffling" of the Sonia magic will presumably
no longer take place.

In her campaign, Sonia Gandhi has shown herself to be tough
and professional, two qualities essential for success. Her mother-
in»law was tough but seldom professional, while her husband
was rarely either. Thus Sonia Gandhi has at least as good a
probability as they had of holding her own, especially in a
country with a tolerant tradition. Her problems are likely to flow
not just from her enemies but her friends. Between 1981 and
1983, Rajiv tried to break away from his mother's acolytes and I
encourage a new team. By 1984 — despite the brave speech at
Bombay later — he had given up this process, and from then
onwards confined his reshuffles to the same jaded group of
Nehru family loyalists. The odds are low that Sonia Gandhi will 1
jettison the "loya1ists” who have been so carefully nurtured by
Indira Gandhi and subsequently by Rajiv. However, unless she
does so, the Congress organisation is unlikely to recover from its
present descent into irrelevance.

The paradox is that Sonia Gandhi will need to jettison the
methods of Indira and Rajiv in order to nurse the Congress back
to health. Free party elections will need to be held, and the l
accumulations of office—seekers that are clogging the route for
grassroots workers need to get cleansed away. This the "loyalists"
will resist, as few have base-level support. Secondly, if she is to
arrest the decline in the party’s vote share, there will need to be
a mix of carefully crafted policies that can appeal not just to 
particular communities but to citizens across religious and caste
divides. Such policies will go against the personal interests of
those who are today enjoying top—level posts in the Congress.
Equally importantly, Sonia Gandhi will need to distance
herself from the strategies of her hardline followers, and avoid
a path of all—out confrontation with the BJP-led government. On l
critical issues such as the passage of the Budget or other
necessary legislation, the Congress should not be seen as an
obstructive force. Should legislative paralysis ensue thanks to
the "Shouting Brigade", a fresh election could result in the B]P
alliance crossing 300 seats. On key economic, social and security
matters, the Congress will need to convince the voters that it can
take a nationalist view rather than be the prisoner of narrow
interests. Should the Congress continue to decline, the next
election is likely to see a 1950-1971 situation, in which there is
just one dominant party and a cluster of smaller players. This
time around that dominant party is likely to be the BJP.

Saturday, 20 March 1999

Prime Minister Sonia? (Rediff)

In 1997, the then I K Gujral government allocated a government bungalow in Delhi's prestigious Lodhi Estate to a young married couple. It was a significant wedding gift, with a market value in excess of Rs 100 million. It was also the first time in the history of Independent India that a newly married couple had been given such a subsidy by a country that has more desperately poor people within it than any other.

However, obviously kind-hearted as he is, the then prime minister decided that a capital cost of Rs 100 million and annual costs of Rs 4 million plus on security and other expenses was not excessive, especially as the taxpayer and not the himself would have to foot the burden.

Sadly, the wedding gift did not save poor Gujral from being bundled out of office by the very mother of the charming bride. Perhaps the official reason for the gift was responsible for the lady's anger. It was expressly stated that the new residence was essential for 'security reasons'. Logically, this would mean that the bride and groom would have been unsafe in the sprawling government-provided bungalow occupied by her mother, the mother's two divorced sisters, and her son on his visits to India. What a slur to cast on anyone, that her own daughter is not safe if she shares the same roof as her mother! No wonder that Gujral was bundled out by Sonia Gandhi, the distinguished occupant of 10 Janpath.

Sonia Gandhi Sonia Gandhi has given no indication that she is below the poverty line. Indeed, the income-tax records of her parents, sisters and their former husbands would indicate the financial progress of this delightful family, especially during the 1980s. However, for some odd reason neither our globetrotting journalists nor any government (including the present one) has as yet revealed ANY of the details about the most powerful family in -- sorry, in and out of -- India.

No one has asked whether Rahul has been these past nine years, and what he is doing now. No one is going into the progress in the business of the son-in-law ever since he married into the family that owns India. And if there have been news reports about the periodicity of the family's foreign visits, and their cost to the taxpayer in one form or the other, these have appeared in publications yet to be launched. Such a lack of interest in the likely candidate for India's next prime minister indicates that it was not just during the Emergency that the press crawled before the official Gandhis. 

Saturday, 6 March 1999

Back Benazir Bhutto - Downside of Kebab Policy

(Originally appeared in the 1990s in the Times of India, as published in M. D. Nalapat's book "Indutva", Har-Anand Publications, 1999)

It is difficult to be a Caucasian in Kashmir: hordes of Hurriyat
volunteers surround each such visitor, beginning her or him to
ask Bill Clinton, Helmut Kohl or even Prince Rainier to give them
freedom. Heady stuff, almost as effervescent as the champagne
and whisky served in the residences of Delhi’s gracious Pakistani
diplomats. The most welcome guests at these soirees are from
the small corps of Caucasian journalists based in Delhi, as also
the few Indians working in US or EU media organisations. So
why the surprise when the BBC rails against troops preventing
terrorist outrages during elections in Kashmir, but coy approval
when soldiers perform the same function in Bosnia? The
incarceration of IRA bomb·throwers in Britain is democracy-
compatible, but similar action in India is not.

Army Dominance
Sadly, the alcohol and the kebabs do little to address the root of
Pakistan’s malaise, which is the domination of the Sunni Punjabi
army. While Benazir Bhutto’s rantings may attract the attention
of speech therapists, the fact remains that an army putsch is no
way to remove an elected prime minister. just as the very
"supporters" of Pakistan weakened democracy in that country
by buttressing the armed forces through the Brown amendment,
they have further hastened its disintegration by turning an
approving eye to the latest instance of the men in uniform acting
as though they were superior to the electorate.

Following on from Delhi’s waffling over Afghanistan, this
country has accepted Farooq Leghari’s coup against the elected
Benazir government. What is the difference between present-day
Pakistan and Myanmar? In both countries, the generals rule.
However, unlike the US—which is desperately trying to preserve
its 45-year investment in the Pakistan armed forces—India has
a stake in the development of grassroots democracy in Pakistan.
Only such a development will ensure friendly relations with

The Clinton administration tried hard to get India to make
concessions on Kashmir and on defence programmes to the 
benefit of Pakistan, ignoring the reality that this country has
made enormous sacrifices for Pakistan from 1947 onwards.
Money and river waters got transferred in the 1950s, while
Pakistan's occupation of a third of Kashmir went unchallenged.
In Tashkent in 1965, the Haji Pir pass was returned to Ayub. In
1971 at Simla, Indira Gandhi converted military victory into a
diplomatic disaster when she surrendered all Indian battlefield
gains in exchange for a winsome smile from Z. A. Bhutto. In the
1980s, Rajiv Gandhi began cutting back on critical defence
programmes, a policy continued by Narasimha Rao. 

Just as Neville Chamberlain and the other British appeasers
ignored the fact that concessions to Germany were counter-
productive so long as it remained a Nazi dictatorship, our own
practitioners of appeasement forget that strategic concessions to
an army-dominated Pakistan merely strengthen the clique of
officers, drug dealers and religious fanatics that, in effect, governs
that country. Today that group has once more shown
"democracy" in Pakistan to be a facade. More significantly, they
have shown the shallowness of the oft-repeated claim of the US
and EU that Pakistan has evolved into a genuine democracy.

Just as New Delhi should have backed the Rabbani
government from the outset of the Taliban takeover, it should
have refused to recognise the Leghari coup in Islamabad. The
only way an elected prime minister—even one as feudal as
Benazir Bhutto—should be removed is through a vote in the
national assembly or another election, not by midnight arrests
and flag marches. True to Pakistani tradition, Nawaz Sharief has
welcomed the coup, forgetting that he too was once a victim, and
may become so again. Strangely, that huge tribe of Indian
admirers of our friendly neighbour is silent on the latest throttling
of semi-democracy in Pakistan, though they have been vociferous
when a Krishna Rao confronted insurgency in Kashmir or a KPS
Gill battled it out in Punjab. 

Another Afghanistan
If the many lovers of Scotch and homemade kebabs truly have
Pakistan's interests in mind, they need to realise that that ‘
country is just a decade or less away from becoming another
Afghanistan. The Sunni Punjabi dominance, the social turmoil
caused by the drug and religious barons, and the economic
collapse that will ensue thanks to the armed forces’ siphoning off
the bulk of the budget will all lead to a collapse of Pakistan. Only
a cutting—back of the military budget and a reining-in of the
drugs and religious mafiosi there can prevent this.

However, just as Germany became a desirable partner only
after the Nazis were driven out of power, Pakistan will be
worthy of concessions only after it transforms itself into a
genuine democracy. 'There has been a cacophony of voices that
"India would be negatively affected by Pakistan’s disintegration".
This is nonsense. Pakistan will disintegrate only if it continues to
be a dictatorship. And should it remain such a country, it is far
better for India that it break up into a collection of mutually-
squabbling states. Just as the 1971 victory (despite the Simla
fiasco) gave India a breathing space of nearly two decades in
Kashmir, the break·up of a fundamentalist Pakistan would weaken
religious fanatics in India.

Delhi’s Task
However, this is not to argue for an interventionist policy. There
is no reason to get involved in the developing turmoil on India 's
western border, as Pakistan’s own elite can be relied upon to
finish off their country. At the same time, Delhi needs to develop
its nuclear and missile defences so as to prevent any attempt at
aggression from outside. Such a development will also strengthen
the technological base essential to creating a culture for growth.
Hopefully, the neglect of our population that has been so patient
for the past 50 years will change to a policy focused towards
improving the ability of India’s people to compete in the world.

Should such a change in policy not come about, this country
may follow Pakistan towards disintegration. The CPM and the
CPI, for example, appear determined to make the Indian taxpayer
continue to foot the bill for the inefficiency of their trade union
members. Also, economic liberalisation has been condemned by
them as a sin everywhere in India except Bengal. The BJP is busy
blocking beauty pageants, with some of its worthies functioning
in a manner that makes Pakistani politicians appear civilised.
The Congress is still in the throes of bondage to its former
owners, the Nehru family. Only the people of India are changing.
By their frequent rejection of existing governments, voters are
indicating their anger at the unwillingness of politicians to frame
procedures and policies that will benefit the people and not just
the politicians themselves. There is little justification in feeling
smug over the developments in Pakistan. This country is not far
behind on the road to chaos, unless public opinion can finally
conjure up an improved political class.

Wednesday, 3 March 1999

Congress Leadership to Decide on Future Strategy

(Originally appeared in the 1990s in the Times of India, as published in M. D. Nalapat's book "Indutva", Har-Anand Publications, 1999)

After Bihar, and a possible election in Kashmir, the way is clear
for the Lok Sabha polls. Over the past year, the Indian voter has
alternately humbled the BJP, the Congress and the Janata Dal,
thus leaving these parties guessing about his preference for
control of the next Parliament.

The party apparently in the most comfortable position is the
BJP. Strategists within it say that the goal is power 'not in 1996
but in 2001'. By that year, they say that voter disgust at other
national formations will result in a saffron wave. The catch is
that, quite apart from 2001, even 1996 is away far enough for
conditions to change. The BJP has first to square the circle of
being ’moderate’ while backing the Shiv Sena, and welcoming
foreign investment while swearing by Swadeshi.

The Janata Dal is also in a reasonably happy position, largely
because it has so little to lose. Should it be able to entice outside
groups such as the AIADMK and the SJP to its fold, the JD-led
National Front may be able to win enough seats to create a hung
Parliament, in which it can bargain for a significant share in
power. With the selection of J. B. Patnaik as the Congress chief
minister, ID strategists say that their party is back in the
reckoning in Orissa. It has already trounced the Congress in
Bihar, and appears set to vastly improve its Lok Sabha
performance in Karnataka and Kerala, while improving its tally
in states such as Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra.
Although the Congress has the most to lose in the coming
polls, it has shown little sign of serious attention to itself since
the Tirupati session a couple of years ago. In that session, the
victory of Arjun Singh, A. K. Antony and Sharad Pawar in
elections to the Working Committee led to the assumption of full
powers by the AICC president, with even the general secretaries
unable to exercise their discretion except on trivial matters.

Around the leadership, a suite of leaders has emerged, most
of whom have followed the Rajya Sabha route, and who are
therefore more conversant with the manipulation of small groups
of office-bearers than with influencing large masses of voters.
Possibly the last major opportunity for influencing voters by
macroeconomic policy was the Union budget. Political analysts
say that fiscal statements leave almost no impact on the under-
privileged, "though they may influence the middle classes".

Seeing as how the Congress has lost almost every urban area
since Tirupati (with the exception of Gwalior), AICC office-
bearers were disappointed that significant reductions did not
take place in direct taxes. At the same time, the ’import-friendly’
measures announced by the finance and commerce ministries
may, in their view, "turn small businessmen away from the
Congress". However, individuals close to the leadership counter 
this by pointing out that "if the measures lower the price level,
as they are intended to, the political impact will be positive".

However, there is a recognition that the BJP has been able to
position itself better as the defender of domestic interests.
Fortunately for P. V. Narasimha Rao, his rival Arjun Singh
has dented his image by welcoming all anti-Rao elements. After
his alliance with Kalpnath Rai, the former HRD minister’s anti-
corruption rhetoric is taken less seriously, while his linkup with 
N. D. Tiwari (whose social perceptions are well-known) has 
eroded his "justice for the 1mderprivileged" plank. Within the
Congress, the perception is growing that Arjun Singh's crusade
is less to vitalise the party than to wage a vendetta against the
Prime Minister. However, this does not mean that support for
the existing leadership is strong.

The tendency among Congress leaders to pack electoral lists
with relatives, hangers-on and discredited incumbents has cost
the party dearly, first in Delhi and Rajasthan, then in Andhra
Pradesh and Karnataka, and now in Maharashtra and Gujarat. In
Orissa and Bihar as well, the success rate for new faces — even
from within the established parties — was far higher than for
familiar names.

However, Congress cadres do not expect the stranglehold of
the Old Guard to get broken at the time of selection of candidates
for the next Lok Sabha. As for those disaffected enough to openly
attack the leadership, the objective has shifted from the capture
of the party organisation to setting up a new group that would
align with the National Front. Now that expulsion — which
would play into their hands — is no longer a worry, such
individuals can be expected to aggressively articulate their
policy differences with the leadership. Meanwhile, both the BJP
as well as the National Front may be expected to intensify their
criticism of the Rao Government, in order for each to edge out
the other as the ’real' alternative.

Supporters of P. V. Narasimha Rao point out that the country
is enjoying ’unusual’ social tranquillity and progress under his
rule, but admit that the perception of a ’weak’ leadership has
taken root, and agree that this has to be changed if the Congress
is to return to power under Rao. The April 5 CWC session will
discuss how to retrieve the nationalist plank from the BJP and
the social justice plank from the National Front without "deviation
from the present policies". This may prove a difficult task.