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.

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