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Wednesday, 25 August 1999

Congress has Two Conflicting Strategies to Regain Power

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


The discussion on the extent to which the Congress should exert
pressure on the United Front (UF) to get its support for a
Mayawati-led ministry in Uttar Pradesh gives an indication of
the emergence of two contrary strategies that the Congress could
follow.

While both have adherents and critics among the office-
bearers of the former ruling party, the terms "Pawar" and
"Antony" lines will be used to denote the two approaches, as the
two have emerged as protagonists of the same.

While both sides have thus far refrained from publicly
articulating their strategies and have indeed denied that there
are any differences, discussions with confidants indicate that the
Pawar line is to forge a formal alliance with the UF in order to
isolate the BJP. This would involve joining the UF ministry at the
Centre and joint action in states such as Maharashtra, Gujarat
and elsewhere. Gradually, thanks to the force of numbers and
greater cohesion, the Congress would dominate the UF and in
time would have its own candidate as Prime Minister. Thereafter,
a Congress-led UF would face and defeat the BJP in the subsequent
Lok Sabha polls.

The Antony line would support the UF at the Centre for a
period of two to three years, during which time the Congress
would be revamped into an organisation based on inner-party
democracy and an elected set of office-bearers. The strategy
would be "unity" with the UF in Delhi and "struggle" in the
states, where the Congress would shed its current inhibitions
and become a vociferous opposition to both the UF as well as the
BJP. In certain states local alliances would be forged, such as with
the BSP in UP and Ramakrishna Hegde in Karnataka. By these
means, the Antony strategists hope to have the Congress re-
emerge into health within 24 to 36 months, after which it would
force a Lok Sabha election.

While the Pawar line predicates cooperation with the UF, the
Antony line calls for the Congress to fashion its revival
independent of it. According to Antony, it is necessary for the
party to be away from power for a few years, "to rid itself of the
corruption associated with office". Should the Congress join the
UF, the temptation to revert to old ways would be great, and the
party would share in the scandals and disillusionment caused by
UF rule. Away from power, a fresh team of office-bearers can be
expected to emerge, with the state-level units—rather than the
AICC—being the focus of the leadership's attention.

The proponents of the Antony line have welcomed the
emergence of Sitaram Kesri as AICC president, as the Bihar
politician fits in with its strategy of focusing on dalits, the
minorities and the backward communities. According to the
Kerala politician, an alliance with the BSP will send positive
signals to the dalit vote-banks in the Hindi belt. Next would be
moves to woo the minorities and the backward communities.
Those in favour of the Pawar line give more attention to
government, and to using the advantages of office to generate
visibility and support among the electorate, Hence the eagerness
to join the Gowda government.

The advantage in this behind-the-scenes battle of wills lies
with the Maharashtra politician. Antony has ever exhibited a
reluctance not to go for the jugular, but to even get involved in
battle. Thus, very often his positions are lost almost by default.
Pawar on the other hand, has excellent powers of persuasion that
are put to good use in generating support for his stand. At
present, apart from his closeness to both Prime Minister Deve
Gowda and Congress icon Sonia Gandhi, Pawar has the support
of three CWC members, K. Karunakaran, Ghulam Nabi Azad
and Balram Jakhar. Rajesh Pilot, Ahmed Patel and Meira Kumar
have also given him qualified support, especially on the policy
of backing the UF.

Antony, on the other hand, has only himself as a firm backer
in the CWC.

However, if the attention shifts from the Delhi-based office-
bearers to the states, the Kerala politician has a significant
support base for his "unity and struggle" policy vis-a-vis the UF.
In particular, state units in the south and east are opposed to the
policy of going soft on the UF. In these states, the Congress has
begun to pay heavily for the ambiguity in its stand vis-a-vis local
UF rivals such as the Telugu Desam in Andhra Pradesh the JD
in Karnataka and the CPM in Kerala. Over the next few months,
such state units may begin to exert pressure to prevent the
adoption of the Pawar line.

And what of the former Prime Minister, P.V. Narasimha
Rao? Despite his distaste for Pawar, Rao has become compelled
by circumstances to adopt a dovish posture towards the UF,
which is dangling the threat of putting him or his son in prison
without actually expending the missile by actually doing so. As
long as the threat is present or remains unexecuted — Rao will
be forced to support a conciliatory line towards the very same
UF that is closing in on his followers through the CBI. While Rao
loyalists are being targeted, pro-UF Congressmen as well as UF
politicians are being spared CBI attention, despite their
involvement in numerous scams.

The UP imbroglio has shown up the fault lines behind the
facade of Congress-UF cooperation. The months ahead will show
whether the former ruling party will hitch its fate to the UF or
attempt to once again recapture the dominant heights of Indian
polity. At present, the odds favour the former outcome.




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