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Sonia and a season of discontent


Mrs. Sonia Gandhi's probationary period is at an end. Now, reports ANGANA PAREKH, Congressmen want results - those that translate into power.

IT'S THE season of discontent in the Congress(I). Small eruptions that threaten to spawn bigger ones are bursting forth and disturbing the superficial inviolability of the 10, Janpath bastion. And Mrs. Sonia Gandhi, still tentative after over two years as Congress(I) president, seems unable or unwilling to quell indiscipline with an iron hand as her predecessors were wont to do.

Never before has the authority of a Congress(I) president been challenged to this extent and allowed to go unpunished as it has in the cases of mass cross-voting in the Rajya Sabha elections in West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, Orissa and Karnataka. The Delhi, West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh State units are already in a ferment; and Orissa is waiting to happen.

Mrs. Sonia Gandhi's probationary period, when indecision and aloofness were tolerantly overlooked, is at an end. Now Congressmen and women want results - those that translate into power. And since she took over as Congress(I) president, Mrs. Sonia Gandhi has not displayed the one virtue that, in the Congress(I) scheme of things, outweighs all other considerations: vote-getting ability.

It has now become de rigueurwhen anything goes wrong to criticise the ``coterie'' around Mrs. Sonia Gandhi and blame it for ``misleading'' her. The message, intended or unintended, is that the Congress(I) president is innocent of the nitty-gritty of politics and politicking and can be led by the nose by her advisors. Congress(I) culture demands that the leader lead from the front. So far, party leaders have stopped short of criticising Mrs. Sonia Gandhi directly but they are champing at the bit now.

Mr. Kapil Sibal, a Rajya Sabha MP regarded as a Sonia loyalist, set off ripples a few days ago when he gave television and press interviews to express his serious concern at the deterioration of the Congress(I) and its growing marginalisation. While stoutly defending Mrs. Sonia Gandhi's leadership on the grounds that no individual should be blamed and that it was ``collective responsibility'', he indirectly hit out at the coterie and suggested it was time to sit down to do a rethink on the constitution of the Congress(I) Working Committee.

Mr. Sibal was also critical of the Rajya Sabha nominations and said it was a pity that people like Mr. Natwar Singh and Mr. Jairam Ramesh, who could have made a positive contribution to debates in the Upper House, were left out.

Mr. Balram Jakhar, senior Congressman and former Lok Sabha Speaker, has also blamed the ``central leadership'' for mishandling the Rajya Sabha elections, as have State leaders in West Bengal. Earlier, the former Gujarat Chief Minister, Mr. Chhabildas Mehta, wrote a letter to Mrs. Sonia Gandhi asking her to step down from party presidentship; but this was not given much weightage as Mr. Mehta is a political lightweight and was himself a disappointed aspirant for a Rajya Sabha ticket, as was Mr. Jakhar.

Mr. Sibal, however, has no axe to grind since he is already in the Rajya Sabha. And his opinions are echoed in private by several senior party leaders, including CWC members, who are viewing with concern the party's steady downward spiral. But their question is: If not Sonia, then who?

It has virtually become a practice now to get protestations of loyalty whenever there is a hint that Mrs. Sonia Gandhi's leadership is being questioned. This time, too, the Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister, Mr. Digvijay Singh, issued a statement swearing by her leadership and criticising those who dared to think differently. The Rajasthan Chief Minister, Mr. Ashok Gehlot, and the Haryana leader, Mr. Bhajan Lal, followed suit.

But even members of the inner circle, like Mr. Natwar Singh, Mr. Pranab Mukherjee and Dr. Manmohan Singh have been alienated for one reason or another. Mr. Singh because he was not given a Rajya Sabha nomination; Mr. Mukherjee because of the embarrassment he is facing over the nuclear deterrent issue during the Gandhi- Clinton meeting; and Dr. Singh because he is under fire from within the party over economic reforms and the impending threat posed to his position by Mr. Arjun Singh who is now in the Rajya Sabha.

But the larger issue is what exercises others. The Rajya Sabha nominations, they say, have sent out the message that no effort is being made to rebuild the party. Choosing candidates such as Mr. Inder Khosla, Mr. D. P. Roy, Mrs. Bimba Raikar and Mrs. Jamuna Berupal at a time when the party desperately needs good parliamentarians has not gone down well.

For many, the disillusionment set in when Mrs. Sonia Gandhi reconstituted the CWC and revamped the party set-up three months ago and again chose those without a mass base. Instead, if younger, more dynamic leaders such as Mr. Digvijay Singh and Mr. S. M. Krishna (the Karnataka Chief Minister) had been included in the CWC, this would have sent out a positive signal that sincere efforts were being made to revive the party and its top decision- making apparatus.

The erosion of Mrs. Sonia Gandhi's authority is obvious after last month's Rajya Sabha elections. No disciplinary action has been taken against the MLAs who cross-voted nor against partymen who contested as independents or worse, as candidates of other parties. Of the three candidates who were seen as Mrs. Sonia Gandhi's ``personal'' choice - Mr. D. P. Roy in West Bengal, Mr. Inder Khosla in Uttar Pradesh and Mr. R. P. Goenka in Rajasthan - only Mr. Goenka won.

In Uttar Pradesh, Mr. M. M. Aggarwal, treasurer and vice- president of the Delhi State unit, contested (and won) as a candidate of the Jantantrik Bahujan Samaj Party, while the Congress(I)'s official candidate, Mr. Khosla, lost. No action has been taken against Mr. Aggarwal. Though it is claimed that his filing a nomination from another party automatically disqualifies him from Congress(I) membership, the party spokesman, Mr. Ajit Jogi, was unable to clarify whether or not Mr. Aggarwal was still in the Congress(I).

Mr. Jayanta Bhattacharya, an AICC member, contested in West Bengal as an independent backed by the Trinamool Congress and defeated Mr. Roy. No steps have been initiated against him either. That ad hocismis rampant is clear from the case of Mr. Rajni Ranjan Sahu, who was expelled because he stood as an independent for the Rajya Sabha byelection in Bihar even though the Congress(I) had not put up a candidate. Mr. Sahu's ``crime'', apparently, was that he was considered close to Mr. Sitaram Kesri.

All this is in marked contrast to Mrs. Sonia Gandhi's uncompromising attitude in 1998, when her advisor, Mr. R. D. Pradhan, was defeated because party MLAs cross-voted in the Rajya Sabha election in Maharashtra. At that time, two Lok Sabha MPs and half-a-dozen MLAs were issued show-cause notices and one MLA was suspended. But as a party leader remarked tellingly, ``There is a vast difference between Mrs. Sonia Gandhi's authority in 1998 and now.''

In West Bengal, the situation has gone beyond Mrs. Sonia Gandhi's control. Though the Congress(I) had enough MLAs, and more to spare, to ensure the victory of its Rajya Sabha candidate, Mr. Roy, nearly two dozen MLAs defied the party and voted for Mr. Bhattacharya. This was followed by a spate of public statements by State Congress(I) leaders blaming the ``central leadership'' for ``messing up'' the nominations and foisting an unpopular candidate on the MLAs.

A shocked Mrs. Sonia Gandhi summoned the West Bengal PCC president, Mr. A. B. A. Ghani Khan Chaudhary, and his predecessor, Mr. Somen Mitra, to Delhi for an explanation earlier this week. But far from being repentant, they in turn threw a bombshell. They said the State unit was in favour of forming an alliance with Ms. Mamata Banerjee's Trinamool Congress, an ally of the BJP, with the objective of ousting the CPI(M) from Bengal when the Assembly elections are held early next year.

Subsequent damage-control involved getting a letter from Mr. Chaudhary regretting the cross-voting, swearing loyalty to Mrs. Sonia Gandhi's leadership and a plea that bygones should be bygones. Rather belatedly, the AICC announced that a ``probe committee'' would be set up to inquire into the episode but this is being dismissed as a face-saver since Rajya Sabha voting is by secret ballot and there is no way to establish which way an MLA voted.

But the fact remains that the West Bengal unit is determined to have an alliance with the Trinamool Congress, regardless of its affiliation with the BJP and regardless of the Congress(I)'s categorical assertion that under no circumstances could there be any direct or indirect understanding with the BJP. Faced with the possibility of a revolt, Mrs. Sonia Gandhi has given her permission for talks with the Trinamool Congress on condition that there is no compromise with the BJP.

Ms. Banerjee's stated position is that she will not leave the National Democratic Alliance. Despite this, State Congress leaders are negotiating a seat-sharing arrangement with her party for next month's civic elections in West Bengal. The State unit is divided over the alliance question. While a majority is in favour of a tie-up with Ms. Banerjee, there is no unanimity over allying with her party if it continues to stay with the NDA. Mr. Priyaranjan Das Munshi, the WBPCC's working president, has threatened to put up his own candidates if the Congress(I) compromises with the BJP.

The fervent hope of the Congress(I) is that Ms. Banerjee will leave the NDA nearer to the Assembly elections, but this remains to be seen. The party has compromised its stand on alliances and it may review its economic policy. But on communalism there can be no compromise if the Congress(I) wants to retain its identity. The question is if Mrs. Sonia Gandhi will be able to exert her authority.

Everything was hunky-dory until April 1999, which has now become a kind of watershed in Mrs. Sonia Gandhi's political career. From December 1997, when she first began campaigning for the party, till April 1999, Mrs. Sonia Gandhi was on a roll. In March 1998, she took over as Congress(I) president to adulation and hopes that she would rejuvenate the party. The assertive Pachmarhi Declaration in September and then the November 1998 Assembly elections took her popularity in the party to a high as the Congress(I) captured power in Delhi and Rajasthan and triumphantly retained power in Madhya Pradesh.

But in April 1999 came the big mistake. Mrs. Sonia Gandhi allied with the AIADMK, the Vajpayee Government fell and she staked claim to prime ministership, claiming the support of 272 MPs. Not only did the move come a cropper but Mrs. Sonia Gandhi lost her image of not being interested in power.

The subsequent expulsion of Mr. Sharad Pawar, Mr. P. A. Sangma and Mr. Tariq Anwar, the split in the Maharashtra unit, the disastrous decisions on Bihar and Haryana, and the Lok Sabha election debacle made her position more fragile. And now the Rajya Sabha elections have exacerbated matters.

Mrs. Sonia Gandhi has to retrieve the situation if she wants to survive.

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