Political pundits were rather quick to give the BJP-led coalition a poor report card for its hundred-odd days in power, despite its successfully conducting a series of nuclear tests and ensuring a non-sanctions regime that has protected the economy from undue strain, that too, at a time when Asian economies in general are under stress. Their verdict on the substantially longer tenure of Congress Party president Sonia Gandhi must in fairness be harsher. Not only has Ms Gandhi failed to stem the ideological drift the party found itself in since P.V. Narasimha Rao’s stewardship, she has proved unequal to the task of managing conflicting interests and pressures within the organisation and bestowing it with overall coherence and cohesion.
The open surfacing of undercurrents of tension and discord, coupled with the failure to come to terms with crucial issues such as the ATR on the Jain Commission Report, the Women’s Reservation Bill, Prasar Bharati et al, is likely to take a further toll on the party’s credibility. Sonia Gandhi has yet to realise that imperiousness is no substitute for a well-reasoned strategy that can be explained and made acceptable to the rank and file, not pushed down their unwilling throats.
In this context, it is inconceivable that the humiliated Maharashtra strongman, Sharad Pawar, had no hand in the recent debacle in Goa, which is likely to haunt the party for some time to come. The leadership’s complete failure to contain the brewing unrest in the state unit, resulting in a formal split and the formation of a rebel government with the help of the BJP, constitutes a direct challenge to Sonia Gandhi’s leadership. Although the events leading to the Rane government’s dismissal leaves scope for criticism of Governor Jacob, political observers are unanimous that the Speaker’s action in disqualifying the defectors was unjust, and that the Rane ministry had genuinely lost its majority. Rane’s determination to seek legal remedy is unlikely to provide the party meaningful succour in terms of restoration of his rule.
The rank and file’s disillusionment is as much with Sonia Gandhi as with her trusted advisers. Despite the fact that the Prasar Bharati Bill had been in the news for weeks and the future of the rabidly pro-Congress Gill was at stake, the leadership did not find time to evolve a viewpoint on this critical legislation. Whatever the merits of the Government’s views on the Bill, the Congress as the leading opposition party had a responsibility to go into its pros and cons and either concur or disagree. Instead, when the Bill came up for discussion, Congress leaders present in the House stammered and groped for a line, while leader Sharad Pawar was conspicuous by his absence. Minister Sushma Swaraj, who had done her homework well, easily carried the day. The result was that Congress even lost the proposed place on the committee that will appoint the next CEO to replace Gill.
A similar situation prevailed during the tabling of the highly emotive Women’s Reservation Bill. The party fell neatly between Sonia Gandhi ’s commitment to the Bill in its original form and her subsequent decision to support sub-quotas for OBCs and minorities, a move that enraged large sections of people across the country and ensured the deafening non-response to its premature demise.
As for the recent anti-price rise rally that is said to mark Sonia Gandhi ’s debut in street politics, it must legitimately be judged a flop in terms of the public response it evoked. While the achievements of the rally appear to be practically nil, the party rank and file remains confused over its purpose and objectives. If the aim was to galvanise the state unit for the forthcoming Assembly elections in the capital, then it is glaringly evident that internal cohesion is the need of the hour. Delhi strongman R.K. Dhawan remains unreconciled to lightweight Sheila Dixit’s leadership, and is too formidable to be ignored. Dixit must also shoulder the responsibility for the goof-up that saw President R.K. Narayanan out of town when the delegation reached his door, leaving the party no option but to hand over its memorandum to his staff, in the manner of disgruntled government employees! The faux pas at Rashtrapati Bhavan not only denied the leadership a valuable photo opportunity, but also the expected sound-bytes about ‘assurances’ given by the President.
But it was Sharad Pawar who took the cake with his rally-eve statement that the party had no plans to topple the Vajpayee Government, and thereby exposed a leadership at cross-purposes with itself. Certainly the wily Maratha cannot be faulted for his reasoning that any attempt to bring down the government will only result in another election that the country can ill-afford, accentuate instability, and batter the economy. A show of indecent haste could also boomerang on the Congress, as there is no guarantee that those who help it to form a government will not extract a heavy pound of flesh, be it Harkishen Singh Surjeet, Laloo Yadav, Mulayam Singh Yadav, or the volatile Jayalalitha.
Whatever the correctness of Pawar’s analysis, its timing could not have been more politically incorrect. Sonia Gandhi and her coterie have rightly assumed that the Maratha had fired the first salvo in what will no doubt be a prolonged war of attrition between them. Despite hasty and angry denials by Rajesh Pilot and Ajit Jogi, the Maratha remained unfazed, and the actual event of Sonia Gandhi’s first public rally was hopelessly upstaged by the dramatic developments in Goa. The BJP, no doubt, laughed all the way to the swearing-in ceremony.
The CWC’s response to the ATR on the Jain Commission report is yet another instance of the party’s running with the hares and hunting with the hounds. The Congress has justified its decision to bring down the Gujral Government for not dismissing the DMK ministers on the basis of Jain’s interim report, but criticised further probes against Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi on the ground that this would divide the opposition! Surely considerations of present day realpolitik can have no place in an assassination case.
At the same time, the party has sought to placate AIADMK supremo, Ms Jayalalitha, by virtually exonerating her current confidant, Subramanian Swamy, of having had a role in the assassination, something that is wholly outside the competence and jurisdiction of a political party. However, the alacrity with which the party has welcomed investigation into Chandra Swami’s role, and formally decided not to defend any possible investigation into the actions of former Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao, is absolutely graceless. It is inconceivable that Rao could have imagined, much less planned and ensured his succession as party president and Prime Minister in the event of Rajiv Gandhi’s removal from the scene. As such, the CWC’s decision only betrays a vindictive desire for revenge against Rao for not being adequately subservient to the needs of the present leadership during his tenure.
It is a poor prescription for one hoping to lead the party to government during the life of the present Lok Sabha itself. Not only does the Congress stand on the Jain Commission report fail to bridge the gulf with other parties in the erstwhile United Front, it serves to silently rupture the party from within. CPI leader Inderjit Gupta has already indicated the changed reality with his unambiguous statement that the Vajpayee Government will not fall merely because some people wish to see its premature exit.
The Pioneer, 5 August 1998