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Fizz going out of Congress - The Observer

Inder Malhotra ()
5 February 1997

Title : Fizz going out of Congress
Author : Inder Malhotra
Publication : The Observer
Date : February 5, 1997

Until only the other day Congressmen were in a buoyant mood
bordering on the cocky. P V Narasimha Rao had, at last, been
ousted from both the presidentship of the Congress and leadership
of the Congress Parliamentary Party. This was supposed to have
washed away the stigma of corruption from the party's face. And
Congressmen were jubilant that under Sitaram Kesri's skilled - and
hopefully unsullied - leadership their party could reclaim its
"legitimate right" to lead the anti-BJP "secular" coalitions at the
Centre.

None of this, be it noted, was said in secretary or whispers.
Threats of withdrawal of support from the Deve Gowda government
were issued, on an average, twice a day. Dr Manmohan Singh, the
party's "Mr Clean", was not only appointed to the Congress Working
Committee but also charged with the task of preparing a
"chargesheet" against the ruling United Front's "mishandling" of
the economic policy. There was no dearth of those who forecast
that rug will be pulled from under Deve Gowda's feet well before
the presentation of the budget on February 2.

Things became even more tense when personal relations between Kesri
and the Prime Minister deteriorated visibly. Deve Gowda's failure
to attend the Congress President's Iftar dinner - this daily
festivity during the Muslim month of fasting has itself become
something of a racket in Indian politics - became a source of
bitter bickering. "Who the hell does Gowda think he is? Can he
last even for a day without our support?" was the Congress cry.
And when the CBI questioned Kesri, the Congress rage had to be seen
to be believed. "Now he is misusing the CBI in order to blackmail
us," screamed outraged Congressmen. Gowda found it expedient to
explain, privately and publicly, that he had nothing to do with the
CBI's investigations. The agency was functioning entirely at the
behest of the court hearing a public interest petition. Tempers
slowly cooled down but the Congress resolve to put Deve Gowda in
his place persisted.

But then, things do change. All the Congress bluster has suddenly
become a thing of the past. Even Chacha Kesri is singing a
different tune. The emphasis now is on the continuing unity of the
"secular" forces, whatever that might mean. It is generally
conceded that the budget will be presented by Chidambaram, not
Manmohan Singh.

There is nothing altruistic about the Congress change of heart.
Nearly all the strains in the gameplan of Kesri and his cohorts
have begun to unravel. His strategy of welcoming back in the
Congress fold all former Congressmen, with a view to outnumbering
the BJP in the Lok Sabha, has not been a resounding success. Only
Scindia Tiwari and Arjun Singh have come back. The real prize, the
Tamil Manila Congress with 20 seats in the Lok Sabha, eludes the
Congress. Indeed, G K Moopanar, the TMC boss, has tersely told the
Congress to join the UF government which means that he has no
intention, for the time being at any rate, to merge with the parent
body. From the Congress side there has been a howl of protest, with
A K Antony in Kerala going to the extent of declaring that Congress
participation in the Gowda government "will be a disaster".

On the other hand, it is a measure of Moopanar's clout that while
giving Kesri's Congress unsolicited advice, he has also ticked off
the United Front leadership on the issue of the election of the
next President. True to type, Deve Gowda's Man Friday, Chand Mahal
Ibrahim, had started Manipulating that Khurshid Alam Khan
Karnataka's estimable but inconsequential governor, be translocated
in Rashtrapati Bhavan at the end of July when Shanker Dayal
Sharma's tenure ends. Moopanar has sharply deplored this and had
declared (without inviting any contradiction) that the presidency
should rightfully go to K R Narayanan, the wise and able
vice-president who is also a Harijan.

If the grand reunion of estranged Congressmen has not taken place
the Congress policy on alliance has also come unstuck. The last
service that Narasimha Rao had done his party having first pushed
it into its worst electoral defeat in its history - was to have
forged an alliance with the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) whose
influence among the Harijans has increased remarkably fast.

The Congress-BSP alliance, initially confined to UP where it did
the Congress some good in the assembly election, was a precursor to
a countrywide partnership. For, only by aligning with the party of
the Dalits did the Congress hope to regain the lost support of the
Harijans, especially in Punjab and Madhya Pradesh. But the BSP
supremo, Kanshi Ram, has put paid to these heartening hopes.

It is necessary to remember that the BSP is a one-man party, and
Kanshi Ram who controls is completely nothing, if not highly
arrogant and dictatorial. He was peeved by his failure to see to
it that his principal lieutenant, Mayawati was once again ensconced
as chief minister of UP. The Congress had backed this move meekly
even after Kanshi Ram, throwing to the winds all claims to be a
standard bearer of secularism, had started negotiating with the BJP
for its support in making Mayawati CM of the country's most
populous and politically key state. This, too, hadn't worked.

Then came the Punjab elections and Kanshi Ram shocked the Congress
by his extravagant demands as a price for maintaining the alliance
between the two. Predictably, the talks broke down and the
relations between the two sides have become extremely sour. For
the Congress, however, this is only a part of the bigger problem
which is that in this sensitive state the former ruling party is
doomed to be thrashed by a combination of the Akalis, led by
Prakash Singh Badal, and the BJP.

This cannot but be a shattering blow to the Congress in general and
to Kesri in particular because it was he who replaced Harcharan
Singh Brar as Punjab chief minister by Rajendra Kaur Bhattal and
later expelled Brar from the party somewhat vindictively. He must
carry the can for giving the party tickets to hawala tainted Kamal
Nath and Buta Singh.

Ironically, even before the expected catastrophe in Punjab has
materialised, Congressmen of various hues have started hinting that
they would not be averse to challenging Kesri's leadership. Sharad
Pawar, whom Kesri appointed leader of the party in the Lok Sabha,
is already acting as if he is running the show. Rather
magisterially, he announced that in UP the party should align
itself with Mulayam Singh's Samajwadi Party. Jitendra Prasad, the
party leader in UP, has rudely told him not to mess around in UP
affairs. Some other Congress leaders are talking of "collective
leadership". In short, after Rajiv Gandhi's assassination and
Narasimha Rao's loss of prime ministership there is no Congressman
whose leadership will be generally accepted.



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