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Exhausting the Sonia card - The Observer

Dina Nath Mishra ()
January 1, 1998

Title: Exhausting the Sonia card
Author: Dina Nath Mishra
Publication: The Observer
Date: January 1, 1998

Would election campaign by Sonia Gandhi mean a fortune for the
Congress in the impending mid-term poll? This question is
presently foremost in the minds of all concerned. To my mind, it
would have three-fold impact as far as Congress is concerned.
Sonia Gandhi's related announcement has come at the time when
Congress was demoralised due to series of desertions and splits.
The Bengal unit was split by Mamata Banerjee, despite the best
efforts of Sonia Gandhi herself. The remnants of TNCC walked to
join the AIDMK camp. The Gujarat unit suffered a setback due to
the split. There were scores of desertions from the party right
>from the district to the central level. Half a dozen ex-ministers
quit in succession. Many more were planning to quit. Not
withstanding the brave words of party president Sitaram Kesri,
every Congress worker and leader was cursing Kesri for
accelerating the process of dismantling the party. Kesri was the
butt of the joke that he was fulfilling the wishes of Mahatma
Gandhi that Congress be dissolved after 1947.

Kesri himself was publicly pleading with Congressmen not to leave
the party at the hour of crisis and not to use Congress as a
railway platform. Congress was apprehending debacle in states
like West Bengal, MP, Rajasthan, Gujarat Maharashtra and even in
Orissa from where the bulk of last Lok Sabha seats had come. In
an atmosphere like this, the decision of Sonia Gandhi to campaign
for the party came as a way of checkmating splits and desertions.
How much it would succeed is yet to be seen. Even after Sonia
Gandhi's decision, the veteran Congress leader Bhagwat Jha Azad
left the party and joined the BJP. Nevertheless, Kesri was
relieved and so were other leaders.

Secondly, the totally demoralised Congress saw a ray of hope in
the announcement of Sonia Gandhi truly in the royal style through
her secretary V George. Congressmen were clamouring and pleading
with Sonia Gandhi to come out and lead the party, for they think
that only a leader from the dynasty can save the party. So much
so that many Congress leaders have been pinning their hopes on
Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi.

Slogans like Sonia aao, desh bachao were symptomatic of the
dynastic streak in the party. This was reflected when senior
Congress leaders tried to persuade her again and again to lead
the party. During the last fortnight, a number of CWC members
went to her with a similar appeal.

It can be recalled that during the support withdrawal drama, it
was propagated that the main election issue would be the
assassination of Rajiv Gandhi because of Jain Commission interim
report and that Sonia would campaign for Congress. That provided
hope and confidence to many Congressmen but when they saw
reluctance on the part of Sonia Gandhi, they in general were
disheartened. So much so that in one of the recent extended CWC
meetings, Rajasthan PCC chief Ashok Gehlot and a few others said
that the dilemma of her campaigning or not campaigning must end,
this way or that. It was a major issue as far as the Congress is
concerned. Naturally, when the announcement came through V
George, it acted as a great morale-booster for the Congress party
as a whole.

Thirdly, a number of Congress leaders who were supposed to be
close to 10, Janpath, were getting rough treatment at the hands
of Kesri and his coterie, including party vice-president Jitendra
Prasada. A number of CWC members like Arjun Singh and senior
leaders like K Karunakaran were at loggerheads with Kesri. Last
week, Karunakaran wrote a letter with a pathetic appeal to Sonia
Gandhi to come out and campaign for the party at least. A number
of them were planning to make separate appeals to her after Kesri
succeeded in torpedoing Sonia's formula to keep West Bengal PCC
united. All anti-Kesri elements are likely to be emboldened vis-a-
vis Kesri. By announcing this, Sonia Gandhi has got the upper-
hand in matters relating to- tickets. At least, now Congressmen
have someone to go to for grievance redressal. Her reluctance to
campaign had made her weak. That was proved during the Mamata
episode. The position is now reversed.

All the three points mentioned above are matters relating to
internal affairs of the party. Experts on electoral arithmetic of
the various states, regions and seats have calculated that at
best Sonia's campaign may have some value in the outcome of 32
Lok Sabha seats. These seats have been identified in places where
the emotional attachment to the dynasty may work. Out of these
32 seats, 26 fall in the regions where the contest is mainly
between UF partners and Congress. Only six of the UP seats are
where the main contestants would be from the BJP and Congress.
Strategists of the Congress may try to create a hype through
propaganda using her name. But it is not likely to work as far as
the arithmetic of the 12th Lok Sabha is concerned.

One must remember that even Rajiv Gandhi could not check the
downslide of the Congress in 1989 elections. Had he not been
assassinated during the election campaign of 1991 mid-way, the
Congress might not have emerged as the single largest party,
because the sympathy factor in half of the seats would not have
worked. It is said that she is going to address a dozen election
rallies at most. But it is important as Congress was lacking a
crowd-puller. A poster with Sonia's face would definitely be a
face-saving device for the Congress. In Sonia's case, crowds may
gather, for there is curiosity about her. As the Congress is
caught in such an accumulated mess and facing such a depleting
strength, this marginal help from Sonia's side is most unlikely
to arrest the downward trend. Had she done it just after the
dissolution of Parliament, the splits and desertions would not
have occurred in that way. Now merely by campaign, Mamata
Banerjee and her Trinamul Congress are not going to revert back
as she has already said. This applies to other smaller cases

Her decision has created problems in the so-called secular camp.
The CPM has been consistent throughout its 34-year-history in
opposing Congress and the dynasty. Only last week, CPM central
committee changed its strategy and named the BJP as the main
enemy. Its attitude towards Congress softened. It talked of
opposing the Congress in its stronghold states. CPM general
secretary Harkishen Singh Surjeet even blamed the media for
creating an atmosphere as if the Congress was withering. Just
within 48 hours of the announcement of Sonia campaign, CPM has to
change its stand. Surjeet said that secular forces do not need
her help in the elections. The CPM cadre has been groomed in anti-
Congressism for decades. It would be very difficult for them to
stomach the Congress with dynasty.

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