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Sonia so far - The Indian Express

Yubaraj Ghimire ()
May 30, 1998

Title: Sonia so far
Author: Yubaraj Ghimire
Publication: The Indian Express
Date: May 30, 1998

Datta Meghe, a Sharad Pawar aide and Lok Sabha member from
Nagpur, might have been forced to express regret for his public
outburst against 'the coterie' around Sonia Gandhi, but that has
not been able to dispel the impression gaining ground in the
party. Sonia's two-pronged strategy -reward the loyal and isolate
the suspects - is becoming increasingly visible.

Pawar, the party's leader in the Lok Sabha, seems way up on the
list of her immediate targets. Nothing could illustrate it
better than denying Meghe the post of AICC secretary despite
Pawar's recommendation early this month and appointing Sudhir
Sawant of the rival camp instead. Meghe's apology is likely to
be accepted, according to party sources, but the question is:
Will Pawar take up cudgels on behalf of his supporters or
surrender before the oterie

There are enough signals to show where Pawar is in the party. He
attended just one meeting of the task force headed by P.A. Sangma
as he was clearly outnumbered by the 'loyalits' in the five
member committee. K. Natwar Singh, a loyalist, got priority over
Pawar to speak on the nuclear test in the Lok Sabha on the first
day of the Budget session while Pawar, the leader of the
Opposition as well as a former defence minister, was left to
thump the table during Singh's speech. Pawar had done his
homework perfectly, studied V.D. Savarkar, books by RSS leaders
and how the test and visible euphoria in the RSS-BJP-VHP circle
was in conformity with their utterances and vision "that the
society (read India) should be Hinduised and the Hindus should he

But Natwar Singh led the debate on the party's behalf. Good at
making the most of the electronic media, Sonia got both Pawar and
Manmohan Singh on her right and Sitaram Kesri, the man whom she
replaced in a debatable manner as Congress chief, on her left,
during her informal 'interaction' with the media on May 26 at the
Parliament annexe. This certainly gave an image of unity as they
- including Pawar - dispersed, smiling, after she started
answering the media's queries.

But soon after the cameras were asked to be switched off, she
signalled Arjun Singh to come and sit by her side. Singh at times
would advise her on certain questions, but after a few minutes,
he called off the chat abruptly when a question on whether the N-
test was prelude to the mid-term poll in the country came up.
Sonia might have been vague on many issues, but she clearly
demonstrated, who she went by on party matters.

Sonia's politics certainly does not revolve around isolating
Pawar, but that may be necessary to establish herself in the
party absolutely - without dissent. Minimising his hold over the
party and parliamentary apparatus was, therefore, a logical move
in. that direction. That's why she set up the Congress
Parliamentary Affairs Committee - something that does not have a
(party) constitutional, sanction - for the Lok Sabha and the
Rajya Sabha.

But beyond targeting Pawar, Sonia's Congress has begun advocating
issues, not matched by follow-up actions, clearly with an
intention to rope in its traditional vote bases like the dalits,
adivasis and Muslims. The party demands an amendment to the
Constitution to make free elementary education up to 14 years a
fundamental right. It also seeks another constitutional.
amendment to establish a commission for minority education and
provide direct affiliation for minority professional institutions
to central universities. Other demands include reservation for
scheduled castes and scheduled tribes to be legalised and put in
the 9th schedule of the Constitution, a separate statutory
national commission for adivasis and constitutional protection to
co-operative movements. These sound rhetorical, but the Congress
under Sonia seems gradually learning to play the role of the
Opposition and therefore be liberal in raising populist issues.

Sonia has also showed enough maturity in promising full support
to Sitaram Kesri in his legal fight against the RSS. After all,
like its pro-dalits and pro-minorities stance, the Congress's
commitment to secularism in a way is confined to fighting the RSS
or 'Hindu communalism' and Kesri's case was something that the
party could not ignore.

Apparently, the move to give up Khadi and the Gandhi cap as
recommended by the task force also seems to have been dropped as
Sonia is believed to be convinced that these issues are somehow
linked to the 'concept of swadeshi' propounded during the freedom
movement. 1

What Sonia's party so far has shown is reiteration, and not the
declaration of a policy or agitation. But she now faces the real
test on one issue: whether she will continue her party's support
to the Rabri Devi Government in Bihar? That decision, according
to many in the Congress, will show whether ocial justice forms
part of her anti-BJPism or not. And that will largely determine
the future equation of the Congress with other non-BJP parties.

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