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Not worth it at the price - The Indian Express

T. V. R. Shenoy ()
July 2, 1998

Title: Not worth it at the price
Author: T. V. R. Shenoy
Publication: The Indian Express
Date: July 2, 1998

On a cool autumn evening in October 1996, the then president of
the Congress went to a specially convened meeting of the United
Front Steering Committee. Sitaram Kesri wanted the United Front -
meaning Mulayam Singh Yadav - to support Mayawati's bid to become
Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh. (The Congress and the Bahujan
Samaj Party were electoral allies at the time.) Kesri's request
met a reception as frigid is that chill Delhi night.

Twenty months later the tables are turned. The Congress cannot
boast a single Lok Sabha member from UP. But the same Mulayam
Singh who turned down Kesri is dancing at the gates of 10 Janpath
along with his friends.

"The BJP can be brought down in just seven days," pontificates
Chandra Shekhar, "if the Congress takes the lead." There are a
couple of points that should be made on this statement.

First, it doesn't take seven days to bring down a ministry if the
parties concerned are prepared to act openly. Debates on a no-
confidence motion akin be finished in a day, at most two. More
time is required only if conspirators want to strike deals behind
closed doors. Second, is the Congress really prepared to throw
its weight behind a desperate and disunited group of malcontents?
The results of the recent by-elections hold out little cheer for
the Congress if a General Election becomes necessary.

But will it come to that'? Some say the Congress may do a better
job of managing contradictions. given its long history of being
"helpful". But take a look at the kind of pressure that will be
piled on the Congress if it takes the lead in forming an
alternative ministry.

"Only Jayalalitha can bring down the BJP," claims Subramaniam
Swamy. "Even the Congress, Mulayam Singh and the rest can't do
that." If Jayalalitha chooses to topple the Vajpayee government,
she will have a one-point agenda for its successor: impose
President's rule in Tamil Nadu.

Laloo Prasad Yadav has already assured her that if Mulayam Singh
Yadav, Chandra Shekhar, or someone of that ilk comes to power,
the first head to roll shall be that of Karunanidhi. The
Samajwadi Party boss openly blames the DMK's refusal to
"compromise" for bringing down the United Front's house of cards.
As for Chandra Shekhar, in his brief stint at the top in 1990-
1991, he found time to dismiss an earlier Karunanidhi ministry at
the bidding of the Congress and the

But times have changed. There is no guarantee that President
Narayanan would sign on the dotted line. (He refused to do so
when the Gujral regime tried to dismiss Kalyan Singh in October
1997). Nor will the judiciary stand by idly. (It didn't when
Romesh Bhandari tried to impose Jagdambika Pal in February 1998).
Why should the Congress unnecessarily antagonise Rashtrapati
Bhavan and the courts?

Especially so when the United Front has a history of abusing
Sonia Gandhi. When she announced her decision to campaign, Jyoti
Basu dismissed her as a mere "housewife". Laloo Prasad Yadav said
she should leave politics to those who were more experienced. And
Mulayam Singh Yadav said the Samajwadi Party would definitely put
up a candidate in Amethi even if she contested.

What of Jayalalitha, whose defection from the ranks is supposed
to bring down the BJP-led government? Permit me to quote from a
press conference in March. Believe me, she outdid anything the
United Front leaders said!

"Sonia Gandhi is not a politician. I don't consider her as
such," was one gem from the AIADMK leader. And further, "It will
be the greatest tragedy for the nation if Sonia Gandhi becomes
the Prime Minister!" And on the principle that nothing succeeds
like excess, "Can an Indian become Prime Minister of Italy?"
Jayalalitha competed the assault by saying, "In a nation of 96
crore people we are sure to find a capable leader".

Jayalalitha can't even excuse herself, as the United Front
leaders may, by saying that her remarks were made in the heat of
campaigning. All I the results were in by then and the only
question was when President Narayanan would invite Atal Behari
Vajpayee. Given such acrimony, why should Sonia Gandhi go out of
her way to bail out Jayalalitha?

Even if the Congress President chooses to ignore those insults
temporarily, Jayalalitha may not receive the relief she expects.
Karunanidhi's dismissal won't help her in the various cases being
pursued by the Enforcement Directorate (ED).

Please note that those investigations began under the Narasimha
Rao government. Since she was then a Chief Minister, the
bureaucrats required a green signal from then Finance Minister
Manmohan Singh, who readily obliged.

In the event that the Congress is required to nominate a Prime
Minister right away, Sonia Gandhi's candidate is said to be the
same Manmohan Singh. (She simply doesn't trust Sharad Pawar, the
Congress's floor leader in the Lok Sabha). Will the 'Mr Clean' of
the Congress then agree to go slow on cases that he had himself

Nor is Jayalalitha the only potential Congress ally in trouble
because of the CBI, the ED or other central agencies. Assuming
that the Congress appeases the naughty lady from Chennai, won't
that open the doors for Laloo Yadav to come out with his own set
of demands? And if the DMK ministry is dismissed, won't the
Samajwadi Party ask for similar "help" in Lucknow?

I am not sure that the Congress wants to court a veritable
Everest of bad publicity by caving in to such demands. Being
perceived as soft on corruption was why the party lost both in
1996 and 1998.

Jayalalitha, Laloo Yadav and the like apart, what of the other
supposedly "clean" non-BJP parties? A hint of what is in store
came when the CPI said it would offer support to the Congress,
provided it reversed its economic policies. And the CPI(M) won't
commit itself to even that!

Some Congressmen are openly wondering if it is worth taking on
the headaches by forming a new government. The BJP is finding it
tough to handle its allies despite having over 180 Lok Sabha
members. The Congress will have even less leverage given that it
has about 40 fewer representatives.

Finally, what if even the Congress's experience of managing
contradictions and being "helpful" turns out to be insufficient?
That could lead to the third General Election in three years.
Does Sonia Gandhi want to approach the voters with the image of
someone who destabilises governments and goes easy on corruption?

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