The Congress may well face an identity crisis in the Lok Sabha elections. The rebel faction, ledby Narain Dutt Tiwari, is doing its utmost to convince the Election Commission that party office-bearers, including its President P.V. Narasimha Rao, have violated its constitution and thus forfeited all claims to the official party symbol.
The 'hand' symbol, on which the Congress has been contesting elections since 1980, may remain with the Congress, may be 'frozen' or, an unlikely eventuality, may be awarded to the breakaway group.
The dispute over the party symbol started with a petition filed by the breakaway group, which calls itself the All India Indira Congress (AIIC), this January, claiming that it alone had the right to the symbol. In its closing submissions before the Election Commission last week, it said the Indian National Congress (INC) had ignored the letter and spirit of the party constitution, which envisaged a democratic set-up far removed from the present ad hocism.
Congress organisational elections were held after 20 years in 1992. On February 27, Rao became party president. At the plenary session in Tirupathi in April, elections to the Congress Working Committee (CWC) were held and the All India Congress Committee (AICC) constituted.
Under the Congress constitution, office-bearers are elected andcommittees are constituted for two years. Rao's term thus expired on February 27, 1994, and that of the CWC itself, two months later. On April 4, 1994, the CWC passed a resolution indefinitely extending the terms of all the committees constituted in 1992. With assembly polls round the corner, the party's top brass felt it was not a judicious time for an organisa-tional shake-up.
The argument hinges on Clause (J) of Article VI of the Congress charter, which empowersthe CWC to extend the tenure of elected committees. The rebels say that the CWC is not empowered to extend its own term and, in any case, this power is to be exercised only in extraordinary situations. Pointing out that impending assembly polls hardly fall in that category, they add that the CWC didn't specifically extend Rao's tenure.
Even if the INC's premise that the CWC does have such powers is accepted, the resolution should have been rati-fied by the AICC within six months. Despite the fact that the AICC met within two months of the resolution being passed, it was not rati-fied and has never been, the rebel faction argues.
Both groups have relied heavily on the Election Commission's order in the Bommai case (October 16, 1994). The INC points to the first part of the order, which was based on the Supreme Court decision in the Sadiq Ali case of 1978. The Commission ruled that in case of a split in the party, numerical strength would be the criterion in deciding which faction should get the symbol.
The Tiwari faction emphasises on the second part of the order, which underlined the importance of holding democratic organisational elections as per party constitutions. The Commission issued notices to all recognised national political parties in October 1994, urging them to hold elections within four months, as failure to do so could invite de-recognition. In its reply to the Commission, the AICC promised to hold elections expeditiously, in June 1995. The promise remains unfulfilled. But O.P. Sharma, convenor of the AICC legal cell, challenges the validity of the Election Commission's order, saying that it was "too sweeping" and separate notices should have been issued.
The INC also contends that the Tiwari group be treated as a separate party rather than a breakaway faction, as it had applied for registration as a new political party under Section 29(a) of the Representation of People Act. Hence, it is argued that it has no right to the symbol. The rebels say their application for registration was filed only by way of caution and did not preclude their claim to the party symbol.
The INC adds that the party constitution enjoins members to exhaust all channels for redressal within the party before approaching the Commission—implying that the Tiwari group jumped the gun. But AIIC leader P.R. Kumaramangalam says its working president, Arjun Singh, raised the issue of organisational elections at the CWC meet on December 20, 1994. Only after he was ignored did he resign, citing the undemocratic set-up in the party as one reason.
The Election Commission is expected to pass its order soon. And while the stakes are much higher for the Rao-led Congress, both factions will remain on the edge.