SHARAD Pawar was a half-hearted challenger. K. Karunakaran was P.V. Narasimha Rao's master manager. As for Rajesh Pilot, he probably did not see beyond a berth in the Cabinet. That was 1991. Five years later, as the next moment of decision came their way, the second-rung Congress leaders were still struggling to come out of the 'disciplined party soldier' stereotype.
All fulminations ceased once it became clear to the trio that, with most Rajya Sabha members backing him, Rao had the majority firmly on his side. Next thing, they were proposing and seconding Rao's name as the party leader in Parliament. Armed with a lame excuse—the need for party unity—they shelved the grandiose visions of rebellion. The votaries of shock therapy were back in square one, in the familiar role of yes men.
Not that this last-minute recapitulation will necessarily buy them peace with Rao. Given his nature, it's unlikely that Rao would forgive them easily. With Pawar and Karunakaran, loyalists like S.B. Chavan and S.S. Ahluwalia made it a point to distribute responsibility—if they demand Rao's resignation for the debacle, they are no less accountable for the setbacks in their states.
Pranab Mukherjee—who was a candidate for prime minister-ship in 1991, with a 'secret party assessment' crediting him with the support of about half-a-dozen MPs—was objective enough to realise his limitations this time. Right from the outset, he sided with Rao and went full pitch into diffusing dissident activities.
There are indications that once Rao establishes his majority in the CWC on May 22 and ensures a prolonged stint as party chief, he will go in for an overhaul of the key decision-making body of the party. Both Karunakaran and Pawar belong to the nominated category and are there at Rao's mercy. And Mukherjee is certainly going to be one of the beneficiaries.
Also conspicuous by his absence from all the political drama was Finance Minister Manmohan Singh—perhaps because of his aversion to hard-core party politics or, more specifically, to Mukherjee, who was managing the whole affair. Equally conspicuous was the low profile of AICC treasurer Sitaram Kesari.
Besides, there was no whisper in Congress circles that the two swamis—Chandraswami and Subramanian Swamy—were lobbying for Rao like in 1991. Subramanian Swamy, as law minister then, had threatened Pawar (then Maharashtra chief minister) that he would get President R. Venkataraman's sanction to proceed against him on the land scam cases if he insisted on contesting for the prime minister's post against Rao.