December 09, 2019
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Beginning Of The End?

Hemmed in by the corruption trial and strident dissidence, it's desperate days for Narasimha Rao

Beginning Of The End?
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RIOT police had to get into action on July 15 as party workers clashed outside Pranab Mukherjee's Ashoka Road residence—exactly a month after Rajesh Pilot demanded P.V. Narasimha Rao's resignation as the party president at the Congress Working Committee (CWC) meeting. Mukherjee, host of the aborted meeting, is playing his part as Rao's lieutenant-in-chief even as the former premier faces a grim trial, both political and legal, brought on by corruption charges.

When Youth Congress activists tried their unsubtle methods of persuasion on Rao detractors that day, it only showed the extent of division within the party and the reluctance on Rao's part to quit his post. If further proof was needed, it came with Rao's instruction to Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Digvijay Singh, who recently joined the chorus for his resignation, to dismiss seven of his ministers and suspend six others for indulging in "anti-party activities" during the recent Lok Sabha election.

Digvijay refused to be a pawn at his hand and sent a clear message that he was not willing to humiliate his people just to appease the leader. So as to save them the ignominy, he obtained the collective resignation of his Council of Ministers and prevailed upon Rao to give them a hearing. Delhi's rebellion had found an echo in Madhya Pradesh. Digvijay, for long doing a precarious tight-rope walk, could finally muster up the courage to exhibit open defi-ance because Rao's authority has been eroded by the litany of charges against him.

In Delhi, the seven CWC members who boycotted the meeting at Mukherjee's house after the fracas huddled into a war council at Ghulam Nabi Azad's residence. Three days later, they shot off a letter to Rao telling him to quit as both party chief andleader of its parliamentary wing. Over 60 party MPs, most of them from the Lok Sabha, chimed in with a demand for action against the culprits of the July 15 episode.

RAJESH PILOT:

Has sharpened attack against Rao. Wants parliamentary probe into corruption cases involving Rao, family members and his associates like Chandraswami. Aspirant for Congress presidentship in the event of Rao's exit.

K. KARUNAKARAN:

Wants AICC session requisitioned, where he hopes for a resolution for Rao's ouster if he continues to dillydally on the resignation.

AHMED PATEL:

Does not mind a dignified exit for Rao, but insists that he step aside and nominate his successor soon. Favours the return of old Congressmen.

 

SITARAM KESRI:

No longer an aggressive supporter of Rao. Harbours hopes of becoming a consensus candidate if Rao goes. Will bring in Sonia Gandhi into the CWC as a special invitee once he becomes the party chief (if at all).

SHARAD PAWAR:

Supports Rao, hoping the ex-PM will ultimately nominate him as successor. Simultaneously, keeps pressurising Rao by putting some of his loyal MPs in the dissident camp.

V.N.GADGIL:

Privately wants Rao out now. But does not accept Pawar as leader, mainly because of their rivalry in Maharashtra.

DIGVIJAY SINGH:

Recently ended tightrope walk between loyalists and rebels by snubbing Rao with en masse resignation of his Cabinet. Moving towards more vigorous ties with the rebel camp.

Not that an inquiry is needed to fix responsibility. "Yes, we'll do it any number of times. We'll defend our leader and the party. I'm willing to be hanged for that," volunteers a gung-ho Youth Congress chief M. S. Bitta, admitting his supporters' role. Rao did summon Bitta to his residence two days after the incident. The two merely discussed ways to strengthen the party. 

Of course, if Rao's still at the helm, it's not entirely due to Bitta's efforts. Tributes have to be paid not just to Rao's lack of respect for minimum moral standards, but also to the vaulting ambitions among the rebels. After the poll debacle, the Rao camp has suffered from a progressive depletion in its ranks as many loyalists began to grasp the logic of going the other way. For instance, Sitaram Kesri no longer shouts at Rao detractors—like he did at Pilot at the June 15 CWC meeting—and privately argues his own case as someone who can carry all factions together. There's a feeling that the party will prosper if Sonia Gandhi can be brought into the CWC as a special invitee. And Kesri, if accepted as Rao's replacement, proposes to do just that, say camp followers.

Pawar, so far patiently waiting by Rao's side in the hope that he would be his natural successor, is making restive attempts to make a tactical bridge to the other camp as Rao's future becomes bleaker. He attended the rebel meeting at Azad's house, and even got loyal MPs Datta Meghe and Praful Patel to sign the statement demanding action against Youth Congress activists.

Other staunch loyalists, bereft of any convincing rationale for Rao's continuance, have started talking in terms of the need to give Rao a "dignified exit". Says a CWC member: "We've always been ready to grant him that. Even at the CWC, Ahmed Patel had suggested that Rao should nominate anyone in his place." There, indeed, have been enough polite interventions. On July 17, Rajasthan PCC chief and Lok Sabha MP Ashok Gehlot met Rao and requested that he resign as, even at this stage, it could inject some life into the party. Rao's response was familiar: silence.

Second-string leaders like Gehlot, SanatMehta (Gujarat), Tariq Anwar (Bihar), Girija Vyas (Rajasthan), Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy (Andhra), Oscar Fernandes (Karnataka) and Meghe and Praful Patel have one worry. If the party goes to the polls—which they think is quite likely in view of the minority United Front Government's contradictions—it would touch a more abysmal tally than last time if Rao continues as skipper.

Bitta, however, is undaunted. "It was not Rao's fault that the party lost. We couldn't take his message to the people and we all failed," he says, adding Rao should at no cost succumb to the demand for an AICC session. The pro-Rao leader, increasingly isolated, is literally taking the fight to the enemy camp. "In the name of the anti-Rao campaign, these dissidents want to join the Deve Gowda Cabinet," he says. Those demanding Rao's scalp have offered hasty rebuttals. "In fact, I was the first to say publicly that any Congress attempt to form the government would be a dishonest act as the mandate is for us to sit in the Opposition," recalls Gehlot. Pilot echoes his stand.

The more serious tacticians in the party—despite their affiliation to Rao—are also sore about the former prime minister's nonaggressive role in Parliament. Devendra Dwivedi, loyalist AICC general secretary, is believed to have advised Rao to take an aggressive position against the Government in Parliament on issues that concern the public and counter the BJP'S Hindutva plank.

But Rao is driven by his own compulsions in not taking an aggressive stand against the Gowda Government, "perhaps hoping that the executive would come to his rescue in the corruption cases against him", says an AICC functionary. Romesh Bhandari's appointment as Uttar Pradesh Governor, despite his known proximity with Chandraswami, illustrates the reciprocity on Gowda's part.

Gowda kept UF constituents CPI and CPI(M) in the dark and chose to please Rao and, indeed, Chandraswami. Reason: the godman's "outburst" had threatened to tilt the scales against Rao in the Lakhubhai Pathak case and, consequently, to queer the pitch for the Congress-UF equations. Indeed, the godman's counsel Ashok Arora obliquely hinted that Rao could be exposed in the course of the hearing. Gowda's compulsions don't stem from UF policies—both the CPI and CPI(M) have official-ly stated they won't defend Rao in corruption cases at any cost. Dwivedi, though, defends Rao on Bhandari's transfer: "We have no role in this. It's the UF's decision." 

There's trouble brewing on other fronts too. "Rao is too involved in his cases. That's why he hasn't been able to attend to the crisis threatening the party government in Punjab," says a state minister. Party leaders from the state have been telling Rao that he can effect a ceasefire by appointing one or two deputy chief ministers from the dissident camp in Punjab, but he has failed to act. Insiders confirm that of late Rao has been dedicating all his time in soliciting legal opinion on the cases plaguing him.

Rao's support-base has been reduced to party MPs in the Rajya Sabha as an overwhelming majority of Lok Sabha MPs have turned against him. That's why he hasn't held elections to the party's parliamentary wing—the previous Lok Sabha's CPP office-bearers are still there. Rao may have to hold these sooner or later, but his chief worry now is to keep stalling the move for an AICC session. He managed to stall the one scheduled for early July and the CWC meeting slated to prepare a collective appeal to invite all old Congressmen back to the party.

Rao-baiters, though secure in their growing strength, are pinning their hopes on the court's verdict—if Rao is chargesheeted in any case, he will be morally obliged to quit "without resistance". "If so, the chances of a split will go down," says an elected CWC member. Encouraged by the court's observations in the Lakhubhai case, they were effectively dissuaded from pressing for a CWC—if not an AICC—session. "We won't create a split. Our whole move is to strengthen the party," observes Pilot.

The spoiler, the rebels fear, may come in the form of the UF Government—for their plan to succeed, the Gowda regime has to cooperate with the court in cases involving Rao. "We'll welcome it if the Government orders a parliamentary probe into the cases," adds Pilot. The Gowda-Rao axis has created the possibility of the rebels associating with the Left in case the latter seek the removal of Bhandari as UP Governor. The logic: Rao can be exposed to Chandraswami's wrath, since the imprisoned tantrik seems to be sore with Rao's 'betrayal'.

The developments in the Congress stem more from exigencies than principles. The dissidence, no doubt, has its genesis in the party's worst-ever electoral showing, which has cast a shadow on its future as a national party. Success in the anti-Rao campaign may not easily translate into a turnaround in the party's fortunes. At least in the past five years, most of today's rebels were "proud yes-men". Nevertheless, an opportunity seems to be at their threshold.

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