On January 4, Congress president Sitaram Kesri frantically tried to get in touch with V. George, Sonia Gandhi's assistant. But in vain, as George reportedly avoided his telephone calls. A day later, about 50 supporters of a little-known group called the Rajiv Brigade raised anti-Kesri slogans in front of his office at the AICC headquarters. " Sonia lao, Congress bachao, Kesri kursi chhoro (bring in Sonia, save Congress, Kesri quit)," they chanted.
That this was not a stray incident was confirmed soon after at Delhi's Talkatora stadium, venue of the national convention of the Congress-affiliated National Students Union of India (NSUI). Kesri had to abruptly terminate his address when NSUI activists again raised pro-Sonia slogans. Shaken, he wound up his speech by yelling: " Mahatma Gandhi ki jai, Sonia Gandhi ki jai ." Clearly, Kesri has been the first casualty of Sonia's decision to play a more active role in the party by agreeing to campaign in the Lok Sabha polls.
No wonder then that Kesri's hour-long meeting with Sonia immediately after the Talkatora incident only heightened speculation that he was going to step down in favour of whoever Sonia desired. His office as well as home were flooded with queries from scribes and Congress workers alike for a verification of the rumours. Senior leaders like Vasant Sathe and F.M. Khan only added to his discomfiture by dashing off letters that he immediately step down in favour of Sonia.
Kesri understands the implications of Sonia's decision and is aware that the Congress has never functioned with parallel psower centres. While the impression gaining ground is that he has surrendered, many believe he has merely stooped to conquer. The unambiguous message from 10 Janpath is that the old man should not be disturbed for fear of an adverse electoral impact. Accordingly Kesri said at Talkatora stadium: "This is all mischief. Sonia Gandhi has responded to my request to come forward. I will not take even a second to vacate the post in her favour." In fact, some feel this has made things easier for Kesri. Instead of having to appease a host of hardliners, now he can safeguard his position by cultivating Sonia.
As a gesture of goodwill and an implicit recognition of his authority, Arjun Singh—who likes to be identified as Sonia's political strategist—proposed at the Congress campaign committee meeting that the party print at least some posters of Kesri alone for its all-India campaign. Kesri, in return, okayed Arjun's request for a safer constituency, Hoshangabad, instead of Satna, where he had ended up a poor third in the 1996 polls. More importantly, widespread speculation that Sonia might seek Kesri's ouster before the polls and install someone more credible like Manmohan Singh and A.K. Antony or younger like Madhavrao Scindia has subsided.
For her part, on January 8 Sonia began holding her janata durbars, amidst much media interest. Those returning from 10 Janpath had mixed reactions. More than a positive contributor in party affairs, she is perceived as an appellate authority of sorts over and above the party and Kesri. "Do not give a ticket to P. Upendra in Andhra Pradesh. He had abused you," said a small group of visitors from the state, little real-ising that her outburst against him seven years ago was a case of mistaken identity;she had mistaken him for K.P. Unni-krishnan of the Congress (S), a vocal critic of Rajiv Gandhi over Bofors.
A professor from Amethi warned that her decision to merely grace some campaign meetings will not be enough to change the party's seemingly hopeless prospects. "You need to undertake hectic tours of Uttar Pradesh as well as other parts of the country," he told her. But predictably, she remained silent. Others asked her whether minorities would be adequately represented among the party's candidates.
Last week, Congress election coordinator Ghulam Nabi Azad announced Sonia's tour programme, beginning in Sriperumbudur in Tamil Nadu on January 11 and proceeding to Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala and Goa in the first leg. Both 10 Janpath and 24 Akbar Road, the AICC headquarters, have been flooded with requests from prospective candidates and pradesh Congress offices that she visit their constituencies.
Despite Sonia's growing stature, her entry into party management has resulted in a clash of cultures within the Congress. Kesri, a rustic veteran, made his antagonism towards hi-tech campaigns clear and snapped a contract with a public relations firm. "Money does not get votes. Nor do such campaigns. The basic necessity is your rapport with the voters," he repeats at private party meets. In contrast, it is felt that Sonia's charisma could be the last chance to pull back the 113-year-old Congress from its virtually irreversible slide. However, both leaders lack experience—neither has participated in an extensive election campaign before. Kesri devoted most of his political career mobilising funds while Sonia's ventures were confined to Amethi during the 1984, 1989 and 1991 elections.
Worryingly for the Congress, there has been little effort to reconcile or integrate Sonia's perceived appeal with its electoral planks. Sonia has not attended any party meeting though Kesri has conscientiously issued invitations. "If she doesn't attend such meetings and gives independent edicts, she will be rightly called an extra-constitutional authority," says a prominent party officebearer.
Meanwhile, the Congress screening committee met on January 9 to review a list of candidates received from all states except Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra. "If Sonia does not attend these meetings, she can always indicate to the party president her nominees," says a general secretary. This itself is an indication of her increased clout—in 1996 the then Congress president, P.V. Narasimha Rao, had given her a say on Amethi alone. Not surprisingly, a section of the party has petitioned before both Kesri and Sonia that Rao be denied a ticket this year.
Since the party has decided not to stop chargesheeted leaders from contesting the polls, as happened in 1996, the criteria for denying tickets are: alleged proximity to the BJP and a weakness on the winnability front.
With about a dozen leaders, most members of the 11th Lok Sabha, having already left the party, an equal number of Congressmen are still said to be 'BJP-friendly'. While Suresh Kalmadi has already aligned with the BJP, Pinaki Mishra from Orissa is on Kesri's hit-list.
As for Rao's candidature from Berhampur in Orissa, Sonia and Kesri will jointly decide his fate. However, senior leaders like Pranab Mukherjee and Orissa chief minister J.B. Patnaik are said to be against humiliating a leader of Rao's stature. Yet, the final say rests with Sonia, as no CWC member is likely to oppose her.
The UP Congress committee, on the other hand, has already requested Sonia to contest from Amethi and Priyanka from Rae Bareilly. In case the latter declines, the panel is agreeable to fielding her husband Robert Vadra from Moradabad, his hometown, or any other constituency of his choice. That puts under a cloud Satish Sharma's candidature from Amethi, deemed constituency custodian till " beta Rahul grows up".
Enthusiasm in the party notwithstanding, it is still not entirely clear what impact Sonia will have on the party's prospects. Although she never declined meeting any party leader after Rajiv's death, she hardly took active interest in party matters. Complaints of organisation decay and entreaties that she stem the rot did not seem to move her. Even her close supporters like G.K. Moopanar, P. Chidambaram, Mani Shankar Aiyer and Mamata Banerjee moved away from her—making her ability to get objective feedback on the state of affairs doubtful.
Sonia has also not shown much concern for issues which could give her political mileage. Her inaction on the massacre of more than 60 Dalits in Bihar's Jehana-bad district last month is in sharp contrast to Indira Gandhi's response to the killing of 14 Dalits by the landlords in Belchi in 1977. Indira, who had been maintaining a low profile following the Congress' defeat earlier that year, rushed to the site of the tragedy, where locals welcomed her with the slogan: " Aadhi roti khayenge, Indira ko bulayenge .
" In fact, Bihar PCC chief Sarfaraz Ahmed told state officebearers in Patna that 'some friends' in Delhi had advised her to visit Jehanabad, but she did not comply. That partly explains why the party, even after Sonia's announcement to campaign on December 29, has agreed to play second fiddle to Laloo Prasad Yadav's Rashtriya Janata Dal and is contesting only 14 out of the 54 seats in the state. An understanding with Laloo was essentially a pragmatic move on Kesri's part to consolidate the backward classes, minorities and Dalits indirectly and position for this combination's claim to form a government in case the elections throw up a hung Parliament.
Curiously, Sonia's entry came as an irritant even for Laloo. His suggestion against Sonia visiting the state almost landed Kesri in trouble as the anti-Kesri lobby in the Congress saw it as a tutored move. Laloo promptly salvaged Kesri's position vis-a-vis Sonia by asserting that he had only expressed a personal view.
Publicly, of course, the Congress claims that it is going to win elections, thanks to Sonia. "Sonia's entry has electrified the party rank and file," asserts spokesman V.N. Gadgil. "She is the party's inspiration while Kesri is its leader," adds former Union minister Salman Khursheed. "Even leadership comes from inspiration."
In Gadgil's home state, Maharashtra, Sharad Pawar has been independently negotiating with Mulayam Singh Yadav's Samajwadi Party which, with its growing mass base, is more appealing to him than Sonia's supposed charisma. Pawar called on Sonia to congratulate her after her December 29 decision, but his priority is to ensure that as many followers of his be accommodated in the party list as possible. Naturally, to that extent, he would want Sonia on his side.
And, with Kesri willing to abide by Sonia's diktats, speculation over his exit has ceased. For Kesri has already abdicated in favour of the uncrowned monarch. "I stick to my words. I am not for posts. I am in favour of making the organisation stronger. My eyes are fixed on the organisation," says he. "I am comfortable in Purana Qila Road (where he lives). I am not keen on a new one (hinting at 7 Race Course road)." That in itself indicates that it will be Sonia more than the new parliamentary party who will decide on party leadership after the elections.
Convinced that Sonia is going to let him continue, Kesri has asked Pranab Mukherjee to finetune Manmohan Singh's economic policy, giving it a humane face and countering the pro-capitalist image of the party.In accordance with that spirit, " arthik swaraj, garibon ka raj (economic independence, rule of the poor)" is Kesri's slogan. He has also asked the Seva Dal to counter the RSS at every stage. The Dal, whose volunteers will man election booths all over the country, have come up with the slogan: " Garv se kaho ki hum Bharatiya hain (say with pride we are Indians)" in place of Sangh parivar's " Garv se kaho ki hum Hindu hain ".(The BJP, for its part, is not that enthusiastic about projecting the "Ram Rajya versus Rome Rajya" slogan, leaving it to the Vishwa Hindu Parishad.)
Sonia's entry has no doubt enthused the Congress, but there is no indication whether it will translate into anything tangible electorally. Of course, this will also depend on the number of constituencies she visits and the success of her campaign. In short, her charisma will be tested as much as the party's survival. A desperate Congress seems convinced that the two are interlinked.