NARASIMHA Rao lost the mandate to rule, but his survival instinct was intact. As he shouldered the ignominy of leading the party to an all-time low of 134 seats in the Lok Sabha, the Congress Parliamentary Party bowed before his lust for a second innings. On May 12, after an hour-long meeting in the Central Hall of Parliament, party MPs from both Houses crowned Rao once again their leader. K. Karunakaran, Sharad Pawar, Rajesh Pilot and Vijaya Bhaskar Reddy, who were at the core of an increasingly virulent anti-Rao campaign till that very morning, suddenly turned his proposers and seconders.
Despite the electoral humiliation, the decision to support non-BJP parties bidding for government formation would establish the Congress as well as Rao as the 'saviour' of secular forces—salvaging in part an image marred by a series of corruption cases. Step One in Rao's self-rehabilitation.
His detractors in the Congress Working Committee (CWC), which had a sitting just before the CPP meet, only managed to extract an assurance from him that the policy-making body would meet again on May 22 to decide whether he should hold the twin posts of CPP leader and party chief. Given the majority Rao commands in the CWC, the outcome is clear. Step Two.
This demonstration of his 'hold' on the party notwithstanding, he saw sense in the dissidents' suggestion that the mandate for the Congress was to sit in the Opposition or support a non-BJP government. Of course, there were those who thought otherwise. Notably, party general secretaries Janardhana Poojary and B.P. Maurya (both Rao protagonists) who favoured an inverse equation—seeking non-BJP support to lead a government. "The election was clearly polarised between secular and communal forces. The Congress, being the single largest party on the secular front, has its historic duty to stake the claim," said Maurya.
The decision not to abide by this logic comes more out of compulsion than a commitment to values. Given President S.D. Sharma's known stance, Rao seems to have read the writing on the wall. He is positioning himself for a bigger responsibility, should the incoming government fall at any stage, according to a central office-bearer. That's a distant Step Three.
As of now, by holding twin posts, Rao retains control. This ensures that the reentry of those who have left the party would be possible only with his concurrence, and not under any parallel initiative by the dissidents. This also gives him the leverage to arm-twist the Left Front-National Front combine on selection of allies. If he thus manages to keep out the Tamil Maanila Congress, the DMK and the Congress (T) from the secular front, they will be either forced to remain unattached or go with the BJP. That will only sharpen Rao's sole legitimate weapon against them—"their hobnobbing with communal forces".
Ever since election trends began portending doom, Rao got his principal manipulator, Pranab Mukherjee, to monitor dissident activities. Mukherjee chaired regular meetings of the party's core group—comprising mainly second-rung leaders—to assess their feeling. Rao himself was to deal with senior dissidents. And so, he readily agreed to hold a CWC meeting when Karunakaran and Reddy approached him on May 11 on behalf of eight members. Drama built up, for Karunakaran had been cavilling against Rao's "lack of charisma". A day later, Karunakaran became party to a CWC resolution that "the party is solidly behind Rao's dynamic leadership".
The deflated Karunakaran insisted later that "our demand for one-man-one-post remains". But that's possible only if Rao wills it, and as yet there is no indication to that effect. Nor are there too many who can force the issue. For one, Karunakaran's stridency is much diminished—his defeat in the Thrissoor Lok Sabha constituency has eroded his own moral authority.
It's to this failure of party heavyweights that Poojary called attention, saying: "Aren't we collectively responsible for the defeat. Over 40 leaders were involved in candidate selection and campaigning. Why should Rao alone take the blame?". Again, there was unanimity that the party lacked well-organised units in the districts—a face-saving admission which helps bolster the argument that the Rao government had its 'achievements' which could not be conveyed to the grassroots. "We admit our failure on that count", says party spokesman V.N. Gadgil.
Rao may manage to marshal his scarce resources at the Centre, but the threat to the Congress government in Madhya Pradesh has multiplied now. For, Madhavrao Scindia and Arjun Singh seem determined to bring down the Digvijay Singh Government for his role against them. "Rao faces a revolt from Digvijay, or else the state government is gone," says a party MP from the state. That may not ruf-fle Rao unduly. At this juncture, the loss of one more state government means less to him than establishing himself as the leader of the most potent group in Parliament, feeding on the political compulsions of the government of the day.
There are clear indications that he wants to turn the truncated CPP into an aggressive outfit championing 'secular values'. Consider his words to the CPP: "What we do is not important. More important is what we don't do. We are not going to allow the BJP to form the government." Or take this passage from the CWC resolution: "The parties committed to secular democracy have received 80 per cent of the votes, despite the differences between such parties. The formation of a BJP government will be a threat to the secular foundations of the Indian Republic".
Strong words for a loser? Maybe not. Unburdened of the task of keeping himself in power and with nothing more to lose, Rao is channelling all his energies in investing for a future. Making secular noises at this stage could help short-circuit the President's likely reluctance to invite the Congress to form the government. Even as a loser, it may dictate government policy and destiny. The Congress has suffered, Rao has not.