SITARAM Kesris blitzkrieg against Narasimha Rao shows no signs of abating. On November 28, Kesri apologised on the Congress partys behalf for the demolition of the Babri mosquealmost four years after the 464-year-old monument fell to the fury of the Hindutva brigade. "It was our responsibility to protect it. We said we will, but we failed to protect the mosque, and then the life and property of the minorities," Kesri said at a function of the Jamia Millia Students Union. While his concern for the minorities may be genuine, Kesris stand only highlights his differences with Rao. The erstwhile Congress chief had resolutely refused to apologise for the demolition.
The Congress chiefs statement, coming as it does as the power tussle with Rao enters a crucial phase, is also aimed at focusing on the Congress secular credentials and projecting Rao as the villain of the demolition. Kesri launched his demolish Rao campaign as soon as he took over as party president on September 23. Forced on the defensive, Rao appears to be engaged in perhaps the last battle of his political career: to hang on to the Congress Parliamentary Party (CPP) leadership, come what may. Once he loses the CPP post, Rao will also automatically cease to be a Congress Working Committee (CWC) member, limiting his influence on the party.
But Rao isnt taking it lying down. He has put up a semblance of a fight by sizing up Kesris strengths and weaknesses. Points out a Rao loyalist and Rajya Sabha MP from Bihar: "Even Kesri is going to be charge-sheeted by the CBI on the basis of a petition filed by Madhuresh, once an assistant to Bihar minister Shyam Sunder Singh Dhiraj. If Rao has to resign on being chargesheeted, how can Kesri avoid it?" Till now, Kesri has been open to any probe: "I welcome any investigation into the allegations against me." The Kesri camp eagerly awaits Raos arrest, which it feels is inevitable. A move that will also ensure Raos exit as CPP chief.
Following Kesris outburst at Jamia Millia, CWC member K. Karunakaran may mobilise the support of a majority of members of the apex decision-making body on the need to oust Rao. Over 100 Lok Sabha members of the 140 Kesri met in batchesstatewisefavour a change of leadership . But Rao is adamant: if the members want him out, they should opt for a no-trust vote within the CPP. On November 27, Rao spent about half-an-hour with Kesri in the company of fellow Orissa MPs at 24, Akbar Road, the party headquarters. But the tete-a-tete did little to sort out the intrinsic differences between the two.
But Rao also knows Kesri is not going to sponsor a no-trust motion against himat least not yet. The Congress chief has two tasks in mind: first, he wants to consolidate his position in the partyRaos marginalisation is a related factor; then, he wants to rally the non-BJP parties around him by exploiting the rift among United Front constituents.
Rao, however, is still the stumbling block He has asserted his right to finalise the list of office-bearers for the CPP elections on December 10. The CPP election involves 28 posts24 members, three general secretaries and one treasurer (two-third members from the Lok Sabha and one-third from the Rajya Sabha). "As far as the party is concerned, we will give any willing member the freedom to contest the CPP election," said an All India Congress Committee (AICC) general secretary. Which means Kesri has refused to recognise Raos monopoly in selecting the CPP team.
Kesri has already won the confidence of all the nine Congress chief ministers. Given Orissa Chief Minister J.B. Patnaiks proximity to Rao, there was a wee bit of scepticism in the Kesri camp on this score. But the Orissa strongman organised a massive public meeting when Kesri visited the state on November 19, sending a clear message about his loyalties. Patnaik also agreed to Kesris suggestion that the party must stick to the one-man-one-post formulahe followed it up by launching a hunt for a new PCC chief. "We will appoint the new PCC chief in consultation with Patnaik," said Tariq Anwar, Kesris political secretary. There are indications that former minister S.K. Sahu is being considered for the post, but it all depends on Patnaik. His support is crucial as he commands the support of about 20 MPs (both the Houses) and Rao cannot be isolated without winning over Patnaik and his brigade. Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Digvijay Singh has already thrown his weight behind Kesri. "We certainly want Rao out. We are willing to give him a dignified exit. But he should assess the mood in the party and take appropriate action," says Ashok Gehlot, a Lok Sabha member and Rajasthan PCC chief. Gehlot, of course, insists that there is no move for a no-trust vote against Rao.
Less than a fortnight after he axed three general secretaries loyal to Rao, Devendra Dwivedi, Janardhan Poojary and B.P. Maurya, Kesri reallocated the work among the remaining six, stripping R.K. Dhawan of the responsibility for organisational elections. Dhawan, according to AICC sources, was manipulating the membership to ensure Raos election as party chief whenever the AICC session is held.
Kesri is also likely to reduce the number of joint secretaries to about a dozen from the existing 23. C.R. Singhvi, whom Rao used against Gehlot and Digvijay Singh earlier, preferred to resign than getting sacked. "Kesri is bent upon causing a split in the party," he alleged but with little endorsement from others.
On November 29, Kesri called on the visiting Chinese President Jiang Zemin at Rashtrapati Bhawan with his own team that excluded both Rao and his aide Pranab Mukherjee who heads the foreign affairs committee of the party. Instead, Kesri took along Tariq Anwar, Madhavsinh Solanki, Oscar Fernandes and Meira Kumar.
This only proves that Rao's isolation is near-complete. Following a series of confabulations with Congress(T) leaders N.D. Tiwari and Arjun Singh, their re-entry to the party is only a matter of time with Kesri wanting them to wait for an "auspicious occasion" like the birth anniversary of Rajendra Prasad, India's first President, which falls a week prior to the CPP election.
There are hints that both leaders, CWC members when they left the party, are likely to be re-admitted in the organisation. Pranab Mukherjee has never been a CWC member—and Tiwari and Arjun Singh's reentry will shock Rao further. As the Kesri-Rao duel intensified, Pranab Mukherjee met Sonia Gandhi, but she is not inclined to give a hearing to any Rao camp-follower. In Kerala, A.K. Antony, another CWC member, announced he was on Kesri's side.
These developments only project the ongoing power struggle. While Kesri has the upper hand, Rao is losing the battle but refusing to accept defeat gracefully.