THE Congress party's 82-year-old chief, Sitaram Kesri, spelt out a dream at the All India Congress Committee (AICC) plenary in Calcutta. Touting that old "country-is-under-threat and my-party-is-the-only-saviour" logic, Kesri declared that his one-point agenda is to capture power in Delhi. A pack of Congress conformists, complete with AICC badges, clapped dutifully after each Kesri word. Yet, when the three-day jamboree concluded on August 10, the road to power seemed as obstacle-strewn as ever.
The 80th Congress plenary ended on an ominous note for an "old man in a hurry". Sonia Gandhi formally shed her reluctance towards an active role in the party; three rebels, Arjun Singh, Sharad Pawar and Ghulam Nabi Azad, won berths in the Congress Working Committee (CWC)—a suspected coup by vice-president Jitendra Prasada; and Bengal's rebel without a pause Mamata Banerjee floated a regional party bang opposite the AICC session's venue.
Kesri, oblivious to the discontent, thundered at one session: "I promise to take the party to power. We will unfurl the tricolour at the Lal Qila in the not too distant future." Pointing out that the party would fight the Bharatiya Janata Party, the Left parties as well as the regional parties together, he said the "growth of regionalism poses a serious threat to the country's unity". The message was clear: that the Congress had enough reason to withdraw support to I.K. Gujral's government. The Federal Front, consisting of five regional parties, and the Left Front are dominant United Front constituents.
While the Congress boss gave no official indication of a probable coup d'etat, there are signs that the process has begun. Gujral's government faced two humiliating defeats in Parliament when it sought the passage of two legislations: one, to set up a regulatory authority for the insurance sector and, the other, to curtail the list of non-serious candidates for the presidential and vice-presidential elections. The government was saved a disgrace on another occasion when it quietly withdrew a legislation on personal security guards, promising that it would be reintroduced after suitable amends.
Inner-party wranglings in the UF and Gujral's 'inaction' may have whetted Kesri's ambition but he is waiting for an opportune moment to strike. The Jain Commission's interim report on the Rajiv assassination case should suffice. Says one CWC member: "That will actually give him the excuse to withdraw support to the Gujral government. We are convinced that the role of a host of UF government functionaries will be questioned in the report." Such a move, he adds, will help Kesri to project himself as Sonia loyalist. The plenary endorsed Kesri's letter to the prime minister in January 1997 that all confidential records should be handed over to the Jain Commission so that it could conclude the Rajiv case. The fact that Kesri compromised on the question of "apologising" for the Babri Masjid demolition, or on the corruption case involving Laloo Prasad Yadav, but pushed an aggressive line on the Rajiv probe is politically significant, albeit for himself rather than the party.
But can Kesri draw much political mileage from such manoeuvres? Arjun Singh clearly had 10, Janpath's blessings as CWC candidate despite Kesri's open campaign against him. "You contest the election if you like.
But I know who has leaked a part of the political draft resolution, and I will not spare him," Kesri yelled in Sonia's presence. No one doubted that he was referring to Arjun, the author of the draft political resolution. Kesri's outburst, during the CWC polling, was a signal that Arjun Singh was not his man. Only, few paid heed.
Kesri had even circulated an eight-member panel for 10 CWC seats which excluded all the three successful 'rebels'. "V. George (Sonia's secretary) spoke to a number of delegates to vote for Arjun Singh," an AICC member from Uttar Pradesh told Outlook. The trio's victory clearly outweighed the success of Ahmed Patel, Madhavrao Scindia, Tariq Anwar, Pranab Mukherjee, R.K. Dhawan and V.B. Reddy from Kesri's panel.
The largest blow to Kesri came from Jit-endra Prasada, who polled the second highest vote in the CWC election. After giving his nod to Kesri's list of eight, Prasada instructed his men not to vote for Scindia and Tariq Anwar. Instead, he asked them to root for Pawar. Having joined hands with Kesri during the party president's election in June, Prasada got himself nominated the party's vice-president last month. The Calcutta plenary was an ideal occasion to legitimise his elevation—not as a mere Kesri nominee but as a leader who commands the support of a chunk of AICC delegates.
IN a way, Prasada was singularly responsible in checking Kesri's hold over the CWC and carving a niche for himself. While the majority in the 20-member CWC will still be in Kesri's favour as he will nominate nine members, the elected 'rebels' enjoy an exalted status.
Kesri is also left with the difficult task of balancing regional and state representations to the CWC. Except Reddy, none of the members elected is from the south. While Madhya Pradesh has two members, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Delhi, West Bengal and Jammu and Kashmir has a member apiece. "We see states with depleting party organisations dominating the CWC, whereas the ones where the party is still vibrant are left unrepresented," Kerala PCC chief Vyalar Ravi told Kesri in front of the delegates. Ravi, a senior and respected parliamentarian, had reason to complain. Orissa, Kerala, Karnataka, the Northeastern states, Rajasthan and Himachal Pradesh have a more effective organisational network.
After Arjun Singh's election to the CWC, Kesri desperately tried to mend matters. "I'm happy with the election. We all will go with a clean slate from here. We will only look towards our goal," said Kesri, welcoming his victory. But he did not spell out how the Congress would go about achieving its goal of capturing power in Delhi. "Power does not come without people's support. Let us bridge the gap between workers and the leaders. We have to go and be with them," said Prasada, almost endorsing Sonia Gandhi's refrain about the growing detachment of the party from 'the toiling mass'. Put against Kesri's rhetoric of coming to power on the party's own steam, this was a bit of disturbing realism.
While Mamata's rebellion and her 'Trinamul (grassroot) Congress Committee' showed that the West Bengal unit of the Congress has been stranded with leaders without a mass base, the Gujarat unit is up in arms against the central leadership, demanding withdrawal of support to the Shankersinh Vaghela government. To tackle Gujarat, Kesri is likely to appoint C. D. Patel as PCC chief in place of Prabodh Rawal and ask him to assess the situation in a month.
Kesri also announced the impending expulsion of Jagannath Mishra, MP and former Bihar CM, but showed enough tactical lenience towards Mamata Banerjee. "She is just like my daughter," was Kesri's answer when asked if she, like Mishra, would be sacked. Kesri, whose road to Delhi was to begin from Calcutta, knows the fate of the dream minus Mamata. "Jyoti Basu, V.P. Singh and Atal Behari Vajpayee floated the anti-Congress front in Bengal in 1988 and Congress will fight them as a trinity." Having said that, Kesri would not know who to turn to if Mamata was expelled.
Such lack of direction was not Bengal specific. The plenary, in the absence of any follow up plan or directives to its workers, was a routine affair. The straws in the Calcutta wind say any exercise to capture power will come through a 'closed door manipulation' in Delhi rather than a mass-inspired political agenda. An unsuspecting Gujral might fall victim to such a move, but in the long run, the Congress will still need life-giving reforms.