The winning formula for the Congress has always had a dual thrust—a mix of its leader's charisma and the grassroots strength of the party organisation. As far as charisma goes, the party's newly-inducted star campaigner, Sonia Gandhi, has it in ample measure—derivative or otherwise. She has been attracting impressive crowds and, due to a history that is at once personal and national, her appeal has a certain emotive edge. But when it comes to organisational support—an earth-linked network that can encash on her vote-catching power—the Congress doesn't seem to have got its act together in several key states. The leader may be a winner but the organisation seems to be failing her.
Infighting still seems to be dogging the party. Rival factions refuse to see eye to eye. Despite the unifying effect that Congressmen claim Sonia's entry has had, the various camps within the party have not disbanded. After almost a decade of fractious existence without a Nehru-Gandhi clan figure at the top, cohesion does not seem to be coming easily. Veteran Congressmen point out that if the party does not put up a unified act in the final round of the campaign beginning this week, its prospects may not be as bright as the party estimated when Sonia embarked on the first leg.
At the core of the Congress' problems is the fact that the party machinery is a shambles. While Congress presidents of the past gave considerable attention to the party at the district and PCC level, ever since the '70s the organisation at the base has been slowly corroding. Little or no attention was given to strengthening the party apparatus. Party functionaries were appointed according to the whims of the president. Low priority was given to intra-party democracy. Organisational polls, if and when held, were manipulated. As a result, today the party speaks in different voices, pulls in different directions; and it would take a superhuman effort to get the organisation on an even keel—a virtually impossible task that party-men hope, a wee bit fondly, Sonia's mere presence can accomplish.
But despite this, Sonia's entry has helped the Congress in varying degrees throughout India. In some states she has toured, her impact has been considerable. In others, the effect has not been pronounced—partly due to the absence of a grassroots support system that could harness potential benefits.
Whatever the final impact on the poll prospects, there is no denying that Sonia automatically attracts huge crowds. This was evident, for instance, at Ropar and Chandigarh. Her apology for Operation Bluestar, Congressmen point out, will negate the residual ill-will in Punjab towards the party. But given the state's love-hate relationship with the Nehru-Gandhis, this apology may not be enough.
Congressmen remain euphoric, although district-level workers who had come to Chandigarh from Patiala, Ropar and Fatehgarh Sahib for Sonia's January 25 visit were unsure of how to cash in on Rajiv Gandhi's widow's visit. But PCC president and former chief minister Rajinder Kaur Bhattal seemed to be wishing away the post-Operation Bluestar woes when she said: "The response to Sonia Gandhi is much more than expected. The Sikhs still remember the sacrifices made by the Nehru family."
The party is not a sharply divided house in Punjab (despite the troublesome presence of leaders like Harcharan Singh Brar and M.S. Bitta, it is more historical factors that weigh against the party). In Andhra Pradesh, however, the infighting among partymen over seat allocation has been well-nigh despicable. Last week's sordid drama—when supporters of Youth Congress president P. Sudhakar Reddy, who had been denied a ticket, burnt party property inside Gandhi Bhavan, the state PCC office—only exposed the fragile nature of the new-found unity between the various factions in the party.
As if this was not enough, Gandhi Bhavan witnessed yet another incident a few days later. On Republic Day, as two warring factions—one led by Sudhakar Reddy's supporters and the other by S. Chandrashekhar, both senior party functionaries—clashed, PCC chief M. Mallikarjun could only remain a mute spectator.
There are more heavyweights sulking after the distribution of tickets. Senior leaders like P. Janardhana Reddy are believed to be very unhappy that their candidates were not considered. This does not augur well for the Congress, which was hoping to improve on its tally of 22 seats in the 1996 elections. Also, the party was much enthused by the response to Sonia Gandhi's visit to Hyderabad on January 16. But now it seems the rival groupings led by former chief ministers V.B. Reddy and Janardhana Reddy and former PCC chiefs Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy and V. Hanumantha Rao may downscale the Sonia advantage. Party leaders, however, maintain that the differences will be resolved in the final run-up to the polls.
In Kerala too, old cracks became visible after Karunakaran and Antony shared a dais at Sonia's Kochi address. Though,the Sonia factor may preclude factionalism from regaining its old virulence, the differences between the two stalwarts over the allotment of a constituency to the former is a warning sign. Should Karunakaran get the seat of his choice (Thiruvananthapuram), the Antony camp, which wants him kept to his old seat of Thrissur, will sulk.
As of now, Antony has publicly reconciled to Karunakaran getting his way—the tradeoff being that, should he win, the former CM would be kept out of state politics. Despite this rapprochement among leaders, the rival camp supporters still hold some nuisance potential. If things go well, the Congress-led United Democratic Front does have a chance to improve upon the 10 seats it won last time.
This because Sonia's whirlwind visit last fortnight has left the Congress and its allies upbeat about the coming poll. The Kochi gathering for Sonia's rally conclusively demonstrated the support she enjoys at the grassroots level. In the aftermath of her visit, a sluggish cadre which had become disenchanted during the Rao-Kesri era has suddenly become energised. Sonia's appeal also extends outside her party to Christian and Muslim-dominated constituencies in the state. This brightens Congress prospects in the state further.
But nowhere is the virtual paralysis of the Congress organisation more visible than in Tamil Nadu. This is a state which would have warmed up to Sonia's campaign like none other because of a latent 'guilt' stemming from the Rajiv assassination. But with the party in the state virtually defunct, the biggest gainer from Sonia Gandhi's visit to Sriperumbudur is likely to be the TMC. In Tamil Nadu the popular mind still identifies the Congress with G.K. Moopanar's TMC and, with very little done to rebuild the organisation after the Congress debacle in the last poll, the party is no longer a force. In fact, a day before Sonia's brief visit to the state, union finance minister P. Chidambaram had this to say: "Soniaji will not campaign in the constituencies where the TMC is contesting.And she will not say a word against the DMK-TMC alliance."
Tamil Nadu may be a washout but there is good news for the party from Karnataka, Orissa and Maharashtra. Here the Congress, which was upbeat before the midterm polls because of the disarray in the Karnataka Janata Dal, has become even more enthused after RAVI Sonia's decision to campaign. Says Rajya Sabha MP K. Rahman Khan: "We knew we could put up a strong fight this time. But after Soniaji launched the campaign, we are fighting with confidence." According to him, Sonia's entry has been a morale-booster to the workers and it will reflect in the performance of the party at the hustings. Adds former chief minister Veerappa Moily: "Our vote percentage will increase by 10 per cent just because of her. She has a lot of charisma and has brought back a sense of belonging among the workers."
In Orissa, the party has been galvanised ever since Sonia's Bhubaneshwar visit. The large turnout, Congressmen claim, was spontaneous and people came from all corners of the state to see the representative of the Nehru-Gandhi family. The party hopes that with Sonia in the picture the tribal and schedule caste vote will return to the Congress. Though traditionally Congress voters, the BJP and the Janata Dal had lately made inroads into this vote-bank. Sonia's scheduled visit to tribal belts in her next leg will further bolster the party's chances, say Congressmen, who also feel women in the state will vote for Sonia and halt the recent BJP tilt.
More than anywhere else, the Sonia effect has brought to life the Congress in Maharashtra. Party offices now wear a new look and are buzzing with activity. The massive turnout for the Sonia rally at Nandurbar, a tribal constituency in Dhule district, last fortnight, seems to have convinced many Congressmen that their party is in the reckoning and is likely to improve on its all-time low of 15 seats it secured in the last elections. Chhagan Bhujbal, leader of the Opposition in the state assembly, goes so far as to say that the Congress "will get not less than 25 seats". While this could be an exaggeration, the party is likely to gain some lost ground because of the anti-incumbency vote against the Sena.
The two factors the state unit of the party is depending on to check the BJP-Sena alliance: the overall psychological boost from Sonia Gandhi leading the campaign and the seat understanding with the Samajwadi Party and the Republican Party of India, which could bring the anti-establishment vote to the Congress. The favourable response at a rally addressed last week by Sharad Pawar and other senior leaders at Karad, western Maharashtra, also boosted party morale—of late hit by a string of defections to the Sena in the sugar belt.
A few weeks ago many Congress leaders would have admitted in private that the BJP-Sena combine was likely to sweep Maharashtra. But now they are speaking a different language. While their enthusiasm may be a reflection of the Sonia effect, the party which is divided into pro-Pawar and anti-Pawar factions will have to work unitedly for the party to make any significant gains.
Assam has been one state where Sonia's visit has not had the impact she managed to create in other states. For the state unit of the party, the Lok Sabha polls have come too soon. It's less than two years since the party was ousted from power in the state and also lost the commanding presence of Hiteswar Saikia, who died a week before the May 1996 elections. Ever since, the Assam Congress has been a rudderless ship, too effete to even benefit from chief minister P.K. Mahanta's troubled spell. The party is also sharply divided between the various factions and PCC chief Tarun Gogoi has failed to bring any cohesiveness in the party. As a result, whatever euphoria was generated by Sonia's visit was muted and may not have a lasting effect on the party.
A final assessment of the Sonia effect and its impact can be gauged only after the last lap of the campaigning gets under way this week. This is when she covers crucial states like Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh and revisits some of the states which were on her earlier itinerary. Congressmen also point out that in the last lap many of the organisational problems and differences between rival factions will be sorted out. The vital question is, can the complex of problems be wished away overnight?