IT was shortly after 9 am. President Shankar Dayal Sharma was in a particularly relaxed mood, engaged in playful banter with his grandchild, and looking forward to a day of leisure. But the peace was short-lived. An aide approached the President and hesitantly told him that Congress chief Sitaram Kesri wanted to see him urgently. "Can't it wait?" the President retorted. No. Kesri had insisted on a meeting. With a sigh, Sharma told the aide to fix an appointment at noon.
When Kesri finally called on the President, he came to the point immediately. The Congress, he said, had decided to withdraw support to the Deve Gowda-led United Front (UF) Government. The President tried to dissuade the Congress leader. Had he thought of the consequences? Kesri was adamant—he had taken a decision and would not climb down. Rashtrapati Bhawan aides say the President was perturbed for long after the 10-minute session with Kesri. He went over Kesri's letter once again, only to realise that the reason stated in the three-page missive—that the UF had ceased to be a secular entity—was only part of the story. There had to be something more compelling that had rushed Kesri into taking such an extreme and rather unexpected step.
It would not have come as such a surprise if only Sharma had been aware of something that transpired two days ago. On March 28, K. Vijaya Bhaskara Reddy, after over an hour's meeting with Prime Minister H.D. Deve Gowda, rushed to Kesri's 7-AB Purana Qila Road residence and ranted that Gowda had shown unbristled arrogance—even to the point of mimicking the octogenarian Congress chief. Gowda had apparently told Reddy to inform Kesri that he was not the only leader in the Congress; there were many others. Kesri was livid. A day later, Gowda rubbed the point in deeper when he called on P.V. Narasimha Rao, Kesri's bete noir.
The next day Kesri decided to avenge the insult. In a reckless gamble, he pulled the rug from under the 10-month-old UF Government. On March 31, he also staked claim to form a Congress government. Kesri's message was loud and clear: there may be many leaders in the Congress, but he alone called the shots.
Kesri's salvo took almost everyone by surprise. That the relationship between the Congress president and Gowda had reached an all-time low was quite apparent. But few expected Kesri, who showed no signs of impetuosity till he took over the reins of the party, to plunge his party and the country into such a crisis. More so because Kesri's advisors had asked him to wait, till the AICC session, sometime in May, ratified his leadership, before taking on Gowda.
There was one man, however, far away in the city of Chennai, who had a whiff of the impending drama—Tamil Maanila Congress (TMC) President G.K. Moopanar. In fact, on March 28, two days before Kesri effected the surprise pullout, the TMC's Union Minister of State for Personnel and Parliamentary Affairs S.R. Balasubramaniam sent an SOSto Moopanar that all was not well between Gowda and Kesri, and that the Congress president could opt for a drastic measure on March 30 or March 31. Moopanar, who volunteered to be the honest broker, told him: "If the Prime Minister asks me, I am willing to be his emissary and sort out the differences with Kesri." Gowda, blissfully unaware of the magnitude of the threat, chose to ignore the offer.
Moopanar is still willing to play peacemaker, as are a host of other senior UF leaders like V.P. Singh, Harkishan Singh Surjeet and Jyoti Basu. But even as these negotiators exude confidence and optimism, there is a gnawing wor ry: is it already too late?
For, the political situation is plagued with uncertainty. The Congress has stuck to its demand, stated most categorically last Saturday, for Deve Gowda's resignation. And the 13-party UF has responded with an equally rigid "no", even if it means mid-term polls in less than a year since the last elections. "If at all an outside-Parliament settlement is to be reached before April 11—the deadline set by the President to the UF to secure a vote of confidence—Gowda will have to quit," says Congress spokesman V.N. Gadgil. Things have, however, not quite gone the Kesri way. A number of Congress MPs, most of them from Maharashtra, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, have told him that "they would support him as disciplined party soldiers, but the decision to withdraw support lacked political maturity". "In reality, we are nowhere near power," admits Shantibhai Patel, a Congress MP from Gujarat. Used to keeping his cards to himself, Kesri did not even bother to inform Congress Parliamentary Party leader Sharad Pawar or AICC treasurer Ahmed Patel about his decision.
But on the face of it the posturing continues. "There is nothing wrong for a 141-member party to form the government. After all, Gowda's Janata Dal has only 42 members," maintains AICC general secr e-tary Ghulam Nabi Azad, one of the few privy to Kesri's move. Gadgil, too, endorsed the move, reversing his oft-repeated claim that the "Congress should secure a fresh mandate to rule". But Gadgil and Azad, both Rajya Sabha members, apparently failed to gauge the mood of discontent in the party. At least 60 Congress Lok Sabha MPs are said to be upset with Kesri's tactics. Their sense of disquiet was articulated by CWC member Rajesh Pilot last Saturday when he asked Kesri to speak his mind. A big chunk of Congress MPs want the party to continue supporting the UF and avoid a near-suicidal electoral exercise. The Kesri camp is also afraid that in their panic to avoid fresh polls, some of them may even end up supporting the BJP's bid for a government at the Centre.
AS for Kesri, he had a two-fold motive—to unite Congress MPs; and to create a sense of panic among UF constituents, induce them to dump Gowda and rally round the Congress leader, thus embarking on another coalition course. But the UF had a surprise in store for Kesri as well. In a remarkable show of resilience, the UF steering committee and the Left parties ruled out the possibility of not only dumping Gowda, but also having anything to do with a Congress-led government. They prefer fresh elections instead.
To resolve the deadlock, an ailing V.P. Singh (currently undergoing dialysis in Apollo hospital), an ageing West Bengal Chief Minister Jyoti Basu who has set up camp in Banga Bhavan in the capital, and CPI(M) general secretary H.K.S. Surjeet, have met various Congress leaders, including Kesri. Their message: the Congress move would only bring the seat of power to the BJP on a platter—if not now, later. Mulayam Singh Yadav and Laloo Prasad Yadav, who Kesri was counting upon to switch loyalties, have endorsed the same view, saying that they would opt for a snap poll rather than side with Kesri.
As for the Congress president, he confided in Basu, Surjeet and Singh that he was not personally keen on becoming prime minister, and nor would he allow the BJP to take advantage of the situation. But he could also not condone Gowda's efforts to play dirty and marginalise the Congress. Kesri told these leaders that Gowda had hatched a conspiracy to frame him in the Surendra Tanwar murder case, split the party and humiliate it by slamming a Rs 24-crore fine for Income tax violations. His ire was directed against Gowda, not UF programmes and policies.
Kesri carried his attack against the Prime Minister even a day after his meeting with Basu as he told an impressive assembly of party workers at the Congress headquarters on 24-Akbar Road that he would not give up the demand for Gowda's ouster. "If he is a rock, we are human beings. We can break the rock. The man is out and out communal. He will have no qualms in joining hands with the BJP or the Shiv Sena". But hours later, Kesri again showed signs of nervousness and called on Singh at Apollo Hospital, seeking some statesmanly help to resolve the crisis.
The denouement meanders. Senior Congress leaders as well as members of the UF Government rue that Kesri may have gone too far now to retract his stand. If a face-saving resolution deludes Kesri, it can only be a no-win situation for the beleaguered Congress president. If the government survives with Gowda intact (that can only happen if a chunk of Congress MPs breaks ranks and joins forces with the UF, or if the BJP, for strategic reasons, abstains from voting), Kesri's position in the party will become untenable. And if the government falls, leading to a mid-term poll, Congress leaders are bound to bay for Kesri's blood. All this fairly reduces the prospect of his re-election as AICC chief. "The best thing for Kesri to do is to come forward with the party's policies and programmes, and sort out the grievances," says Surjeet. Kesri's own camp is tottering—it mustered the support of only 25 MPs when it wanted to register its protest against the Congress
president being framed in the Tanwar murder case. His confidants now suggest that he should withdraw his letter to the President "conditionally"—on an assurance that a change of leadership would follow after the government wins the trust vote.
Given the UF's rigidity and the fact that the numbers game does not favour him, the odds are stacked against Kesri. He must understand that his inability to form a government at the Centre is a small price to pay for a greater cause. For, his intransigence could isolate the Congress among the secular forces of Indian polity.