WILL its glorious past be enough to rescue the Congress from its messy present? Can the party manipulate its way to power as India celebrates a half-century of independence? Or would it be better off forcing an election immediately? On the eve of the party's three-day plenary, beginning August 8 in Calcutta, where these questions will no doubt be debated, indications are that the Congress will declare its intentions of going to the polls.
But before that, party president Sitaram Kesri has to ensure that the 21-member Congress Working Committee (CWC) is packed with his supporters, so that his declarations are emphatically endorsed by the party's apex body: that the Left criticism of the Congress is simply not acceptable and that its support to the I.K. Gujral government cannot be taken for granted. In an effort to corner Gujral, Kesri is demanding that he restrain the Left parties from criti-cising the Congress if it wants the present arrangement to continue. Given the fact that Gujral is hardly the type to restrain anyone—something Congress knows only too well—the intent is fairly clear.
And high on Kesri's agenda is drumming up public opinion on the ledger scam in West Bengal. On July 28, he vetoed the Congress Bihar unit's demand that the party vote against or abstain during the confidence motion moved by the Rabri Devi government. Kesri told his 29-member legislature party to vote for the government, saying: "Who is more corrupt, Laloo or the Left? Laloo is accused in the Rs 950-crore fodder scam, whereas the ledger scam involving the West Bengal government is three times more." He also counselled them that voting against the Rabri government would work to the BJP's advantage.
That more or less sets the tone for the party's 80th plenary. While the anti-BJP rhetoric is bound to continue, the Congress will leave no stone unturned to criticise the Left: that its role during the freedom movement was 'dubious'; that it is proceeding in the same vein "by opposing the Congress which represents national interest and nationalism"; that by overstretching the corruption issue, the Left parties are in fact helping the BJP and its allies. As Kesri asserts, "I am against corruption being made to tool to boost the forces of communalism."
Interestingly, a reluctant Arjun Singh, a votary of a Congress-Left alliance, has been saddled with the dirty job of ridiculing the communists and lumping them together with the BJP. Singh has been preaching self-introspection to the Congress, especially over the perceived dilution of the party's secular credentials and the Narasimha Rao government's failure to prevent the demolition of the Babri Masjid. Senior leaders like Kesri and Pranab Mukherjee are not too enchanted with this suggestion as they were members of the Rao government.
With the party divided on a political resolution, Congress vice-president Jitendra Prasada is engrossed in trying to capture the CWC, which is to be 'elected' during the plenary. Kesri and Prasada withheld the list of delegates to the All India Congress Committee, which elects the CWC (the Congress president being an ex-officio member), till just a week before the plenary. While Kesri has okayed Prasada's hand-picked delegates for 109 out of 154 seats from Uttar Pradesh, he has dropped detractors like Jagannath Mishra and Ram Lakhan Singh Yadav from the Bihar list. By withholding the list, the Kesri-Prasada duo has pre-empted any move by would-be contestants to approach AICC voters. Brushing aside any such suggestion, Congress returning officer Oscar Fernandes claims: "Any delegates can demand and collect the AICC list." But AICC sources say the list is either incomplete or still being altered.
On the other hand, Prasada, who has access to the list, has named an informal panel of five candidates for the CWC polls: AICC treasurer Ahmed Patel, Orissa chief minister J.B. Patnaik, Andhra leader Vijaya Bhaskara Reddy and Rajya Sabha MP R.R. Sahu. With the party president nominating another 10 members, the remaining five seats could be open to last minute negotiations. Some youth leaders - mainly with a Youth Congress background - are likely to find a place in Kesri's quota. So, in effect, Kesri would command at least a majority of one in the CWC even if the official panel is not elected.
Once these electoral formalities are through, Kesri is expected to outline the Congress' political agenda. Says a current CWC member: "The actual message will come only during Kesri's valedictory address to the party delegates and special invitees on August 10. He will appeal to the party rank and file to get ready for polls. And he will decide the timing of withdrawal of support in case he does not see any chance of his coming to power in the present set-up."
But there are certain thorns in Kesri's side. For one, the defiance of the high command by a rebellious Mamata Banerjee in Calcutta and Maharani Bibhu Kumari Devi's revolt against the Tripura Congress leadership. Without these leaders, it would be difficult for the Congress to carry out any sustained campaign in these Left Front-ruled states.
Then, in Gujarat, Kesri is under pressure to withdraw support to the SS Vaghela government. Although Urmilabehn Patel, widow of Chimanbhai Patel, has been dropped from the AICC list as she was "planning to wreck the Congress and help the BJP form the government", there is still much discontent in the party's state unit. "Our association with Vaghela is spoiling the Congress' reputation. We should withdraw support immediately," says Youth Congress president SS Gaekwad. Such a measure in Gujarat would serve to give a message to the United Front government at the Centre as well.
Besides, the demand for dismissal of various state governments - of the Maharashtra government after the desecration of an Ambedkar stature and the resultant law and order problem, that of the Tripura regime following the "killing of Congress workers" and of the West Bengal government on corruption charges - are sure to be echoed at the plenary. While a formal resolution is likely to be passed on Maharashtra, the other two states will figure in anti-Left rhetoric. And that would no doubt herald the beginning of the end, notwithstanding Kesri's oft-repeated assurance that he will not disturb the Gujral dispensation at least till next August.