August 02, 2020
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Kesri's Handy Man

Madhavrao Scindia clambers back to centrestage but he may not find it easy to unite the party

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Kesri's Handy Man
KING-SIZED hoardings welcomed Madhavrao Scindia to Mumbai on October 7, a tribute to his new-found importance in the Congress. For a man virtually hounded out of the party, with the shadow of hawala over his head, it's been an impressive rehabilitation. A trusted aide of Congress president Sitaram Kesri, he was elected to the Congress Working Committee (CWC) in August, appointed AICC general secretary in charge of four important states, exonerated in the hawala case (at least for now) and nominated as the voice of the Congress during Parliament's historic golden jubilee session.

Scindia's comeback may have engendered his optimism regarding the revival of the Congress; he belongs to the group which favours general elections sooner rather than later. But his recent tour of the four states in his charge—Orissa, Rajas-than, Bihar and Maharashtra—appears to have put him in a rather cautious frame of mind. While maintaining that the party is better off now than it was with P.V. Narasimha Rao at the helm, he admits it "needs a little more time" to prepare for elections.

And no wonder. His one day in Mumbai showed just how tough it would be to get the party back in gear. Scindia was immediately caught up in party rivalries which led to delayed meetings and created bad blood. In an attempt to belie the impression that he had been brought in to counter Sharad Pawar, Scindia hauled the Brihanmumbai Regional Congress Committee (BRCC) over the coals for losses in the 1995 assembly elections—it lost all but one seat. "The political situation in Mumbai is an area of concern for us...the people are alienated," he said. By the time he left, BRCC leaders were fuming: "What about the alienation of the rest of the state? Who is to blame for placing the Shiv Sena and the BJP in power—the BRCC?"

 Scindia outlined plans to activate district Congress committees and hold taluka-level meetings, but his "gaon chalo" programmes have not elicited any enthusiasm. However, unity efforts have begun. Maharashtra Congress Committee chief Ranjit Deshmukh has formed a panel aimed at uniting the party. Sharad Pawar has begun a tour of Vidarbha, which drew jeers from Congress stalwart Sudhakarrao Naik who quit all his party posts, saying that unity was impossible. "Scindia and Pawar are working together now. They are a good team," says Congress MP P.C. Chacko, a Pawar man.

ALTHOUGH Scindia dismisses infighting in pradesh Congress committees as inevitable in a "democratic party", senior Congress leaders think it's the biggest hurdle to reviving the party. In Karnataka, where the Congress is on a definite upswing, a disgruntled S. Bangarappa is threatening to split the party yet again. In Kerala, traditional rivals K. Karunakaran and A.K. Antony now have to contend with a third force; the group formed by Ramesh Chennithala and G. Karthikeyan. In Uttar Pradesh, Kesri tried to stem dissent and put Jitendra Prasada and his loyalists in their place by appointing Narain Dutt Tewari to the powerful and coveted post of UP Congress president last week. In Rajasthan, the party is divided on caste lines, with one group referred to as the "Shekhawat Congress" because of its proximity to the BJP chief minister.

The buzz in the Rajasthan and Bihar state units was that Scindia had been brought in to woo the Thakur and Rajput vote. His utility to Congress president Sitaram Kesri,however, goes far beyond that. Scindia returned to the Congress last year with great fanfare, overshadowing Arjun Singh, Tewari and Bangarappa who followed in his wake. Kesri all but killed the fatted calf, an index of Scindia's importance in the Congress chief's game of checks and balances. Brought in primarily to counter Pawar and Rajesh Pilot, erstwhile aspirants to Kesri's kursi, his proximity to 10, Janpath is useful. So is his closeness to defence minister Mula-yam Singh Yadav, with whom he was deputed to negotiate after the ouster of former prime minister H.D. Deve Gowda.

He is Kesri's ever-handy ace-in-the-hole. When Pawar put in a poor performance during the monsoon session, it was rumoured that Scindia would take over from the former as the party's leader in Parliament. When Prasada began emerging as an alternate power-centre, there was talk of Scindia being appointed vice-president or secretary-general. He was chosen to speak during Gowda's confidence vote and later, during the special session.

In Madhya Pradesh, too, Scindia's return to the Congress changed political equations. Chief minister Digvijay Singh, who had been promoting the Bahujan Samaj Party in the Chambal region to weaken Scindia, finds himself in an awkward position. Scindia's newfound importance on the national scene and his alliance with one-time foe Arjun Singh has put the CM in a corner. This was in evidence during a recent Congress convention at Indore, when Digvijay publicly told Kesri: "I can take care of my enemies; you kindly save me from my friends". Few missed the pointed reference to Scindia and Arjun.

Kesri is wary of building Scindia up beyond a point. He wasn't included in the five-member panel set up to monitor the party's day-to-day affairs. Clearly, if Scindia is a counter to the three 'Ps'—Pawar, Pilot and Prasada—then a fourth 'P', Pranab Mukherjee, theoretician and ace draughtsman, is a counter to him. After all, Scindia has a significant following among party workers, who see him as dynamic, clean (despite hawala), experienced (he's a seven-time Lok Sabha MP) and not lacking in charisma.

Moreover, Scindia won the AICC election easily, despite suspected opposition from Prasada. Regarded as a good administrator, he has time on his side, having turned 52 this year. He is treated with deference by AICC staffers, who are miffed at the recent broadside from his mother, Vijayaraje Scindia, in her autobiography. She described as ignominious his sojourn in Nepal during Emergency, while she languished in jail. Even party workers show more than a trace of the old feudal spirit in their dealings with him. To ask for "maharaj-ji" by name at the AICC headquarters is more than tactless; it's breach of protocol. And that, perhaps, is his biggest drawback.

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