The alternative to Sonia Gandhi is Sonia Gandhi. The rest is mere bagatelle. Statements issued and interviews given by the likes of Vasant Sathe, Jairam Ramesh, V.N. Gadgil and some others may suggest that there is a great mood in the Congress for a change in leadership but those clearly are the exceptions rather than the rule. An extensive but informal survey carried out by Outlook - interviewing 40 senior Congress leaders from all over the country - suggests that far from looking for a change, a strong "Save Sonia" campaign is under way, putting paid to hopes of a select few who may continue to entertain such illusions.
To be sure, there is an official view and a private 'off the record' one but most leaders agree that despite the vicious, no-holds-barred infighting in different state units of the party, when it comes to the supremo, the rest of the Congress heavyweights are regarded as no better than regional satraps, popular in their areas of influence but mere props in the larger Congress machine.
In other words, the more they ask for a change, the more the Congress leadership remains the same. Ever so often, dissatisfied Congressmen raise the banner of revolt, the rebellion packaged in politically-correct terms like "concern for the morale of the party and greater good of the Congress". As ever, the rebellion is short-lived, with leaders doing a complete U-turn saying that they were either misquoted or misunderstood or both.
Three days after Sathe wrote his highly patronising piece on Sonia in Congress organ Sandesh, he did an about turn. "Sonia is the leader to lead the party. She is acceptable to all," he told Outlook. Ramesh, who in an interview to Asiaweek said as long as Sonia was there, there was no question of the Congress coming back to power for the next 50 years, not just apologised a couple of days later but now stays clear of journalists. As for Gadgil, he told Outlook: "No cwc member has the appeal Sonia has. I only said that the Congress should modify its ideology and strategy." For all his pains, Gadgil got a call from the aicc control room, asking about his health.
Congressmen now claim that Manmohan Singh - who supported the government's stand on the subsidy-cut motion on the same day his party chief marched to the prime minister's house protesting against it - apparently did not mean what the entire Rajya Sabha heard. "Do not pick on one or two lines, go through his entire speech. He was only endorsing the party line," says Pranab Mukherjee.
Who could replace Sonia? There are several names that crop up in informal discussions: Manmohan Singh, most agree, has the widest acceptability, followed by Digvijay Singh, Rajesh Pilot, Ashok Gehlot and Madhavrao Scindia, not necessarily in that order. Some others suggest the names of usual Congress heavies like Arjun Singh and Mukherjee - one even said Ambika Soni is fine. But can they be 'national' leaders? Mention a name and out pour words like frustration, personal ambitions and official disagreements. Says Mumbai Congressman Murli Deora: "Congressmen may be frustrated, but this has nothing to do with Sonia's leadership. She is the only one who can keep the party together." Or Girija Vyas: "Sonia is the only acceptable leader to the cadres. Some people have their own frustrations but there is no crisis in the party."
Ever since the party plummeted to an all-time low Lok Sabha tally after Sonia's blitzkrieg campaign in the last general elections and the subsequent hammerings at assembly polls, there has been talk that party leaders have taken the battle from Delhi to the states, ostensibly settling scores among themselves but actually using it as a shield to attack the party leadership.
Uttar Pradesh is a prime example. Shajahanpur MP and former state party chief Jitendra Prasada held two rallies last week in Jhansi and Lucknow, the leitmotif of the speeches being a very thinly-veiled attack on his successor Salman Khursheed, Sonia's handpicked state Congress chief. Much is being read into his companion for the two rallies, Pilot, said to be a dissident who has the nerve to take on Sonia. But that is not the way Prasada looks at it. "Sonia Gandhi is the undisputed leader of the Congress. She has all the qualities of a leader." Or take his rival Khursheed: "Sonia is extremely sensitive, liberal and perceptive. She has been in the process of assimilating. It is seldom that one is catapulted into such a position overnight. Anybody in such a position is bound to make a few human errors. Today, the politicians have scant patience, they do not want to understand her situation, both within the party and outside it."
In Orissa, former chief minister Hemananda Biswal, in the midst of bitter infighting with colleagues J.B. Patnaik and others, says that while the situation in Orissa is precarious, Sonia's leadership is not. "There is no need for change at the Centre and no alternative to Sonia. The situation in the states, particularly Orissa, is a bit different." As an afterthought, he adds that "the solution to this lies in the hands of the party high command".
Most Congress leaders say that the rumblings in the party fall in the category of great debates and disagreements of the pre-independence Congress (bar the difference in calibre): Gandhi vs Nehru, Nehru vs Patel and so on. In other words, there is no threat to Sonia's leadership. Says cwc member Mohsina Kidwai: "If given a chance, Digvijay Singh, Ashok Gehlot and Pilot could become national leaders. But currently, we have Soniaji and there is no one with her mass appeal." Adds Balram Jakhar for good effect: "When the time comes, leaders will come. Who would have thought Narasimha Rao would have made such a good leader?"
Clearly, if there is any simmering discontent within the party over Sonia, it does not show. Party biggies, local faction leaders and coterie heads are all vying to endorse her leadership in public. It takes only a veteran like Abdul Ghani Khan Chowdhary to put up a more realistic picture. "As a disciplined soldier of the Congress, I am in no position to comment on her leadership qualities though it must be said that she had held the party together when people were deserting it in droves. However, she does not always get the right advice from people around her."
Like the West Bengal unit, even in states like Kerala the Congress is a badly divided house, the only point of agreement being Sonia. Says K. Karunakaran: "Sonia is leading the party today. There are no problems, so there is no need to look for another leader." And this is one instance when even A.K. Antony agrees with his bete noir: "There is no alternative to Sonia."
Off the record, leaders say some nasty things. One UP leader interviewed by Outlook said Sonia was promoting too many Roman Catholics in high party positions. But that is a freak expression. A majority of those interviewed say that the coterie around her would, by its maneouvres, ultimately lead to a division in the party itself. Says a former Union minister and prominent southern Congressman: "There is discontent in the Congress because Sonia lacks an ideal team of advisors. Oscar Fernandes has become an assistant to Vincent George and takes his word rather than go up to Sonia. The other aicc general secretary, Ghulam Nabi Azad, has not an iota of concern for people killed in his home state of Kashmir. Instead, he only tours states where the Congress is in power and is seen eating ice-cream there. "
Clearly, no Congress leader has the 'acceptability' Sonia has. A strong sense of rivalry prevents them from proposing each others' names. As one of the prime contenders told Outlook, "How can I propose my own name?" Another contender, Digvijay Singh, when asked, said there was no question of his name being proposed. "It has to be Sonia," he points out sagely. But veteran Congress watchers say there is also more to these ego clashes. Organisational elections are due soon and cwc leaders like Pilot, Prasada and Vijayabhaskara Reddy know that if they lose their grip on the organisation, they would not be able to retain their cwc seats. In other words they will be reduced to Arjun Singh's status where they will have to depend for everything on 10, Janpath. So the fight may well be not about being No. 1 as it is about staying in a position where they can fight for the No. 1 slot.