But Kesri did go back to Delhi's Palam airport again that day receive Sonia. And the elected president of the Congress continued to play second fiddle to the party's de facto leader, gushing that he was overwhelmed by the enthusiasm she had been able to generate among voters. Indeed, Sonia now leads the party in the fight against the BJP. "It was not an individual who killed Mahatma Gandhi. It was a thought and the same thought threatens to divide the society today," Sonia said in Bardoli (Gujarat) and Jodhpur on January 23, echoing the anti-BJP sentiments voiced in the party manifesto.
While Sonia hopped from state to state to garner support for the party, Kesri remained holed up in Delhi. "He has to chair meetings of the party's election committee and cannot leave Delhi before finalising the list," explained Ghulam Nabi Azad, Sonia's tour coordinator and ex-Kesri aide. But the message that has gone across is different. Maharashtra PCC chief Ranjit Deshmukh requested Sonia to take over the party leadership immediately as she 'alone' could revive it. In other words, there is a perceived lack of faith in Kesri's leadership. Sharad Pawar, who joined her during her poll campaign in the state's Nandurbar constituency, announced that the party would take a 'pragmatic approach' on the leadership issue after the election. The implication is clear.
Deshmukh's appeal is also quite at variance with Kesri's declaration on television that the Congress would not project Sonia as its prime ministerial candidate to avoid controversy. In fact Sonia's growing clout has become increasingly apparent with senior party leaders—Vijayabhaskara Reddy, Arjun Singh, Pranab Mukherjee and J.B. Patnaik besides Kesri himself—visiting 10 Janpath last week to ostensibly consult Sonia on tour programmes and the party's list of candidates.
She reportedly did not endorse Kesri's views, as the party's election committee did not announce R.K. Dhawan's candidature from New Delhi constituency despite Kesri having made a public announcement earlier about his candidature. (Dhawan had switched loyalties from the Gandhi household to P.V. Narasimha Rao after the latter fell out with Sonia.) Dhawan went ahead and filed his nomination papers on January 23 without waiting for any clearance, with an assurance that he would withdraw his nomination should the party (read Sonia) decide in favour of somebody else.
The manifesto, which was released on January 24, also indicates that the Sonia loyalists' line on the Jain Commission report has prevailed. In what appeared like a rewritten version of the Jain Commission report, the manifesto says that a "section of the DMK supported the LTTE, giving them a base in Tamil Nadu". Significantly, Kesri had earlier said that the Jain report would not be made an issue. But the manifesto asserts that it "is a moral as well as emotional issue for the party". Arjun Singh, considered very close to 10 Janpath, went a step further and declared: "I.K. Gujral, by not supplying the full documents to the Jain Commission, was party to the cover-up."
Kesri's diminishing clout was also evident when members clashed on the criterion applied for denial of tickets to sitting MPs. Mukherjee, Jitendra Prasada and Patnaik opposed the move to deny a ticket to Rao from Behrampur in Orissa as it would be an 'unparallelled departure' from the party's tradition. Yet, no one left the issue to the party president, which used to be the Congress practice in case of disputed seats.
Madhavrao Scindia, the AICC general secretary in charge of Orissa, was the most vocal against Rao: "It was he who had denied tickets to chargesheeted MPs. He should at least follow his own rule." And Tariq Anwar, another general secretary, added that the denial of ticket to Rao would bring Muslims back into the Congress fold. Others in the party argue that Rao should be denied a ticket on the ground that he tried to sabotage the probe into the Rajiv Gandhi assassination. So, says a senior AICC functionary: "Now only Sonia's intervention and nothing else can decide Rao's fate."
But Sonia's growing, albeit quiet, assertiveness has created problems not only for others, but also herself. Sajjan Kumar, a key accused in the 1984 anti-Sikh riots and a Gandhi loyalist, remains an adamant claimant for renomination from Outer Delhi. He is chargesheeted for a more heinous crime than Rao—genocide. Party leaders are trying to downplay the squabble on tickets. "In any election, there will be some hitch or difference over certain individuals while deciding candidates," says Anwar.
So the focus is more on catchy slogans and diluting the Congress' rigid stand on centre-state relationship in the manifesto: "If the party comes to power, the 12th Finance Commission will be asked to review the entire gamut of centre-state relationship." The party has always been a votary of a strong centre, but is aware that it might need the support of regional parties to come to power.
Meanwhile, Sonia's claim that the Babri Masjid would have been safe, were Rajiv alive today is not echoed in the manifesto. It simply pledges to abide by the Supreme Court's decision rejecting any out-of-court settlement. In fact, the party considers Indira Gandhi's 15-point programme for minorities and reservation to educationally and socially backward Muslims a more effective way to win the minorities back, compared to apportioning the blame on Ayodhya.
The Congress has also emphasised stability, integrity and progress. "Poore Bharat se nata hai, sarkar chalana aata hai (we are tied to all of India, and we know how to run the government)," is the key slogan.
Of course, the party is clear that the manifesto will not by itself get votes. "She will lead the party against communalism and corruption," Kesri said after Sonia drove the 150 yards between her home and the AICC headquarters and spent five minutes to pay homage to Gulzarilal Nanda on January 22. Now, the home stretch.