This summer the Congress completed its first five-year stint out of power. Sitting in the Opposition is a proposition not many Congressmen are comfortable with but the recent string of victories in the assembly elections and the fact that it is likely to add two more states—Punjab and Uttaranchal—to its present tally of 11 states has instilled a long-absent sense of confidence in Congressmen. The state-level recuperation has also helped revive the party at the grassroots level and given the stamp of credibility to Sonia Gandhi's leadership.
Indeed, much of the rejuvenation of the Congress is linked to the maturing of Sonia as a politician. Congressmen relate with a measure of pride that their party president has at last come into her own and has got her act together. Gone is the Sonia who was unsure of herself. She now has her own people in the cwc. She has not hesitated in seeking the services of the best talent in the party—Manmohan Singh and Narasimha Rao. She has begun to be actively involved in drawing up Congress strategies and party leaders have begun to credit her with political insight.
Notes Congress secretary Anil Shastri: "Her political acumen is much sharper than what most people believe. Even though there are sections within the Congress creating pinpricks for her, she is handling things deftly."
Seeing her growing clout, Congressmen have stopped sniggering at her ceo style of functioning that lays considerable emphasis on setting up committees and drafting strategy papers. During the recent chief ministers' conference, for instance, she circulated a five-point agenda. Apart from the emphasis on economy and administration, it also weaved in allusions to concerns such as ecology and environment. But not one of her CMs pointed out the difficulty in translating these concepts into rural votes. Meek acceptance is the only mantra at 24, Akbar Road because Congressmen realise that she is their only ticket to power.
Part of Sonia's CEO approach involves organising training camps for party workers so that they are aware of which issues to raise both at the district level and in Parliament. Explains Mani Shankar Aiyer, who is in charge of organising these campaigns: "The party is marching ahead with a medium-term agenda instead of a short-term one."
Exposing corruption in the bjp is the dominant theme at these training camps. The party has roped in ngos, journalists and Cong-ressmen such as Prithviraj Chavan and Kapil Sibal to talk about the defence, disinvestment, Enron, telecom and the stockmarket scams. Clearly, the Congress does not want to repeat the fiasco of the last two Parliament sessions where it got much flak for stalling the House without any specific strategy in mind.
Party leaders also point out with a measure of pride that Sonia has become assertive. They cite her outburst against Atal Behari Vajpayee in the last session of Parliament as proof of her ability to react spontaneously instead of merely parroting a written text. And now, on the eve of her trip to the US, her loyalists have yet another plus point to talk about—'Politician Sonia' is also 'Statesman Sonia', they tell you. "It was a long-standing invitation," says Congressman Murli Deora.
There is no dearth of leaders praising her for bringing the party back on an even keel. Says party general secretary Mohsina Kidwai: "She came to us at a time the party was scattered. Her biggest achievement is that she has united the party.Earlier, we ruled six mostly marginal states. Because of her, we now have 11. These include states like Rajasthan and Delhi."
Coming to power in the states is an achievement Sonia is keen to showcase. It was almost as if to demonstrate to the country that the Congress is a party in the reckoning that Sonia recently invited all her 11 chief ministers to Delhi and paraded them before the national media. The next day, papers were full of pictures of all the Congress president's men! This show of strength sent out a not-so-subtle message to the bjp on the eve of the crucial Uttar Pradesh assembly elections.
Points out Chavan: "The timing of the chief ministers' conference underlines the fact that we rule 11 states. The tally is far bigger than what the bjp has. In fact, if you total up the population in the 11 states, it comes to almost 50 per cent of India's population." According to party strategists, the Congress will win at least two of the four states going to polls early next year. This, Congressmen tell you, will further add to the credibility and confidence of the party.
By spreading its tentacles at the state level, the Congress is positioning itself as a party that has a very credible chance of winning back the Centre. Says party general secretary Kamal Nath, "The states are going to be showcased as models of Congress governments. Our election plank is not going to be based on caste or class. It is good governance."
While good governance is the new buzzword, the new Sonia Gandhi is very clear that her chief ministers should carve an identity distinct from the bjp. According to a 10, Janpath insider, even an established leader like Digvijay Singh was pulled up for seeming to be soft on the Vajpayee government. Says he, "Digvijay was not seen to be attacking the Centre enough, so a message was sent to him and after that he has gone out of his way to be critical."
Sonia has also shown that she does not hesitate to crack the whip when her loyalists fail to perform. During the last organisational reshuffle, Congress general secretary Prabha Rao was stripped of her post on this ground even though it was the Congress president who promoted her to general secretary. Similarly, her private secretary, V. George, was sidelined when the cbi accused him of corruption. Says Aiyer, "After three years as president and three reshuffles, her team has settled in. We now know that these are the faces that she wants around her."
Instead of sulking in the wilderness, the Congress has already begun to draw up strategies much in advance for the next parliamentary elections. According to insiders, Sonia's masterplan is to concentrate on states like Maharashtra, Orissa, Andhra Pradesh and Gujarat, where the Congress hopes to garner enough seats to balance out a dismal showing in UP, West Bengal and Bihar. Points out a cwc member, "It is impossible to win 48 Lok Sabha seats in UP but the Congress can win that many from Maharashtra. And in the end, it's numbers that count." This then is the party's formula for a comeback at the Centre.
Currently, Sonia's graph is at an all-time high. Even though it is arguable whether it was the nda that lost or the Congress which won the recent assembly elections, Sonia has turned the event into a credibility test for her leadership. Her followers claim that the Congress is the only national party with governments all over India. Moreover, her US visit is of a piece with the Nehru-Gandhi image of being significant players on the world stage, an image that never fails with the Congress votebank at home.No wonder there are so many smug smiles on the faces under the Gandhi topis these days.
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