FOR Congressmen who have long been chanting the hymn Sonia lao desh bachao, fulfillment came on Saturday, March 14. It was a day marked by drama, but for a sizeable number of partymen, nothing could have been more gratifying than the announcement by Sharad Pawar that Mrs G had at last decided to take over the presidentship of the 113-year-old party from the much-discredited Sitaram Kesri. Sonias entry was in keeping with the prescription of the resident doctors of 24, Akbar Road that the return of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty was the only panacea for a party on a downslide.
The atmosphere at the AICC headquarters was electric. For the moment, Congressmen were too excited for either introspection or evaluation. They see in Sonias historic announcement and the exit of Kesri the beginning of a new and welcome phase. No one seemed to doubt her capabilities as the CEO of the party. Even the wranglings in the party were brushed aside. As Congress leader Salman Khursheed put it: "There can be no quarrel in the Congress now. The hierarchy has been established. At the top of the pyramid we now have someone and everyone else will fall in place. Also, there would be no doubt as to who other parties should talk to when it comes to forming an alliance. The Congress now has one voice." The CWC has passed a resolution that Sonias appointment would be ratified by an AICC session to be convened on April 4.
Even as Sonia stepped in, a new order seemed to be fast evolving. At the core of it is Pawar who looks a clear choice for the leader of the Congress Parliamentary Party (CPP). While the younger crop of Congress leaders hope to find a voice with Sonia, old loyalists like Arjun Singh and Oscar Fernandes are not expected to be forgotten either. Incidentally, many party MPs had been calling upon Sonia in the last fortnight and imploring her to change the old guardtypified by Kesriwhich had not only been unable to galvanise the party but failed to strike the right alliances with regional parties in the run-up to the elections.
The fact that Kesri was out of favour with 10, Janpath as well as senior party leaders was evident at the March 14 meeting of the CWC. The overwhelming majority was for Kesri to quit and allow Sonia to step in. The beleaguered Congress president left in a huff and later told the press that Sonias induction was "not constitutional" and he had not resigned but only offered to resign. His was the voice of an embittered man who felt that after putting in decades for the Nehru-Gandhi family he had been forced to make a humiliating exit. But Kesri has very few friends in the party with even the last Congressman rallying around Sonia and the man once dubbed old man-in-a-hurry now says he is in no mood to fight. "I am not for confrontation. At the age of 83 I am not in a position to fight. I can only go to the people," he said.
But what of Sonias organisational and managerial skills? Her first few months are bound to have a tentative touch. She has no experience in dealing with the day-to-day affairs of the party. At best she has only acted as an arbitrator in the squabbles between Congressmen. Now the party needs to be rebuilt and she would have to depend on a group of senior leaders to advise her and execute her decisions. This clique is likely to emerge as the new power centre. While Pawar will enjoy an elevated status in the new dispensation after his electoral success and rout of the Shiv Sena on home turf Maharashtra, there is talk within sections of the party that 10, Janpath would like to rein in the Maratha leader as well. The coterie, of course, will see to this.
The Pawar camp has been very careful in the last two weeks to reiterate that its leader has the blessings of 10, Janpath. The Maratha leader has been calling on Sonia and seeking her advice ever since elections were announced. The growing stature of Pawar is cause for concern for his rivals in the party who would be only too happy to see him sidelined.
Observers point out that Sonias entry is a return to the Rajiv Raj. Since May 1991, rarely has the AICC headquarters seen such a gathering of past and present Congressmen including former MPs and ministers. Among them were old-timers like S.B. Chavan, Sudhakarrao Naik, H.K.L. Bhagat. Even Mani Shankar Aiyar who had quit the party, only to flirt with political extinction, was back and welcomed by friends. Sycophancy was at its peak. Despite the short notice, within two hours of the announcement that Sonia had taken the plunge, local Congressmen had assembled a crowd of workers before the party office. A band was in attendance to belt out the Sonia aao desh bachao theme song of the election campaign.
Sonia steps in at a crucial time, just after the Congress weathered an election that nobody wanted and was going through an exercise in government formation that nobody seemed sure of how to handle. So when AIADMK chief Jayalalitha finally relented and sent her letter of acceptance to the BJP on March 14, almost everyone breathed a sigh of relief. The Congress, which was trying to solve its internal problems by getting its president to accept his own resignation earlier in the week, saw but a slender chance at forming a government. Senior Congress leaders Pawar, Manmohan Singh, Madhavrao Scindia and Vijaya Bhaskara Reddy who had accompanied Kesri to meet the President made it clear that the party was only exploring possibilities but could not stake its claim to form the government.
This was in keeping with Sonias advice to par-tymen to approach government formation with a measure of caution. The Congress has adopted a wait and watch policyit will let the BJP form the government and then pull the rug once the Vajpayee government begins to show signs of cracking. This is one reason why the March 14 CWC did not even discuss the formation of any government in which the Congress would have participation. For the moment the party seems more than content to sit in the Opposition benches.
Indeed, ever since the poll results, there has been a great deal of scepticism in the Congress. Says Pranab Mukherjee: "We would like to form a government, but where are the numbers? Are members of the UF going to go with us?" Almost a similar question was thrown by Pawar: "If they (the BJP) have the numbers, let them form a government." Well-placed party sources say Pawar was and is keen to form the government but such plans have been put on hold for the moment. The Congress leader is, however, said to be keeping his lines of communication open with Mamata Banerjee as well as Jayalalitha. Interestingly, before the elections, Pawar had worked out the modalities of an alliance with the AIADMK which got shot down by the party high command. But for now its time for the Congress not to push itself into the limelight in a hurry. Scindia told Outlook that the time had come to "sit in the Opposition and take stock of the situation."
The meeting to elect a CPP leader on March 16 is regarded as crucial. According to well-placed sources, Pawar is keen on the job. In the mother of all hung Parliaments, it will not be long before an opportunity to pull down the government presents itself. And if that were to happen, Pawar would be in line for prime ministership. Consequently, there are many Congressmen who are bound to oppose Pawars candidature and prefer Sonia to keep Pawar in check. Unfortunately, though some of them may be close to 10, Janpath, their connection with the electorate is less convincing and Pawar, along with Reddy, is regarded as among the few Congress leaders who have a mass base in their respective states.
Sonias entry has revitalised the party cadre and state units across the country have been rejoicing the return of the dynasty, but there still remain some unanswered questions. No one quite knows Sonias style of functioning. All along she has remained inaccessible to most Congressmen except the senior leadership. Will she break this tradition and make her presence felt at 24, Akbar Road or will she remote-control her operations from 10, Janpath? If her manner of approaching the gigantic task she has chosen fail to click, the Congress hopes in her may well turn out ephemeral. But for now, it seems like renaissance season.