SITARAM KESRI was all warm and gracious when Prime Minister H.D. Deve Gowda came calling on him for a pre-midnight lobby session on October 30. Gowda wanted the big-brothers continued "blessings and guidance". What that means, shorn of euphemism, is that the minority United Front Government has realised it cant take blanket support from the Congress too much for granted. And if one sees Gowda visiting Kesri far more often than Narasimha Rao these days, that only confirms the rising stature of the latest septuagenarian to lord it over the Congress. Kesri is clearly consolidatingmaking good use of the natural default advantage he got as a successor to the unpopular and tainted Rao.
Clinching proof of that came with Kesris tough-worded outburst barely 12 hours later at the Ferozeshah Kotla ground. He pronounced that Congress support should not be construed as "our weakness". The Gowda Government should consult its largest supporting party on each major issue, Kesri stipulated. The none-too-fine print was: the Congress would not flinch from asking for its pound of flesh in exchange for propping up the UF.
Kesris speech did not have the intent and, therefore, the effect of immediate withdrawal of support. On a personal level, his assertive posture was meant to convey the limited message, at the moment, that he alone calls the shots in the Congress and that theres no dual leadership with Rao. The extra edge of belligerence was the effect adopted for a parallel dramathe one in Uttar Pradesh. The UF had stayed hesitant about backing a Congress-BSP alliance because of Mulayam Singh Yadavs antipathy towards prospective chief minister Mayawati. In response, the state Congress unit commandeered by former Rao hand Jitendra Prasada was insisting on outright withdrawal of support to the UF in New Delhi. Kesri, to buy time, had to keep them placated.
"Kesris was only a tactical threat and Gowda understands that. So we wont react. Kesri will think of actually bringing down the UF regime only when he can replace Gowda. And thats not possible unless he fully consolidates his position and that has not happened so far," says a CWC member.
The feeling in the core circles of the party is that Kesri will soon emphatically distance himself from Rao. They predict some plain-speak from him as the corruption cases Rao faces in courts remain in the spotlight. Using the pressure to get Rao to quit as the parliamentary party boss would be part of the move. Then, he will try to establish a rapport with the minorities, backwards and Dalits. Positive signals on this would create the healthy climate required for getting former Congressmen, including many MPs now in the UF, back into the party fold. Simultaneously, the Congress MPs will start speaking in a shriller tone against the UF Governments policies in Parliament during the winter session beginning November 20 and beyond.
Raos political leverage, by now, has dwindled to almost nothing and his immediate career seems beyond repair. Kesri called on him at his 9, Motilal Nehru Marg residence the day he appeared before the special court in the St Kitts forgery case. "Yes, Raos appearance in the court and his getting chargesheeted in the JMM bribery case have damaged the partys reputation," Kesri told journalists. But he said the decision to quit or not to quit the CPP leadership "has to be his".
Rao now spends his time with his counsel, and his fast-receding flock of supporters. Sources close to him say he no more solicits astrological opinion about the prospects of his succeeding S.D. Sharma as President of India, but simply wants the peers to suggest a dignified exit from the current mess. At the same time, besides holding yagna and puja sessions on their advice, Rao seems to have applied his own political judgement in not giving up the CPP post so easily.
In a rearguard show, a host of senior par-tymenS.B. Chavan, Pranab Mukherjee, S.S. Ahluwalia, Suresh Kalmadi and Salman Khursheed among themformed a line of support when Rao deposed before the special court in Vigyan Bhavan on October 30-31. Rao camp followers plan to repose their faith in his leadership on him at the November 21 CPP meeting. "Rao need not quit because of the fresh chargesheet," asserts Kalmadi, CPP secretary. The difference now is, that it is no longer the majority view. "Is this much of ignominy not enough for the party? Should not he bow out at least now?" asks a key Kesri confidant. Even V.N. Gadgil, the mild-mannered party spokesman, refuses to plump for Rao. He echoes Kesris detached and guarded "its for him to decide". Their common assumption here is that Rao will have to go on his own.
Kesri has met Sonia Gandhi and got her nod for readmitting Madhavrao Scindia, a man perceived to be clean despite his name figuring in the hawala trial. Another clean-up signal came when he inducted Manmohan Singh into the CWC. That Raos finance minister has come in handy as a mascot is clear: he has also been made chairman of the powerful committee to oversee all government functioning.
In the second phase of Kesris revamp plan, the nearly three-year-old decision expelling K.N. Singh, Sheila Dixit, M.L. Fotedar and K. Natwar Singh may be annulled. There are indications that Sonia favours the return of Arjun Singh and his Congress(T), and Kesri wont oppose this despite his misgivings vis-a-vis Singh. Also, by appointing Muslim leaders Tariq Anwar, Ahmed Patel and Ghulam Nabi Azad as political secretary, treasurer and general secretary, Kesri has made his first overtures to the community which disowned the Congress after the Babri masjid demolition.
Apart from rehabilitating the partys secular credentials, Kesri knows he also has to counter the UF on its own turfsocial justice. That is an agenda the long-time Mandalite has been espousing in the Congress for years. For starters, he has instructed state Congress chiefs and legislature party leaders to be on the alert on issues concerning SC/STs, minorities, women and the downtrodden. "Congressmen should rush to affected areas and provide all possible relief in case of any atrocities and must condemn such incidents," he said, adding, "detailed reports of such cases and the reliefs and help extended by the Congress should be sent promptly to the AICC." Armed with this pro-weak message, Kesri intends to go on a morale-building missionaddressing party rallies to check further disgruntlement in the rank and file. On November 1, he visited Himachal Pradesh. Similar trips to Punjab and other states are on the anvil.
As for reactivating the party apparatus, the Manmohan Singh committee is just the first step. Kesri now intends to appoint the seven-member Central Parliamentary Board, the apex body which Rao neglected for five years. "All general secretaries will meet the party president every Fridayor more frequently, if requiredto discuss organisational and national issues," says Anwar, political secretary to Kesri.
FOR all this psychotherapy, the Congress under Kesri has not succeeded in tackling specific problems in the states. On November 1, Jitendra Prasada demanded "immediate withdrawal of support to the UF". The Utter Pradesh unit chief, who accused the UF of "blackmail and betrayal", had to be mollified with the reminder that the Congress had to bear it "so long as the BJP has to be kept out". It was only Kanshi Rams image-spoiling assault on journalists that soured the gameplan to coax the UF, especially Mulayam, into settling for a BSP chief minister.
Kesri knows the Uttar Pradesh situation merits an urgent overhaul. Pras-adas removal, a key component of his grand plan, seems a near-certainty. The immediate provocation is the feedback that 18 out of 33 Uttar Pradesh Congress MLAs, some of them Pras-ada aides, met BJP leaders Kalyan Singh and Kalraj Mishra and offered their support. Fateh Bahadur Singh, an influential Congress MLA, also met A.B.
Vajpayee in Delhi with an identical proposaldevelopments that, in Kesris view, can only be a harbinger of the partys further marginalisation in the state. Especially if rebel support helps the BJP take the throne.
That the Congress has lost whatever chances it had of sharing power in Uttar Pradesh is a serious blow. The claim that the BJPs loss in Gujarat, and the installation of the Congress-backed Shankersinh Vaghela ministry, more than makes up for its reverses in Uttar Pradesh has come under severe attack within the party. "Vaghela is an out-and-out RSS man. The Congress has made this compromise for the first time in its life within days of Kesris takeover," says a CWC member. Indeed, party leaders debated this aspect before a decision was made. "It can be reviewed and withdrawn any moment," Kesri said, and prevailed on the dissenters.
The other main challenge is to bring home the former partymen. If the Cong-ress(T) returns to its parent party, that will upset the UF structure (Union ministers Satpal Maharaj and Sisram Ola will have to quit) and its equation with the Congress. Kesri has also had preparatory talks with TMC leader G.K. Moopanar but nothing concrete has emerged so far. Acceding to the TMC demand for a Congress-DMK alliance in Tamil Nadu may be no problem. The TMC is in a dilemma for it still finds the UF commitment to greater autonomy for states attractive. But the Kesri camp is convinced that enough UF constituents will prefer to back the Congress rather than go to the polls. Ex-Congressmen like S. Bang-arappa too have been sending feelers.
Congress insiders claim ideological validity for Kesris proposed assault on the UF, saying it has failed on the very secular-national agenda that inspired Congress support. The litany: Gowdas secret meeting with Bal Thackeray in Bombay; the UFs refusal to support a Congress-BSP alliance to keep the BJP away in Uttar Pradesh; even Indias defeat in the UN for a non-permanent seat in the Security Council. "Well raise these issues in the winter session. Were not under any obligation to support the UF on all issues. Well play opposition too," says Gadgil.
That would be the beginning. The UF regime may not collapse immediately. But its remaining lifespan may be decided by the content of Congress criticism in the House. If the message is that the Government is non-performing, Gowda may yet survive. But the moment the Congress says the UF is not secular, that would be the death-knell as the very basis for Congress support would be over.
Kesri, by raking up the Gowda-Thackeray meeting, has pelted the first stone. Whether an avalanche will follow will depend on how smoothly Kesri can get rid of Rao and dig his heels in for battle as the saviour of his battered party.