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Still Going, But Not So Strong

Rao may have mastered the art of survival; but as reverses mount, the rebels prepare to finally dislodge him

Still Going, But Not So Strong

RAJESH Pilot, an elected member of the Congress Working Committee, squarely blames party chief P.V. Narasimha Rao for the recent electoral debacle and asks him to quit. Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Digvijay Singh pulls no punches and reiterates that Rao must give up one of two things—the party chief's post or the leadership of the parliamentary party. Far away in Arunachal Pradesh, Gegong Apang rises in revolt. He has even got the official party candidate for the Rajya Sabha, Oman Deori, defeated, saying her nomination against the state unit's wishes was symptomatic of Rao's dictatorial style of functioning. In Punjab, nearly 50 party MLAs bay for Chief Minister H.S. Brar's blood. And in Maharashtra in the west, pro and anti-Pawar Congressmen continue to trade charges, making a mockery of Rao loyalists' efforts to project a united image of the party. Clearly, the cracks are widening in the 111-year-old party, and Rao seems quite incapable of playing disciplinarian.

The inaction, however, does not stem from Rao's well-known incapacity to take quick decisions. The drift, it would seem, has more to do with the former prime minister's fast eroding moral authority. Not only on account of the fact that he has just led the Congress to its worst-ever electoral performance, but because of the charges of personal corruption against him and members of his family.

It is this sense of helplessness and resultant loss of authority that has perhaps made things much easier for Digvijay Singh. The Congress lost 32 out of 40 Lok Sabha seats in Madhya Pradesh. Segment-wise counting revealed that a simultaneous assembly poll would have seen it lose 280 of the total 320 seats. A mega-delegation of Congressmen from the state called on Rao on the eve of the recent CWC meetings in Delhi, seeking Singh's ouster. But Rao pleaded helplessness.

The chief minister, in fact, seemed more threatened by followers of Congress rebels in his state—like Arjun Singh and Madhavrao Scindia—than the high command's wrath. But now his threat perceptions have subsided considerably on that front too: the rebel duo made it clear that no one is keen to topple his regime at this over the state on a platter to the BJP. Digvijay realises the trouble potential of his erstwhile party colleagues too well—he has carefully struck a critical tone vis-a-vis Rao, so as to keep Arjun Singh and Scindia on his right side.

It seems that the days when the high command gained strength from the weaknesses of regional satraps are long gone. At the moment, the latter are calling the shots as Rao remains perpetually besieged. More so now, as the initial murmurs gather momentum and snowball into an explicit demand for his ouster. What's worse for Rao, the rebels no longer shy away from raking up the corruption charges as a handle against him. "Rao has already started deliberating in terms of quitting the party post with some of his colleagues and friendly journalists," revealed a senior Congress leader close to Rao. But, it's not a decision, only an "assessment", he hastened to add.

An enfeebled centre has also forced state leaders to chart out an independent course for themselves according to local needs. The CWC meeting on June 13 advocated an alliance with the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) in Uttar Pradesh. The equations in such an eventuality will be interesting. In the parliamentary elections, the Congress secured only 12.9 per cent of the vote in the state, losing security deposits in 72 out of 85 constituencies. The BSP polled a promising 20.6 per cent of the vote. Thus, overtures to the BSP would give the impression that the Congress is not confident of contesting the coming Uttar Pradesh assembly elections on its own and that it would accept the BSP as a senior partner.

Digvijay too has been wooing the BSP independently, with its 11 members in the state assembly extending him support on crucial issues, much to the chagrin of other state Congress leaders. Rao confidant and AICC General Secretary Devendra Dwivedi said at Bhopal on June 18 that an "allianceis being explored only at the Uttar Pradesh level". Digvijay is hardly impressed. "This is a phase of political alliances and, given the Dalit support the BSP enjoys, we should give it a try," he says. And fortunately for him, expelled Congress leaders Arjun Singh and Scindia are letting him explore his own means of survival.

It is at this delicate juncture that the Rs 133-crore urea scandal—in which Rao'sson Prabhakar and another relative, B. Sanjeeva Rao, stand accused amidst reports that even Rao's PMO was involved—has come as a powerful missile for both the political parties opposed to the Congress as well as Rao critics within the party. Simultaneously, the Bailadila mines 'sellout' to Nippon Dendro—in which the Madhya Pradesh Government was kept in too, there is talk of transactions not entirely above board.

Hit as he is by scandal and rebellion, Rao's critics are already writing his political obituary even as he turns 76 on June 28. Rao is seeking refuge in general platitudes on reinvigorating the party—to be delivered from a Youth Congress forum that his supporter M.S. Bitta has scheduled for that day. Incidentally, after Rao, Bitta is the only other Congress leader to hold twin posts—he is a minister in Punjab and president of the Youth Congress.

Rao did ask party workers in Orissa's Behrampore, the constituency he represents in Parliament, to be prepared for a mid-term poll. Coupled with this came the warning that support to the United Front Government was not a blind one—a volte face in less than a week after he pledged in Parliament full support for five years. By raising the election bogey, Rao obviously wanted to convey that this was no time for party workers to squabble over the leadership issue and that he was prepared to lead the party aggressively. And that the support to the Deve Gowda regime was purely a tactical move—a damage control exercise to restore the Congress' secular credentials, lost after the Ayodhya demolition. The warning to the United Front regime was none too veiled: expediting corruption cases against him and his relatives would mean cutting the branch on which it is seated.

While the threat could upset the United Front, but the Congress rebels have refused to take it lying down. On June 21—six days after he finally raised the lone voice of rebellion against Rao in the CWC—Pilot accompanied Prime Minister Gowda to the Ajmer Sharief and Pushkar shrines in Rajasthan and demanded that the corruption cases be expedited. This assumes significance in view of the impending interrogation of Rao in the JMM bribery case as the proposed AICC session nears. It was Pilot who had earlier demanded the arrest of Chandraswami, a controversial figure close to Rao.

This time, Pilot met Rao on June 15 and personally informed him that he would speak up in the CWC forum. As a couple of Rao loyalists—Sitaram Kesri and Dwivedi—tried to obstruct Pilot, he warned: "If the Congress forum is not available to me to say what I want to, I'll go out and address the press." Rao refused to respond, but that the days ahead won't be smooth for him was written clearly on the wall.

The Congress President's counter-moves have not borne much fruit. Only in Tamil Nadu, Vazhapadi Ramamurthy—the rebel who joined the Congress(T)—has rebelled again and rejoined the parent party. The CWC move to get back all the Congress leaders who have left the party after 1969 is yet to elicit a response as the call is yet to be ratified by the AICC. But those who have been expelled recently, like Arjun Singh, N.D. Tiwari and Scindia, have made Rao's exit the condition for their return. As has the Tamil Maanila Congress leadership.

 In West Bengal, despite a notable improvement in party fortunes in the recent elections, the rank and file is still confused over the Congress having become an accessory to the Left Front at the Centre. In Bihar, Gujarat and Rajasthan, party leaders like Tariq Anwar, Ahmed Patel, Sanat Mehta and Ashok Gehlot are already playing an active role against Rao. All in all, in the whole of India, only the Orissa unit seems solidly behind the Congress president, and surely that is not enough to keep him going.

So, while the first salvo was fired by Pilot at the CWC meeting, the next battle is expected during the AICC meeting which Rao has promised to convene in New Delhi in the first half of July. Pilot will, no doubt, exert every sinew to dislodge Rao. But sources close to him admit th the is still unsure of the kind of backing he will draw. Says a Pilot confidant: "Trouble is, before any crucial meeting, there are any number of people expressing solidarity with Rajeshji. But when it comes to formally articulating the views in any fora, they either remain quiet, or mouth generalities. But we are trying. We are in touch with AICC members. The feeling is overwhelmingly in our favour."

Rao loyalists are also setting up contacts for the battle royale. Whether or not the dissidents finally manage to dislodge him, however, must remain for the moment, in the realm of speculation.

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