SITARAM Kesri's hour of glory was his election as Congress president in June after snuffing out challengers Sharad Pawar and Rajesh Pilot. For a man who had always shied away from election, the victory was particularly sweet. It also served another purpose: the marginalisation of P.V. Narasimha Rao, who was singularly responsible for anointing Kesri as provisional president in September.
Ironically, a Rao man—his ex-political secretary Jitendra Prasada—is now daring Kesri. And the Congress boss can barely ignore the party vice-president and an elected member of the Congress Working Committee (CWC). The Kesri-Prasada honeymoon was rather brief. After a two-and-a-half month tactical courtship that began with Prasada ditching his long-time friend Sharad Pawar to propose and support Kesri at the party presidential elections, Prasada floated a parallel panel for the CWC election at the recent All India Congress Committee (AICC) plenary in Calcutta which included, among others, Pawar and Ghulam Nabi Azad, much to Kesri's chagrin.
The first thing Kesri did on his return from the plenary was to rein in Prasada. First, Kesri excluded him from the five-member panel which will chart out an action plan to follow up the plenary resolutions. Then, he roped in Arjun Singh, who had publicly denounced Prasada for not being serious enough in fighting the communal forces in the country, to tame the man. This despite the fact that during the CWC polls, Kesri had astutely refrained from backing Arjun Singh.
For Kesri, winning over Arjun Singh was necessary on another count. 10, Janpath has almost adopted the Madhya Pradesh leader as their man, and given Sonia's growing assertive role, the Congress chief's manoeuvres are understandable. As for Prasada, he will not speak the word dissent just yet. "Sitaram Kesri is my leader, and I am his vice-president. Our rivals are spreading canards about our differences," says Prasada. But their rivalry is a talking point in Congress. "Kesri went out of the way to nominate Prasada as vice-president much before the CWC election or the nomination of any AICC office-bearer. And if he asserts his views on certain issues, he has got the legitimacy by virtue of his being number two," points out an elected member of the CWC.
Prasada, of course, won't find it easy going. Kesri intends to pack the AICC with loyalists. He is also scheduled to appoint Meira Kumar, Oscar Fernandes, Tariq Anwar or Ghulam Nabi Azad as general secretaries soon. Azad, Kesri's former blue-eyed boy, might get a look-in because the Congress chief is intent on patching up with all party mates. The extent of Prasada's isolation will be determined only when the party selects a new chief for the UP Congress Committee. Prasada quit the post for the CWC polls.
A cautious strategist, Prasada camou-flages his ambition in issues that are tormenting the party. For instance, he is in favour of giving an ear to the grievances of state leaders Jagannath Mishra and Mamata Banerjee, instead of moving against them. In this, Prasada is a bit of a hardliner: he wants the party to recognise and promote leaders who have talent and organisational abilities. His other drastic views, according to informed sources, are that the party should not hesitate to dump the United Front government and face fresh polls as a "supportive role at the national and state levels has always harmed the Congress".
This tactic goes against Kesri's line which holds that by causing a rift between the Left and other UF constituents (and ideally driving the Left parties out of the coalition), there is a chance that Congress might grab the seat of power in this parliamentary tenure itself. Notwithstanding Kesri's oft-repeated observation that "my eyes are set on the organisation and not on the government", his followers believe that he will make one more attempt to snatch power from the UF at an "opportune moment". Which could come in the form of the impending Jain Commission report on the Rajiv assassination, likely to indict a host of government functionaries.
Prasada seems disinterested in power-snatching through manipulation and shows more concern about resuscitating the party organisation so that it can face elections. He dropped a broad hint at the plenary when he said that all PCCs and DCCs should identify local issues—agitate if necessary—and inform the party in three months so that a central monitor could redress the problems. Prasada also favoured punishment for office-bearers failing to achieve the target. This, he claimed, would help take the Congress to the masses once again.
The Kesri camp took it as an encroachment on the chief's prerogative when Prasada took the plea that even leaders who had been defeated in the CWC elections but had a mass base should be nominated. Kesri ruled it out, saying that "there is no such convention in the party". A conflict between the party chief and an aspiring number two is nothing new in the party. Rajiv Gandhi versus Kamalapati Tripathi or P.V.Narsimha Rao versus Arjun Singh are only few instances. Arjun Singh went to the extent of quitting the party only to return when Rao was down and out. But what turn the Kesri-Prasada rift will take depends on the two. If it promotes a culture of dissent, it might still be a healthy trend for the Congress, but if it takes the shape of an ego clash, then Prasada might end up a loser.