AFTER five years of P.V. Narasimha Rao, the new Congress mantra is Sonia Gandhi. The latest blitzkrieg in the party aimed at marginalising Rao is, according to partymen, a carefully worked out strategy by Sitaram Kesri and Sonia to stifle the former prime minister and his coterie. The new Congress president and Rajiv Gandhi’s widow do not hold Rao in any esteem and, with Kesri in the driver’s seat, those opposed to Sonia are in for a rough ride. That Sonia calls the shots is no longer disputed. No, the All India Congress Committee (AICC) headquarters has not shifted from 24, Akbar Road to her 10, Janpath residence but the hand, or in Congress-speak ‘the blessings’, of Rajiv Gandhi’s widow is evident in every move of the party leadership. That party president Kesri calls on her once a week to apprise her of party affairs only highlights her growing clout. Suddenly, ‘Soniaji’ has become a rallying point among Congressmen who predict the miracle which will revive the party once ‘Madam’ formally joins the fold.
Apart from the woo-Sonia programme, Kesri and like-minded leaders have embarked on a mission to cleanse Congress of Rao and his cronies on a warfooting. And according to reliable Congress sources, among the recent decisions which have had 10, Janpath’s ‘blessings’ are:
- The choice of Sitaram Kesri as party president.
- The unity call and the all-out effort to woo Arjun Singh, N.D Tiwari and G.K. Moopanar and his Tamil Maanila Congress.
- The re-entry of Madhavrao Scindia, K. Ramamurthy, Natwar Singh, Shiv Charan Mathur and Ashok Gehlot into the party.
- Revoking the suspension of M.L. Fotedar, Sheila Kaul and K.N. Singh; the appointment of Meira Kumar and Oscar Fernandes, known Rao-baiters, as AICC general secretaries
- Replacing Rao loyalist Maninderjit Singh Bitta by Satajit S. Gaekwad as Youth Congress chief.
- Shunting out Rao camp followers, general secretaries B.P. Maurya, Devendra Dwivedi, and Janardhan Poojary.
- The appointment of Rajinder Kaur Bhattal as the new chief minister of Punjab after the ouster of Harcharan Singh Brar.
- Revival of programmes initiated by Rajiv Gandhi.
As eulogies for Sonia touch a new high, Rao’s supporters are deserting him one by one—P. Upendra, K Rosaiah, Janardhan Reddy have all succumbed to the Sonia charm. If in the Rao era it was wrong to align with 10, Janpath, in the new dispensation, it is politically correct to meet/praise Sonia. Congress spokesman V.N. Gadgil, who was at one time seen as a Rao loyalist, articulates the new sentiment: "We need Sonia. We need the support of the Nehru family. The cadres will be electrified once Sonia joins us. She has mass appeal. If Narasimha Rao can attract 2,000 people then Soniaji can draw crowds of many thousands."
Whether Sonia will respond favo-urably to Kesri’s formal plea to join the Congress Working Committee (CWC) is yet to be seen but Congressmen in the know say she is taking a keen interest in party affairs. Two years ago, Sonia would only give a patient hearing to her callers—now she is an active participant and even offers suggestions. The ‘new’ Sonia, according to another senior Congressman who meets her regularly, is decisive and involved. She is also aware of state-level politics and keeps tabs on every significant development in the party. Also, since her approval is sought before major decisions are taken, Sonia is now in a position to exert her influence on the party.
In fact, the unity moves appear to be tailored to suit Sonia. While only those who quit the party in protest against Rao are being welcomed back, cwc member Rajesh Pilot observes that the unity process should not be a selection—all those who quit the party after 1969 should be allowed to come back.
WITH 10, Janpath identified as the key promoter of the rejuvenate-Congress agenda, the Sonia-Kesri duo is fast emerging as the top rung of the party hierarchy. Not surprisingly, all leaders who have rejoined the party—the born-again Congressmen—make a beeline for 10, Janpath and root for Sonia. Says former Tamil Nadu Congress president K. Ramamurthy, till recently in the Tiwari Congress and now back in the parent party: "Sonia should take over the reins of the party. The party needs her. The country needs her. She has inherited the ideals of Indira and Rajiv, the ideals which were trampled upon by Narasimha Rao and his coterie."
In the past few days, an impressive number of Congressmen and ex-Congressmen have flocked to see Sonia—Scindia, Balram Jakhar, A.K. Antony, V.N. Gadgil, Arjun Singh, Moopanar, Tiwari, Priyaranjan Das Munshi, M.L. Fotedar et al. Even Sonia baiters have changed tack. Says Andhra Pradesh PCC President K. Rosaiah, a staunch Rao supporter: "It will be good if Sonia joins the party. No one dare opposes her since she is the true representative of the Nehru family. In fact, she will only be fulfilling the aspirations of millions of party workers."
Ever since Kesri took over as Congress president, Rao has been feeling the heat. And can no longer put off one prime question: how long will he be able to hang on as Congress Parliamentary Party (CPP) chief? A Congressman close to Kesri observed that "Rao is likely to be removed before the budget session". As a first step, groups of MPs are being called, statewise, to tea at Kesri’s in an effort to gauge their mood. Forced on the backfoot, even Rao is hailing Sonia’s unity efforts. A senior party source claims that though there is no love lost between the former prime minister and Sonia, Rao is toeing the Kesri line for sheer survival. And with the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha, Lakhubhai Pathak and St Kitts cases against him, Rao needs the party’s support more than ever. Prime Minister Deve Gowda, in desperate need of Congress support in Parliament, is less likely to help him if he loses his grip over the CPP.
After the party’s reversals in the general elections and the recent Uttar Pradesh assembly polls, most Congressmen agree that what the Congress needs is a complete overhaul. And failing to find any other rallying platform or a leader with strong political equity, the party leadership has gone back to the Nehru family for succour. Though Sonia’s political acumen has not been put to test, many Congressmen see her as the inheritor of the Nehru legacy who could revive the Congress.
Points out Mumbai Congress chief Murli Deora: "The re-creation of the Rajiv era will be good for the party. Sonia Gandhi should join the party. The Nehru-Gandhi family has always attracted a following. Sonia Gandhi’s presence in the cwc will unify the party." Adds Kumari Anandan, Tamil Nadu’s PCC chief: "The Nehru family is the rightful leader of our party and also of our country. Sonia Gandhi should not only join the CWC but also take over the leadership of the party and the country."
The Rao camp is obviously peeved at the turn of events. It has been sidelined to such an extent that there’s even talk of launching a new party under Rao’s tutelage. When Kesri stepped up his "unite Congress" efforts, albeit with Sonia’s help, the Rao coterie was critical of her role. A week before he was sacked, general secretary B.P. Maurya commented: "Sonia may have charisma but one person alone can’t bring about unity. It has to be an all-round effort."
Ironically, Rao was among the many who had tried to persuade Sonia to join the party after Rajiv’s death. But that was four years ago and his offer, communicated by special emissary N. Janardhan Reddy, the former Andhra Pradesh chief minister, was rejected. Recalls Reddy: "There is nothing new in inviting Soniaji to join the party. I still remember Narasimha Rao summoning me and requesting me to persuade her to take an active role in politics. The Congress needs a charismatic leader and Soniaji has that quality. No one in the Congress can boast of that charisma—neither Rao nor Kesri."
But once Rao was firmly in the saddle, he began to systematically sideline Sonia. He had to ensure that his writ ran over the entire party, and that there was no alternate power centre. Some Congress leaders believe this move only spurred Sonia to take an active interest in party affairs. What irked Sonia the most was the Rao loyalists’ constant harping on the Bofors scandal. This made her all the more adamant about not isolating herself from the party. There was also a gnawing feeling of betrayal since it was Sonia who had helped Rao by rallying MPs around him when he needed it most.
Yet another reason for the rift between Sonia and Rao was the Babri Masjid demolition. Sonia felt the Ayodhya incident could have been avoided. Arjun Singh, who had by then become sharply critical of Rao, was a constant visitor to 10, Janpath those days and pressed home the point that Rao had silently presided over the tragedy. Other Congress leaders who were upset at the growing alienation of the minorities from the Congress, also veered towards the Sonia camp.
Meanwhile, Rao had managed to cut a path independent of 10, Janpath. In fact, he even stopped calling on Sonia—in the last two years he only visited her once and that too to invite her for his granddaughter’s wedding. Though Rao never spelt it out, word got around that the party president was not kindly disposed towards Sonia. And many Sonia followers were christened rebels.
Rao also alienated those who were identified as Rajiv loyalists. To rub it in, he stalled many programmes initiated by the late prime minister. Thus, funds for the Indira Mahila Rozgar Yojana were slashed from Rs 1,700 crore to Rs 70 crore. Points out a senior Congressman: "Rao cut Rajiv’s schemes to size and then introduced his own programme called the Prime Minister’s Rozgar Yojana. This was nothing but an effort to promote himself and push Rajivji to the sidelines." But as far as Sonia was concerned, Rao’s greatest folly was not paying enough attention to the Rajiv assassination probe.
While Justice Jain has gone on record that the government was not cooperating, very little action was taken on the findings of the Verma Commission. The Commission submitted its report in June 1992, but it was pulled out of cold storage in December only after Congress MPs, including Arjun Singh, demanded action. Even then, very little was done. Rao gave the impression that he was not interested in solving the tangle. The last straw for Sonia was when extracts from Rao’s yet-to-be published novel found their way to the press. There were unkind remarks about Indira Gandhi and the Nehru family. Rao was sending a clear message—that he wanted to dissociate the party from the Nehru stranglehold.
Sonia first stepped back into the limelight with a blistering attack on the Rao regime at Amethi last year, saying that the government was simply not doing enough to probe her husband’s death. There was strong speculation that she would join politics.
She did not. Today, in a different scenario, even Congressmen are not sure of her intentions. Rajiv’s widow is reserved and secretive but those who know her well enough point out that she is more inclined towards politics than ever before.
While Sonia’s unity efforts have paid dividends, its acid test will be her success in wooing Moopanar and the TMC-DMK combine. For now, the former Congress leader has adopted a watch-and-wait policy: "Let Sonia first step into politics. She hasn’t said anything so far. As for the unity efforts let us see how far it goes. But the TMC will remain a separate entity." If Moopanar can be lured to support the Congress from outside, then it will be a major victory for 10, Janpath. But even if that does not happen, the Congress has clearly charted out a new course—if Kesri is the captain of the ship, Sonia is the navigator.