SIX months ago, Congress president Sonia Gandhi was the queen bee to Atal Behari Vajpayees lame duck. Now, in the Vajpayee vs Sonia race, shes beginning to look the under-dog. And the Congress is no longer the resurgent party within striking distance of power.
A combination of factors, acts of omission and com-mission, appear to have depressed the Congress prospects at the hustings. Party leaders who predicted an easy majority of 300-plus have now lowered their estimates by 100. IB reports say the crowds at Sonias rallies have decreased and Congress strategists have no clear idea on how the party should use her during the election campaign. Indeed, party leaders privately express the fear that projecting her as prime minister may hurt rather than help the Congress.
In the CWC, theres confusion instead of coherence, dithering instead of decision-making, dissidence instead of pulling together. "Shes a consensus gatherer and the times call for a risk-taker," a Con-gress MP observed.
A month before the first round of polling, Sonias still an enigma. Denied access to 10, Janpath, the media hasnt had a chance to demystify the Congress president. She remains remote, untouchable, a relatively unknown quantity. Her views are articulated in set speeches or by the Ajit Jogis, Kapil Sibals and Madhavrao Scindias. The nation has yet to hear from Sonia Gandhi.
Many of Sonias problems stem from her style of functioning. Basically a shy person, her interactions with the world outside 10, Janpath are limited and laboured. Her feedback is constricted, her decisions based on the wisdom of her advisors rather than an independent network of informers. For instance, her decision to back the R J D i n Bihar clearly went against her own better judgement. Shed questioned chief minister Rabri Devis "moral authority to rule" but backtracked on Arjun Singhs advice.
Not a few of Sonias errorsstem from an overdependence on personal loyalty. Hence, the prominence of armchair strategists rather than mass leaders at 10, Janpath. She hasnt been doing a good job of holding on to her winning cards and making them work for her. She lost Sharad Pawar, which she could ill-afford, to keep a non-productive Arjun Singh happy. She still hasnt learnt; a Digvijay Singh or Rajesh Pilot, both mass leaders and e ffective campaigners, carry less weight than the Pranab Mukherjee-Arjun Singh duo, despite their past failures . "Arjun decides what should be done and Pranab decides how it should be done," comments a C W C colleague .
Her sense of timing too has proved faulty. On the advice of the coterie, she chose to topple the Vajpayee government on a non-issue at a time when the onion-powered pro - Congress wave had petered out. Her strident bid for the prime ministership failed miserably simply because the coterie didnt gauge SP chief Mulayam Singh Yadav properly. Later, she failed to read H V P chief Bansi Lal correctly and the Congress lost face in Haryana .
Many Congressmen feel their star campaigner ought to project herself as party leader, a sort of rajmata, rather than prime minister as Pawar had suggested. They feel the party would do much better with Manmohan Singh as the prime ministerial nominee. Sonia, however, continues to assert that the CPP will elect its leader, which fools no one. Even if she withdraws f rom the contest, an electorate which witnessed her prompt return as Congress president might not buy the gesture. "Her credibility has diminished," admitted an AICC office-bearer.
Those who interact with her say Sonias sincerity of purpose is apparent but so is her inability to come to grips with the Indian polity and shape events in the way she had envisaged. Panchmarhi, where she drew a picture of a cleansed and resurgent Congress, firmly straddling a support base rooted in all sections of society, has become an El Dorado. One significant factor which could upset the Congress apple cart was beyond its control: Kargil. Keen on delayed polls, the Congress couldn't have anticipated the conflict with Pakistan. In a post-war situation, senior Congressmen admit, the incumbent government has a natural advantage. Paradoxically, the BJP may have done itself a favour by fouling up.
Increasingly, partymen feel the damage could have been min-imised if Kargil had been handled differently. During the CWC meeting on Kargil, at least one member had suggested that the Congress avoid attacking the government during the conflict and instead, express solidarity with the prime minister and focus its verbal assault on Pakistan. A strategy, he argued, which would pre-vent the BJP from cornering the nationalist plank.
Sonia chose to go with the majority opinion. The Congress took the line that its attack on the government in general and Vajpayee in particular was simply a demand for the truth about Kargil. "We ' re only asking what the nation is asking," said CWC member Jitendra Prasada. The party's focus has been on the loss of lives in the war and the anger of bereaved mothers and widows. There 's even talk of fielding Lt Haneefuddin's mother as a Congress nominee.
Having visited the bereaved families, Sonia is said to have been struck by their anguish and anger against the government which took away their young men. What's worrying Congressmen is that this may not translate into a generalised, countrywide feeling of outrage, that the anguish could be lost in a media-fed mood of sat-isfaction at having "given Pakistan a bloody nose". The Congress could come out looking like a party-pooper.
Kargil was the latest in a series of setbacks. It was preceded by the revolt of Pawar, Purno Sangma and Tariq Anwar, an event with damaging psychological if not numerical effects. All three were members of the CWC and two were party heavy-weights who enjoyed considerable credibility. The party was faced with the prospect of losing heavily in Maharashtra, the single biggest contributor of MPs in '98. With its marginal presence in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal— the other states with the larger number of Lok Sabha seats— how was it going to garner a majority?
THE state unit in Maharashtra is in disarray with two-thirds of the C L P having defected to Pawar. With no leader of stature left, the P C C chief has been looking helplessly to the Centre. Madhavrao Scindia has been making valiant e ff o rts to play the Maratha card to counter Pawar. Perhaps the only bright spot in the Congress firmament is Karn a t a k a , w h e re P C C chief S.M. Krishna has managed to unite a fractious p a rt y. Even here, the defection of Rajshekhar Murthy has made a dent in the part y 's Lingayat vote-bank. In West Bengal, like-wise, defections to the Trinamool Congress and the Congress' iden-t i fication with the Left Front have damaged its pro s p e c t s . The party did not split outside of Maharashtra and Meghalaya, but an escape hatch was left open for malcontents. In the short run, Sonia asserted her authority over the party by threatening to quit as president, but in the long run, the split strengthened dis-sidence. It's become difficult for Sonia to take a firm line with troublemakers. The tough decisions she was expected to take in the wake of her strident speech at the AICC session havent materialised. Punjab is a case in point, where former CM Rajinder Kaur Bhattal was served a show-cause notice several months ago, but hasnt quit needling PCC chief Amarinder Singh. Sonia was forced to hold unity meetings with leaders and dissidents from Haryana, Madhya Pradesh and Punjab last week. Dissidence plagues the party in Andhra Pradesh, UP and even in Bihar, where it barely has a presence. And it will only worsen after ticket allocation.
Indirectly, the Haryana bungle also demonstrated the new bargaining power discontented leaders have vis-a-vis the party high command. Sonia, with characteristic credulity, bought Bansi Lals promise that he would step down after the Congress rescued his government. When he reneged, the party dared not play along with him for fear of alienating Bhajan Lal and w i t h d rew support, clearing the way for the I N L D s Om Prakash Chautala. The Jat reservation issue in Rajasthan is another example of mismanagement. The Jats, promised O B C status by the Congress, voted enmasse for the party in the assembly masse for the party in the assembly election. With the Congress government having failed to implement the promise, the powerful Jat Mahasabha has threatened to turn against it. "Our manifesto had not made a categorical promise. It said that we would hasten the process of reservation for some castes. We should have stuck to that stand and maintained it would be done in due course. Instead, we promised and then we drew back," says a senior Rajasthan leader. One Jat leader estimates the Congress tally might plunge from 20 to
Real politik demanded Sonia quit the moral high ground she took at Panchmarhi to get into bed with the charg e - sheeted AIADMK supremo J.Jayalalitha and R J D chief Laloo Prasad Yadav. But the "M G R" formula didnt quite work out and the Congress meekly accepted 12 seats out of 40 in Tamil Nadu. Likewise, sources say Laloo is driving a hard bargain and is unlikely to part with more than 15 seats, most of them in the electorally-unfriendly terrain of south Bihar.
The single most desirable alliance partner for the party, the BSP, continues to play hard to get. The failure to reach an understanding with Kanshi Ram is a setback in Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Punjab. At least two senior leaders in Madhya Pradesh have been directly affected. Scindias decision to shift from Gwalior, where the BSP is a significant factor, to Guna is said to have been prompted by his greatly diminished margin in 98 and the reverses suffered by the party in this area in the assembly elections. Likewise, Arjun Singh, entrusted with the task of negotiations with Kanshi Ram, has said he will not contest from Satna, where the BSP is powerful. "On the one hand, we were raiding the BSP in Uttar Pradesh. On the other, we want an understanding," commented a UPCC member. Likewise, the Congress negotiated a split in the TMC during the process of negotiating with it.
Another major handicap for the party is its lack of stellar campaigners. Only four members of the CWC are from the Lok Sabha. The party plans to field outsiders and surprise candidates, as in 84, when it pitted Scindia against Vajpayee and Amitabh Bachchan against H.N. Bahuguna. Certainly, if Sonias to live up to her partys expectations, shes going to have to pull a rabbit out of her pallu.