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The Plot Stops At 10, Janpath

The Congress president refuses to lend a hand to oust the BJP

The Plot Stops At 10, Janpath

IT is not often that the single largest Opposition party fights shy of pulling down a ruling government, even when opportunity strikes. The Congress, headed by Sonia Gandhi, seems to be plagued by fear of toppling the BJP government though the other Opposition formations, like the Left parties, the Samajwadi Party and the Janata Dal, are only too keen to ambush Vajpayee and Co. Every one of their moves have stopped at 10, Janpath. For, the Congress president, for reasons which even senior party leaders fail to articulate, has given the go-ahead to "expose" the BJP but has stopped short, at least for now, of lending the Congress hand to destabilise the government.

No wonder then that the predominant view among the UF constituents is, as Janata Dal MP Ram Vilas Paswan puts it, "the government will last as long as Sonia Gandhi wants it to." Samajwadi Party MP Amar Singh also feels that the onus for the formation and continuance of the government now rests solely on the Congress: "If Sonia Gandhi makes up her mind, I give the government five minutes." Even the Opposition unity on the nuclear tests and the criticism of the Union budget does not seem to have changed the perception of the Congress high command.

True, budgetary solecisms, India's diplomatic isolation, serious differences between the BJP and its allies (particularly the AIADMK which is once again pressing for the dismissal of the Karunanidhi government) and the bogey of Ayodhya, resuscitated by the pre-fabrication of the Ram temple, have all provided enough grist for the Opposition mill. But, as a Congress MP from the South put it, "we are not able to take any issue to its logical conclusion because the party leadership has no clear-cut view on forming the government."

The Congress president, it is learnt, is clearly reluctant to disturb the present arrangement. If the government is to be toppled, the impetus would have to come from extraneous factors, like disaffection among the BJP allies or a serious gaffe on the part of the ruling party, compounded by the growing frustration among the Congress MPs.

A section of Congress MPs, alarmed at the post-Pokhran II direction taken by prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and home minister L.K. Advani, fears that the nation may find itself on the brink of war. Supported by the Left Front and the Samajwadi Party, they would like to see the BJP applecart upset during the ongoing budget session itself. At the same time, they acknowledge the need for caution, since nobody wants fresh elections.

Another section of Congress leaders feels the move would be premature—they want to wait until the assembly elections in Madhya Pradesh, Delhi and Rajasthan. Speculation is rife on the possibility of polls in Bihar, with governor Sundar Singh Bhandari's report seen as laying the groundwork for Rabri Devi's dismissal. "The euphoria over the nuclear explosions has yet to dissipate and the impact of the economic sanctions will be felt only after a few months. Also, we should let the disenchantment among the allies grow. Or let the BJP expose itself by using article 356 in West Bengal, Bihar or Tamil Nadu," a senior Congress leader said.

This, despite the fact that the numbers still appear to favour the BJP. "We did make a genuine attempt to topple Vajpayee during the vote of confidence and failed," points out JD leader S. Jaipal Reddy. While AIADMK leader J. Jayalalitha is upset with the BJP on several counts—her MPs staged a walkout in both Houses of Parliament last week—especially Vajpayee's reluctance to dismiss the DMK government, she has to think twice before withdrawing support because an alternative arrangement would include the TMC-DMK combine. Although TMC chief G.K. Moopanar has made no secret of his willingness to abide by Sonia Gandhi's diktat, the DMK, an integral part of the UF, could hardly come to terms with the AIADMK. Likewise, a cocktail government comprising both the Left Front and Mamata Banerjee's Trinamul Congress is unlikely. However, UF leaders feel that the Biju Janata Dal and the Samata Party are soft targets and could, if the need arose, be split to bolster the UF's tally in the Lok Sabha. Channels of communication with the nowhere, now-there TDP chief Chandrababu Naidu have also been kept open.

Officially, Left Front and UF leaders dismiss the issue of the Congress choice of prime minister as "an internal matter of the party", but off the record, they are quite clear that the Congress president is not an acceptable candidate. According to a CPI leader, "whatever the senior partner (CPI-M) may say, no one will endorse Sonia's candidature." For one thing, Sonia Gandhi has not made any attempt to establish communication with other Opposition leaders. "She has not bothered to call on even senior leaders," they often complain.

SHARAD Pawar, who has established good equations with both Naidu and Jayalalitha, is popular with UF leaders, but what goes against him is the fact that he has too many detractors within his own party. "The coterie around madam is dead-set against him," says a Pawar loyalist. Sources close to Pawar debunk the popular perception that there is little communication between the two. "Madam is in close touch with him. His recommendations on some appointments have been ignored but at the moment, he does not want to create a confrontation on small issues like standing committee chairpersons or AICC office-bearers," they say.

Sonia's reluctance to take a stand is ascribed to three principal reasons: first, she has yet to identify a trusted lieutenant who could head a new government. She does not trust the Maharashtra stalwart, Pawar, and cannot propose a loyalist like Arjun Singh—"over everybody's dead body" as a Pawar loyalist put it—as prime minister. And indeed, Arjun Singh was denied a Rajya Sabha nomination. Second, she may want to wait until she is sure there are sufficient numbers to form a new government without the risk of facing fresh elections. If the BJP finds itself in a fiscal quagmire by then, so much the better. Third, Congress MPs speculate, is the all important question of Bofors.

If nothing comes of it—and the investigation does not appear to have made much progress in the last two months—Sonia will stand vindicated, as even a non-Congress government could not substantiate the allegations against her family.

While Sonia may be reluctant to make a move against the Vajpayee government, frustration is building up among Congress MPs. Her inaccessibility, coupled with the dominance of the new coterie surrounding her, has led to disenchantment among the party rank and file, who are lost in the welter of subcommittees (two dozen) and the new culture of task forces, training programmes and super-specialisation.

With the setting up of two panels, the legislative affairs and the parliamentary committees, to oversee day-to-day affairs in the House, the CPP executive has been bypassed altogether. "This is against the CPP constitution. As MPs we are direction-less and do not even know until the last minute what our stand on major issues, like for example the Prasar Bharati, should be," complains one MP.

However, the party appears less uncertain about its role as the main Opposition than it did a fortnight ago, when it waffled on the nuclear issue. The AICC's Jairam Ramesh has come out with a series of trenchant words against the budget.

The party has taken a strong line on the issue of farmers' suicides, the urea price hike and the (inadvertent) petroleum price increase. Attempts are being made to improve floor coordination between the United Front and the Congress with repeated meetings on the Women's Reservation and Prasar Bharati bills. As for making a bid for power, it's strictly "wait and watch," says spokesman Ajit Jogi.

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